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Femmes, villes et environnement

Isabelle Milbert
Yvonne Preiswerk


The Thin Edge of Wedge-pushing Accountability into Public System. Experiences from Bombay

Pratima Panwalkar

Texte intégral

A reflection

1The U.N. Decade for the "Advancement of Women" has pushed the agenda for a "Woman Focus" into development planning of all Third World countries. This preponderance of the "women in development" (WID) thrust was picked up by many country governments and international donor agencies, both bilateral and multilateral.

  • 1 LEVY Caren, “Gender and the Environment: the challenge of cross-cutting issues in development polic (...)

2The organizational response to this has been the creation of "purpose built institutions", like women's bureaus, ministry for women and women's departments, a softer approach than strengthening the woman focus in existing agendas. This sector suffered the same ills, as the group they sought to serve – ill-staffed, underfunded and marginalized. "The conceptualization of both the problems and strategies of this sector in terms of women, not gender..."1 persists to be the Achilles heel of these efforts till today.

3Development activists working in the field both in urban and rural areas have been more cautious, taking their own time to pick up this intellectual baggage. Rooted in the socio-cultural reality of the development models accentuating poverty, the lack of access to basic facilities and resources and an insensitive bureaucracy seem to be the more critical issues to be addressed to, affecting both men and women in the communities. The special burden of women had to be unfolded at many layers within self, at family and community level and in interaction with systems. The persistence has paid off and in the 90's "gender sensitivity" has replaced "women focus", as the major paradigm for action.

4This paper outlines the experience of women from slum settlements in Bombay, who in the process of negotiating with the system are recreating for themselves new patterns of relationship at all levels.

A look at Bombay

5As one of the major metropolis in the Third World, Bombay's population now at 12 million is recorded to have almost 50% of its population living in about 3000 identified slum pockets. This sprawl is the direct outcome of a market oriented land economy, where the annual formal housing shortage is almost 15,000 units. The slums in the city occupy lands belonging to Central and State Governments, Municipal authority and private individuals. This to a large extent determines the scope and nature of public agency intervention in these communities.

6The approach of the State and local authorities to these spontaneous settlements swings between indifference to a range of parallel and simultaneous strategies which can be classified as (i) improvement, (ii) upgrading, (iii) redevelopment, and (iv) resettlement. In the evolution of the first three strategies, one can perceive a somewhat logical and gradual progression of thought and action. This in no small measure has been the contribution of the universal approach to spontaneous settlements as reflected through international funding and consequent changes in the policies of country governments. The last approach i. e., of resettlement, is being used extremely judiciously and in exceptional cases.

7Of course as is the common phenomena striding all this, is the patent bureaucratic indifference and "ostrich-like" posture which does not allow any "proactive" action to emerge, and prompts a favoured "line of least resistance", in a sector that is politically and socially volatile and administratively extremely complex. (see Annex I)

Background of the communities

8Shivaji Nagar Colony is one of the resettlement areas created by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, to rehouse families who were shifted from their original residences, since the year 1969. It comprises three major pockets i. e., Lotus Colony, Baigan Wadi and Shivaji Nagar. Each of these pockets have been further subdivided in plots and 114 such plots exist in the area, with a population of about 150 thousand. The resettlement colonies represent well planned lay-outs, with a well laid out internal road structure and basic amenities of water, toilets, and drainage system provided in each plot. The residents have obtained lease hold rights on the plots they occupy and thus there is no fear of eviction. The colony has also been provided with four primary and middle level schools, one urban-health centre run by the Corporation, and a post-office. There are numerous ration shops, which serve as sale points for the goods sold through the public-distribution system. Numerous local markets and commercial establishments exist, specially along the main roads, which serve the daily needs requirements of the residents. The city bus transport system has a major terminus in the area and the suburban railway station is at about 15-20 minutes walking distance from the community. Numerous privately managed health and educational services have also sprung up in the area to cater to the community needs.

