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Technology Enabled Participation in Varanasi

Technology Enabled Participation in Varanasi

With new skills and a smart phone, Seema Kumari and other young graduates are making the voice of the residents of Varanasi heard

Seema Kumari confidently knocked on the blue door of a house in her neighbourhood.

“Namaste Aunty. Mein ek survey kar rahi hoon (I am conducting a survey).”

“Survey? Kis baat ka? Kitna time lagega? (On what? How long will it take?)”

Bas 10 minute Aunty. Please, thoda time nikal lein? Jab aap ki awaaz municipality tak pahoochega, hamara mohalle mein pani aur safai mein sudhar aayegi (It will take only 10 minutes. Please make the time? When your voice reaches the municipality, then water and sanitation services in our neighbourhood will improve).”

This was the third day of a water and sanitation survey in Ramrepur in Varanasi being facilitated by PRIA. Today, Seema felt more confident. The smart phone in her hand didn’t seem so alien any more. That first day she had punched in the wrong information and taken way too long to complete the interviews. But the PRIA facilitators had encouraged her to continue, bolstering her confidence that she would be able to cover all the households allocated to her in the stipulated time.

It’s not that Seema hasn’t heard of smart phones, but coming from a poor family, she has only dreamt of ever using one herself. And now here she was! Asking questions, feeding the answers directly into the phone, uploading the information and seeing real-time data on the status of sanitation and water services in her neighbourhood. Was there a little magic in all this, she thought?

Seema, Vikram, Atul, Mohd. Farhan – these are just a few of the youth from urban poor neighbourhoods in Varanasi, Rae Bareili, Jhunjhunu, Ajmer, Jabalpur and Bhopal who are undertaking a survey to ascertain if water and sanitation services in their cities are being provided as per the Service Level Benchmarks (SLB) established by the Ministry of Urban Development. Trained as surveyors, they use smart phones which have a pre-loaded questionnaire. At the specified sample houses, they seek information and enter it into the phone, which then directly gets uploaded on a web-server where it is analysed in real time. The GPS tracking system in the phone indicates the location from where the data has been collected. The survey also incorporates feedback from the urban poor living in informal settlements on services provided to them through shared facilities.

All these surveyors are young graduates, chosen by PRIA because they had a basic aptitude towards wanting to resolve social issues and an understanding of the social problems of their city. None of them however had any knowledge regarding the water and sanitation services in their city. Every one of them owned a cell phone, some even had smart phones, but they had only ever used their phones to listen to songs, talk with and message friends and family. It was the first time they realised that technology can enable change and information can be used to demand rights.

The survey helped these youth understand the service delivery dynamics in their own city and the problems related to water services due geographical location. “This survey is an eye-opener. I am able to witness with my own eyes the problems which my city faces, which I never thought of earlier,” says Ved Prakash, an enumerator in Varanasi. “Citizens in my city are struggling with bad water as drainage water and drinking water is getting mixed up in a sewerage system which was put in place 40 years ago and is now completely obsolete. My English too has improved as I have learned new English words,” he says with a smile.

During the survey, they not only punch in data, but get involved in listening to the problems which respondents face and how life in a slum is a struggle. Khushbu has heard many respondents expressing their anger and frustration at the Nagar Nigam (Varanasi municipality). During the survey, she has walked the galis (lanes) of Banaras, and she analyses the problem from that perspective: “The sewerage lines in Banaras have been constructed on the main roads of the wards, but have not been connected to the galis. In one gali, where one household gets good water, the very next household in the same lane gets bad water. Rarely though does an entire area in Banaras get good/clean water.”

Not everyone they encounter is positive in their behaviour. The challenge of dealing with different situations and different kinds of people has been an eye-opener for many enumerators. “Being a girl I faced a lot of problems like comments and bad behaviour by men, but I have learnt to manage my problems on my own,” says Seema.

“There is no connection between education and the behaviour of a person,” asserts Mohd. Farhan. “Well-to-do educated respondents never gave me any time to answer the survey questions, whereas respondents who were not educated gave me the courtesy of spending enough time answering all the questions I asked.”

Sheetal Vishwakarma concurred. “In the survey, usually urban poor respondents gave me a lot of time. In slums they give us a lot of respect and want to share their problems. In good colonies, respondents do not care to answer the questions. But every time I faced a new challenge, I found a way. I like being part of a social change.”

Seema believes the technology that enabled her participation can bring change. “With new skills and with new technology, new developments can happen – in me and in my city.”

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