What do failures look like in a public-private partnership? Is there an ideal way to deal with communities in such a set-up? Where does the responsibility of the government end in such a dynamic?
These were questions Bijal Brahmbhatt of the Mahila Housing SEWA Housing Trust was forced to confront with a project that revolved around the rehabilitation of a slum in Ahmedabad.
The Bavajis are a marginalised community that hail from Maharashtra and had settled in a slum that came to be named after them- Bavaji Na Chappra. The slum largely comprised of this community, barring a few South Indian and Christian households.
As is the case with most slums, the Bavajis opted to settle in low lying areas, their homes neck-to-neck to one another, connected by an intricate network of narrow gullies. For many years, the community did not have electricity, water or sanitation, a problem compounded by the aforementioned network of narrow gullies.
When the Mahila Housing Trust decided to make an intervention in 2002 on taking a government loan, they found it hard to set up adequate infrastructure in such a challenging terrain. They focused efforts on organising women to form residents welfare associations and a few households even opened up bank accounts with their aid. The Mahila Housing Trust managed to make serious inroads, providing electricity to the community by 2003.
In 2010, the Gujarat Government implemented a new Slum Development Policy, which also marked the first time in the state where the private sector joined hands with the government to rehabilitate slums.
The initial problem began with the various proofs of identification that the slum dwellers had to provide in order to be eligible for rehabilitation- many people did not possess adequate identity proof for a host of reasons, but with help from Mahila Housing Trust, they manage to make the government relent to accepting identification proof in different forms.
Meanwhile, however, the private builders involved in the project got impatient with the time taken for these documents to be put in place, moreover, they were wary of steps taken by the Mahila Housing Trust to empower the community. The builders approached the local mafia who promised to expedite the process in exchange for a few houses.
The mafia network wielded considerable influence on this marginalised community, playing the role of money lenders and often evicting homes where debts were not repaid. Two families that were evicted by force stayed in touch with the NGO, passing on important information.
More significantly, the Mafia network came to populate the residents welfare association, siphoning off the maintenance money left by the builder and extorting people who refused to pay maintenance. The community soon began to regard the Mahila Housing Trust with deep suspicion, eventually asking them to leave the settlement altogether.
“These days, it’s working, we get help from the local government and ensure that they support and promote us. I can’t really say if this is indeed the solution, but it seems to be working for now.” says Brahmbhatt.
While a comfortable solution was not arrived at, this specific failure resulted in many learnings for MHT and the sector in general.
MHT was able to strengthen their ties with government, and a policy reform that allowed the participation of NGOs in rehabilitation was put into place. Ultimately, NGOs can only play a supporting role in such development projects and they are absolutely reliant on other checks and measures being in place.
On the face of it, the policy rolled out by the Gujarat government wasn’t inherently flawed, but a lack of oversight on their part resulted in the project falling in the wrong hands, leading to disastrous and counter-productive ends.
In the long term, this failure became a teachable moment for many other NGOs in the housing sector, providing many lessons for their work on the field.