9Availability of open land and of basic infrastructures located in the resettlement colony has resulted in an unchecked development of spontaneous settlements on the periphery of the colonies. Over the years these settlements have grown in numbers and today there are about 15 such identifiable communities dotting the borders of the colonies with an almost equal population of 150 thousand residing in the area. Being totally unplanned and unauthorized these communities have not been provided with any basic amenities, thus resulting in pressures on the existing facilities in the colonies, leading to a near total breakdown of the existing systems. Some efforts have been made through political patronage to obtain basic water and sanitation amenities, but the success has been very marginal.

10As both the communities have grown at different points of time and the residents are from different places of origin the area today reflects a very heterogeneous and mixed population composition. The dominant religious group residing in the locality is Muslim (about 60%), with Hindu, Sikhs, some Christians and Neo-Buddhists accounting for the remaining. They are also drawn from different regions of the country. The growth of the peripheral slums reflects the internal growth of the families in the resettlement colonies and their success in engaging in land speculation in the unguarded open plots around the colony and so there are definite familial and community ties between the residents of the resettlement and slum colonies.

11Typically the two settlements also reflect the difference between consolidated and peripheral areas in economic activities engaged in by the residents. Most of the plot residents are employees of organized sectors like the state and civic bodies, and industrial units. They may have their own petty trades and businesses. There is a thriving home based Jari embroidery activity ("Jari" being the gold/silver threads). Many are engaged in self-employment activities contributing to the service sector of the economy. In the slum pockets however, most workers are daily wage earners, mainly contributing to the unskilled unorganized urban labour force. Yet this difference in income levels does not reflect very radically on other social indicators in the area, like health, levels of literacy, etc. In these fields it is uniformly seen that all the major killer diseases are present and water borne diseases are rampant. Women and children are specially susceptible to the range of health problems of the urban-poor, resulting from the inadequate water, sanitation and basic health care facilities. Low level of literacy exists in both the areas, specially among the women and though school enrollment is fairly high, there is also a high rate of drop out from the formal schooling. In the "Jari" units the children from the poor families are bonded to the unit owners.

Social dynamics of the settlements

12The heterogeneous nature of the population and their settlement patterns at different points of time have resulted in well identifiable community, with a general tendency to function in isolated manner. As characteristic of marginalized populations, the majority of their residents have a general tendency to keep to themselves managing the rhythm of daily life struggles and tensions. Interactions in small groups or at community level are more or less restricted to the social, cultural or religious spheres of life. There is a general mistrust of any new person or idea and people would rather wait and watch than give commitments that would disturb their established pattern whether in behavior or attitudes they adhere to.


13As a part of its layout plan, the Corporation had retained a small plot for a Multi-Purpose Community Centre in the Lotus Colony. After some unsuccessful efforts with some agencies, the Corporation was actively exploring for a NGO to undertake the responsibility of utilizing the premises. This was the year 1976 and during this period Apnalaya had stabilized its own position and had started engaging professional staff on its team. Earlier work experiences had convinced the agency that unless development is people centered with the community undertaking a major role in its growth, no change can sustain itself in the field. The agency was very keen to test out this approach and this was an opportune time to start work in the area, with a major commitment to people initiated change. Thus began the process of partnership of the agency with the communities that have nurtured local groups into action and sustained themselves in the true spirit of sharing, not only rewards but also frustrations and failures.

14Over the years the agency had consolidated its interaction with the local groups – becoming one of the major referal points in the settlement for any initiatives in community action. In 1992, a major challenge faced the neighborhood, when it was the scene of communal tension that had gripped the city. Apnalaya with its deep rooted contacts and through its network of local volunteers was able to perform a critical role at this juncture. The urgent imperative to provide immediate relief and work from a base closer to the affected population prompted Apnalaya to start health-clinics in three areas of the fringe settlements – Chikkalwadi, Sanjay Nagar and Indira Nagar. The aftermath of the riots saw Apnalaya playing a major role in the economic rehabilitation process and in negotiating with competent authorities on behalf of local groups.

