Connecting India’s communities to government WASH action by asking whose reality counts

Learning from the Urban Management Centre

By Amita Bhakta, Ahmedabad, India

Left to right: Amita Bhakta, with Meghna Malhotra and Xerxes Rao of the Urban Management Centre

As I pass through Ahmedabad each day on my current research trip to India, I am reminded of the stark diversities in the city and the socio-economic contrasts between communities. On the one hand, passing through the city out of Navrangpura towards the direction of Sarkhej, brand new skyscrapers with apartments that are almost certainly with full access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. Yet, merely a minute or so later, slums with little access to WASH scatter the landscape, the poverty that continues to persist across India so clearly visible. Behind all of these sights however, I currently have the honour of working with an organisation here in Ahmedabad who is passionately transforming communities in the city and beyond as far as Orissa to lift some of India’s most marginalised groups out of poverty: the Urban Management Centre.

The Urban Management Centre (UMC) has been working at a community level since the late 1990s, with a view to supporting local governments across the country to provide a route for the poorest communities to achieve better outcomes in their lives. The more I spend time with the experts, including Manvita Baradi, Meghna Malhotra, Xerxes Rao and Vaidehi Gohil and the other excellent staff at the beating heart of UMC, the more I see that the lessons that I have been learning about participatory action in development are very much being applied. Each time I talk to my colleagues and read about their extraordinary work, I cannot help but see that at the heart of it they are asking the very question Robert Chambers told us to ask in 1997: whose reality counts? This question lies through every thread of UMC’s action on the ground as they find creative routes to understanding the realities of people from a range of backgrounds. The beauty of UMC’s work is that they are actively engaged in work with more hidden groups such as transgender people, and sanitation workers such as desludging tank operators and waste pickers. Only through the efforts of organisations such as UMC, I  believe, can we truly find the routes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and leave no one behind.

At the face of it, India’s WASH landscape is being transformed by the Government’s Swachh Bharat Mission. But there is so much more to this. UMC are working on the ground with the very people, the masons, the pit emptiers and the faecal sludge treatment plant operators who are key to achieving a Swachh Bharat (Clean India) to ensure that they are not left behind and forgotten as they all too often are. Sitting in UMC’s office, I am reminded of the sheer extent to which the realities of these workers and their families and the challenges they are facing are very much hidden. Looking back to asking ‘whose reality counts’, UMC are applying this principle to not only identifying the issues but also the solutions. How? By bringing together communities in participatory action to enable them to find solutions.  I have had the honour of getting some insights into UMC’s work in Orissa, where the focus has been on ensuring sustainable livelihoods for marginalised sanitation workers. Understanding  the realities of sanitation workers has involved the creation of a string of self-help groups, a tactic which has been used by UMC before, to enable them to access the government support they need to be able to transform their lives in a context where they are marginalised by their occupation and caste, ‘handholding’ them through the process. I was taken aback by the efforts of UMC to listen to their stories and identify routes for alternative livelihoods, capacity building, access to key services such as health care and facilitating access to government welfare measures. As someone who has been actively exploring and writing about the need for equity and inclusion approaches in sanitation work with my colleagues, I am heartened to see that UMC are recognising sanitation workers as well as other workers in marginalised occupations as people with their own intersecting identities as people with disabilities, parents, siblings and transgender groups, and providing the appropriate ways of engaging accordingly. Only through this handholding can marginalised groups with limited access to WASH and other key services become more visible in cities like Ahmedabad and beyond.