Bridging the gap: how women-led federations are strengthening communities in Patna's informal settlements

Following devastation from COVID-19 and monsoon rains, women collectives have been instrumental in securing crucial infrastructure provisions and service delivery.

Smriti Singh's pictureSukrit Nagpal's picture
Guest blog by
23 December 2020

Smriti Singh is monitoring and learning associate, and Sukrit Nagpal is monitoring, evaluation and learning coordinator both at SEWA Bharat

Women looking at a flooded road.

In the absence of regular collection, waste is strewn in parts of Nehru Nagar. In these areas, drains become central sites for waste disposal and breeding sites for vector diseases (Photo: copyright SEWA Bharat)

India’s urbanisation challenges focus on large metropolitan cities and the proliferation of informal settlements within them. Relatively little is known about the impact of increasing informality of housing in less urbanised and smaller cities.

In 2019, SEWA Bharat, a national federation of organisations led by and for informal women workers, began supporting communities in Nehru Nagar and Mubarakpur, two low-income informal settlements in the city of Patna in Northeast India.

In light of COVID-19 and the annual monsoon rains that devastate the city, this blog highlights the efficacy of a women-led interface between communities and local governments in initiating basic service delivery and promoting participatory urban governance.

Where is the infrastructure?

Residents of Nehru Nagar and Mubarakpur tell similar stories. Faced with dangers of flooding, in the late 1900s they were moved from other areas in Patna and allocated land. 

While Nehru Nagar is in the centre of the city, the map below shows the spatial segregation of the recently urbanised Mubarakpur, which lies outside the Patna Municipal Corporation and is administered by a smaller municipality.

Click on the map to enlarge it

Factors driving informality

  • Lack of data: the data gap stems from limited resources, capacities and government interest. At the macro level in particular, it prevents policy being formulated and implemented in a participatory manner.

Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) have limited information on demographics, ward boundaries and quality of service provision.

  • Inadequate service delivery: These settlements have seen little change despite at least five major urban development programmes in Patna. Service delivery is lacking despite the City Development Plan (2010-30) recognising Nehru Nagar as a notified slum, namely one that is legally recognised by the government.

The tables below highlight the inadequacies in basic infrastructural service, using waste collection and water supply across Nehru Nagar and Mubarakpur as examples.

Waste collectionDoor-to-door collectionCommunity dustbinSingle collection point in settlementNo fixed point/collection system
Nehru Nagar69%0%31%0%
Mubarakpur0%2%20%78%

This recognition can provide a degree of tenure security. Furthermore, many policies (including the Bihar State Slum Policy, 2011) advocate for delinking tenure from service provisioning, suggesting that the informal status of settlements may not be a hindrance. Without government data indicating where inadequacies are, can such schemes be implemented at all? 

Water supplyPiped water collectionTubewells and handpumpsCommunity taps
Nehru Nagar58%24%18%
Mubarakpur18%80%2%
  • Shifting government responsibilities: Functions of elected ULBs are often transferred or shared with state, parastatal and private agencies. This reduces accountability and renders communication between departments and communities ineffective.

The poor management of floods in 2019 exemplified this. The city’s mayor admitted that the drainage and sewerage map had been missing since 2017.

Two images showing the flooded city of Patna in 2019 (Photo: copyright SEWA Bharat)

Women driving change

Key to SEWA’s mobilisation strategy is training women grassroots leaders (agevans) and developing women-led collectives.

Gradually, women identified common issues and collectively bargained for improved service delivery. Government officials and men in the community were surprised to see women huddle together to discuss and prioritise development issues for their neighbourhoods. The women reclaimed community spaces, gathering in temples, parks and community halls. 

Agevans also collected data that addressed gaps in state capacity and ensured coverage of schemes like the Swacch Bharat Mission: India’s flagship programme focusing on toilet provisioning, and improved solid waste management.

The voluntary aspect of their work strengthens ties with communities and elected representatives. Their support widened the reach of the government’s COVID-19 relief measures, including awareness and ration delivery.

Such collective action emphasises the methods that empower communities and reinforce state accountability.

Community-led initiatives bring success

SEWA’s training familiarised residents with the appropriate government agencies for service provision and maintenance. Lacking a drainage system and well-paved roads, Mubarakpur floods heavily every year with 2019 being particularly devastating. Areas remained inaccessible for weeks.

State of Mubarakpur after rain-induced flooding in 2019 (Photo: copyright SEWA Bharat)

Empowered with the right knowledge, residents approached the agency responsible for dealing with water logging of roads and homes.

Oral forms of grievance redressal are now supplemented with tools like community-endorsed letters and WhatsApp groups, enhancing accountability and follow-ups. Women leaders continued to request meetings and utilise newer means of communication– and their efforts paid off resulting in the construction of critical infrastructure, including a paved road and a drainage network.

This work helped nurture the relationship between community and government. Local leaders committed their funds to support further infrastructure projects.

In Mubarakpur, the collective work of the agevans led to a mobile toilet being installed to supplement overburdened community toilets and minimise open defecation. In Nehru Nagar, women reported inadequate water connections and poor water quality. They helped authorities identify leaking pipelines and monitor the repair work.

They also suggested locations for installing water tanks based on their local knowledge of accessible spaces in the dense settlement.

But well-intentioned schemes cannot be implemented unless local data is available – in Mubarakpur, SBM, had seen low take up. With the support of local women leaders and co-operation of the ward councillor, over 150 households applied for individual toilets.

Weak tenure security creates a fear of eviction. SEWA’s training emphasised on perceived tenure security. For some, this meant paying property tax to strengthen ownership claims. Others registered for electricity connections that serve as address proofs. Some ensured that social security documents were linked to current addresses.  

Promoting citizen participation through localisation

SEWA’s work in small cities like Patna reveals deep problems with development trajectories and management mechanisms.

These cities need a dedicated approach to strengthening local governments using provisions available under India’s 74th Constitutional Amendment. This calls urgently for a framework that promotes citizen’s participation in building cities.

Women in Patna’s Nehru Nagar and Mubarakpur have shown how community-led action is paramount in identifying gaps in service delivery and in ensuring infrastructure provision. This community-led action is mirrored by greater willingness from local state actors.

Hence, in cities where the policy paradigm is weak, local politics and negotiations dominate. Such decentralised and localised modes of intervention create sustainable links between communities and governments and emerge as powerful tools in realising citizen’s rights and local political consciousness.

With thanks to Sonal Sharma, land rights coordinator at SEWA Bharat, for contributing to this blog.

About the author

Smriti Singh is monitoring and learning associate working with the land rights programme at SEWA Bharat.

Sukrit Nagpal is monitoring, evaluation and learning coordinator of the land rights programme at SEWA Bharat.

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