15At the field level, the centres at the fringes got consolidated and have become the base for a major community outreach programme in health. In keeping with its approach the agency started mobilizing the local women and soon a band of highly motivated women have come together and are keen to give their time as CHW (community health workers).

16Preparations for this new role was assiduously facilitated by the agency staff through participatory training sessions. This whole process was also documented through participatory research and the chart (page 196) highlights the preferences of the women's group in two communities.

17"There were some interesting outcomes. Health ranked forth as a concern in both groups and accounted for less than 16% in either group. Throughout our sessions in both Chikkalwadi and Sanjay Nagar, several very dominant women were insistent that women needed jobs in order to improve their lives and that of their children. Other women in the groups were supportive of their comments. However, when individuals ranked their own preferences, women's paid work became less important. It ranked fifth out of the top six issues in both groups. Our Sanjay Nagar group explained that if a woman had a good husband, one who did not drink or have other bad habits, he would share his salary fully with the family, and there would be no need for the woman to work. Women had very low expectations about the kind of work they could do, they never mentioned wanting to learn to read and write. Jobs that women could do include selling food or small items from a basket, small stitching or sewing jobs, carrying dirt at construction sites, or recycling waste materials from the dumping ground. They preferred to have a flexible job that they could do in the house.

  • 2 TOLLEYBetsy, RAO Nandini and BULANI Rita, Participatory Research in Bombay, India: Concerns in Heal (...)

18Of more immediate concern to the Chikkalwadi women were infrastructure problems – lack of legal sources for water and electricity, a milk depot and well stocked ration shops. While the Sanjay Nagar group already had water and electricity, they were still concerned about the state of the toilets in their area. There were too few toilets for too many people. Consequently, they were always filthy."2

19For the groups of women engaged in this exercise, their new role as community workers has released a vast resource of untapped potential. Coming primarily from poverty level Muslim families, the women had continuously suffered the strains of their disadvantaged status. The intensive contacts and interaction with agency staff helped many of them look at themselves and their surroundings in a more proactive role. Their integration into the network of contacts that Apnalaya had at the larger neighborhood level, opened up new possibilities that the women could direct their efforts into. Amongst others, one of the major areas of concern to the group was their anger at the state of the "ration-shop" that existed in the area, and to which the families from the fringe settlements were attached (see Annex II).

Action at another level : entry into the public distribution system

20The state of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the ration-shops had always been a high priority issue for urban activists working in marginalized settlements. NGOs and CBOs spared no opportunity to put pressure on the system, representing the myriad problems that the ration-card holders faced. Towards the end of 1993, a major development took place at Bombay level that put out a ray of hope for these efforts. In the posting of a new Commissioner for Rations, the NGOs found an ally. With an earlier track record as a zealous and upright officer, totally committed to creating space for user groups involvement, this officer started exploring ways to shake the fossilised and much beleaguered system, riddled with inefficiencies and corruption. He sent out "feelers" to the NGO community to assist him in this task. Apnalaya, along with other NGOs, readily took up the challenge and soon a co-ordination committee of NGOs started meeting the concerned officers of the system, under the watchful eye of the Commissioner. Apnalaya with its earlier track record as a premier training agency in the city was also given the responsibility for conducting training sessions to infuse a "people-orientation" to the officers and staff of the various divisions of the Department. This process still continues. The once a month meeting, which continues with regularity, enabled NGOs to bring into sharper focus the problems in the different zones of the office. Joint delegation and protest marches have also been undertaken to focus on the issue at a city level.

…And its impact at the field

21The area level committees created as a result of this persistent effort have been the scene of action for large group of residents, who have already been galvanized into taking responsibilities because of their continuous interactions with CBOs and NGOs. Widespread dissemination about the procedural requirements for ration-cards, ensuring periodic visits by rationing officers to the localities and most importantly creating and manning local vigilance committees have been the various activities engaged in.

