Field Work – Initial Observations
Over the past few weeks I have been working on familiarizing myself with the European Union project titled ‘Strengthening Civil Society of the Urban Poor to Participate in Planning and Monitoring of Sanitation Services in Indian Cities’. Up until one week ago, most of my familiarizing was accomplished through reading various articles, proposals and other documents.
My transition into the field office has been a relatively smooth one – it has allowed me to observe the application and execution process of the project at the grass-roots level, and although the language barrier prevents me from drawing a clear understanding of the communication exchange at the community meetings, I am able to decipher the main themes of conversation with the translation help of my colleagues.
My first experience in the field introduced the realization of how similar, yet diverse each settlement under this project is – from my observations, the needs and demands of each community are dependent on a vast array of social, political, and economical factors. However, my limited time in the field thus far, combined with my inability to sufficiently communicate with the community members has limited my primary observations to include prominent surface-level themes. Therefore, I will focus this post on one particular factor that has stuck out to me, that is the location of the settlement. For example, I attended community meetings in two different notified settlements within Muzaffarpur in the same day, the first being in Police Line both side along Pusha Road, and the second in Noonfar Basti behind Tejpal Building. The first community is located near the outskirts of the city, and the other community is located in a heavily populated area within the city.
The former community in the Police Line both side along Pusha Road voiced their concerns for the road infrastructure leading to their homes – the roads are unpaved and therefore made their community difficult to access, especially during the monsoon season when the roads are virtually washed away. The same community also discussed concerns about clean water distribution, as the water pumps in the community are sparse and do not distribute clean water for drinking.
The concerns expressed by the community of Noonfar Basti were similar in that water distribution and road infrastructure were insufficient, however, the details of their problems differed from the previous community’s. The roadways and streets within the community are much too narrow, which makes any kind of mobility, whether on foot or on wheels, extremely difficult. Furthermore, the narrow streets are lined with a drainage system that consists of poorly maintained gutters filled with stagnant sewage water (see appendix A). The lack of space means that residents are living in close quarters with the contaminated water, which is a concerning health hazard for all residents of the community.
As was the case in the first settlement, many members do not have free access to clean water – they must travel from their homes to either collect from a water post or purchase water jars (20 liters for the cost of approximately 25-30 INR). A few members have invested in purchasing a water connection to their home, however, the price of having this commodity is not fixed, and therefore some slum members are paying higher rates than their neighbours.
My observations barely scratch the surface of the underlying issues at hand, however, the importance of participatory research in addressing urban sanitation and any other issue that affects civil society has become increasingly evident to me. The individual experiences of people are the foundation upon which a society is built, and therefore determine the political, economical, and social success or failure of an area. The application of sanitation facilities in urban areas cannot be a one-size-fits-all project – what works for one community may not work for another. I have admired the way in which PRIA has recognized this fact and has worked on engaging with the communities within Muzaffarpur. The most important lesson that I have learned thus far is the value in being silent and listening to the voices of others (see appendix B).