Response in Baiganwadi

22The women in Baiganwadi have also picked up the gauntlet in this struggle and formed a local area vigilance committee. In this they are learning from the experiences of Chikkuwadi, another community where Apnalaya has been instrumental in very active group formation on this issue, just 15 minutes walking distance from Shivaji Nagar. Of course, the task is not easy, the stakes involved in the continuous mismanagement of the system are very high. The six shops that serve the Baiganwadi area are located in Shivaji Nagar at a distance away from their immediate neighborhood. It is known that these shop-keepers have pressed into service local "muscle-men" ostentatiously to keep "discipline", when the crowds get restive, but more to silence any dissidence. This poses a real threat to the women, who are physically in danger of being man-handled.

23"Strength in numbers", both from within and outside the community is one major strategy engaged in by the active women residents. Interestingly here, local youth groups and residents' associations have also joined the effort.

24In other parts of the city where the NGOs are active, similar experiences are emerging. Reports and presentation by active women residents are the order of the day in the monthly meeting. Media aids like posters, banners, street-plays and songs have been prepared and are used by all the activists in the field. A militant approach and urgency in action characterize their efforts. But the struggle cannot be fought alone. Is "rationing" a women's issue, because it is in the domestic sphere? Then so are issues like better water, toilets, schools, health, jobs where countless struggles are going on led and managed by women. The answer to this lies in the new self-identity of the marginalized urban woman and her ability to convert her skills and concerns as an instrument of negotiation and bargain.

25The imperatives of the social reality in which women are forced to exist, the utter callousness of concerned authorities towards this and the opportunities provided to wider exposure through CBO and NGO networks have all contributed to the making of this identity. Dilemmas within it are plenty. What is considered the "right" thing to be done? and at what "cost"? Is women's activism a monopoly of the young, the separated or estranged wife, who has no other responsibility? Is the stereotyping to be fought against at all socio-economic levels? How to tackle the adverse impact at family and neighborhood level, where new roles challenge expected demands? Is the adjustment possible at all levels of the family?

26For the NGOs and women as they seek the answers to these questions through their life experiences, a continuous vigil has to be kept at the systemic level to locate spaces that allow them to act. This by itself is again governed by various factors, the stranglehold of vested interest and degree of bureaucratic initiative being crucial. Pressure from the hustings has to be consistent and continuous.


27Maharashtra State, where Bombay is located, prides itself in being amongst the most progressive and industrialized States. It has also been the seat of the women's movement in the country both at intellectual level and activism in the field, for almost a century. In June 1994, the Government of Maharashtra has declared a "Policy for Women", the only State in the country to do so. Though claimed as revolutionary, this document has only brought together a range of initiatives that have taken place and outlined a new "thrust" and "vision" to them. For activists at grass root level both from within and outside the community, the pressure is now on for a shift from the "private" to the "public" domain.


Annex 1

Statistical Profile of Bombay City

(drawn from available data with BMRDA)


(original island) Bombay's area

78 sq. kms.

BMR region area

4375 sq. kms.

Greater Bombay area

603 sq. kms.

Bombay population


2.9 million


.8.2 million (1991)

9.9 million

Male Female ratio =



Density 16,400 per sq.kms.

Slum population more than 50 %.


In 1976

1350 slums

0.63 million huts


2165 slums

1.1 millions huts


Pavement Dwellers

25,000 households

The number of protected huts is almost 2 times the number of unprotected huts in censused area, i.e., 50% increase in the number of huts on notified lands. There are no hew encroach-ments on unnotified lands.

Lands under Slum Settlements:


No. of Huts in Percentage

12.75 sq. kms.

50.38% on private lands

3.93 sq. kms.

15.59% on state govt, lands

4.60 sq. kms.

18.19% on BMC lands

1.63 sq. kms.

6.46% on Central Govt, lands

2,23 sq. kms.

8.82% on MHB lands

0.13 sq. kms.

0.52% on unidentified owners' lands

25.27 sq. kms.

Total lands covered by huts

There are 1.1 million huts covering the total land area of 25.25 sq. kms. or approximately 4.1% of the total city land is occupied by about 50% of the comprising comprising of slum dwellers.


All Bombay

BPL (upto Rs.1000)

74% of households


Rs.1000 p.m. (1976)

93% of households


All Bombay


77% literate


65% literate

Major Air Pollution Sources:



Fuel burning

Solid waste dumps

Wind blown dust

60% is due to vehicular exhaust. The gravity of auto exhaust is resulting from inadequate roads leading to reduced speed and large proportion of old vehicles, and increase in total numbers.

Permissible level of carbon monoxide is 3% for petrol engine and 4.5% for diesel engine, The tests show that 80% of the petrol vehicles exceeded the limits and reached 8% of carbon monoxide. The diesel vehicles showed similar results.

Solid Waste Quantity:

Domestic waste

400 tonnes per day

Debris excavation construction

1500 tonnes per day

Collection points


Wastes transport

800 vehicles per day

The garbage contains, 10% paper, 2% plastic, 30% ash/earth, 35% compostible materials. PH value of 7.8. Cost of solid waste management in Bombay is Rs.15 per capita. The local authority is responsible for collection, transport and disposal of garbages.

BMC Water Supply:

Domestic Demand

3360 mid.

Domestic Supply

2500 mid.


860 mid.

Drinking water is safe because of the distance of water sources from the main city. Most water pollution in old buildings and slums, occurs because of the leakages in the pipe line due to rusted pipelines, or breakage.

Per Day Per Capita Availability of Water:

General population 120 ltrs.

Slums 50 ltrs.


Approximately 50% of the slum population either have no toilets or have unusable toilets. The city needs more than 40,000 toilets to achieve the tolerable ratio with the population (1:25 families).

Health Status:

General Population

















Noise Pollution:

During day minimum noise level 55 dB.

During night minimum noise level 45 dB.

Residential area along roads during the day 65-95 dB.

Average noise level 80 dB.

Annex 2

A Brief Note on Public Distribution System

The Public Distribution System is a Central Government Scheme initiated in the country during the period of shortages in the IInd World War. The scheme continues till today, as it is part of the pledge of the Government to the poor. Through this scheme subsidised foodgrains (wheat, rice), sugar and kerosene, the major fuel, are supplied to the consumers at predetermined prices and fixed quotas per unit. Occasionally other items such as cooking oil, cereals, etc. are also made available.

As in October 1994, there are 3,022 Fair Price Shops in Thane and Bombay, catering to 3,471,288 families in the region. It is claimed that around 25,000 new cards are being issued every month. The whole system operates through an elaborate network with Government food stock godowns, ration-shops and the bureaucracy as major actors. At the community level, officers are responsible for issuing new cards, addition of new names, increasing existing units and cancellation arid transfer of cards.

The recent efforts of collaboration have helped to enable NGOs and CBOs to interact with relevant officers, who play a crucial role in communities. Joint consultations, monitoring of shops, setting up of vigilance cells and broad based community education with active collaboration of the Department have been the major outcomes of this effort.


1 LEVY Caren, “Gender and the Environment: the challenge of cross-cutting issues in development policy and planning”, Environment and Urbanisation, Vol. IV, No. 1, April 1992.

2 TOLLEYBetsy, RAO Nandini and BULANI Rita, Participatory Research in Bombay, India: Concerns in Health Apnalaya – Research to Action Projet, June 1994.

Table des illustrations

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Social Development Consultant and Executive Director SIDDHI, APNALAYA’s Community Development Advisor, Bombay, India.


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