Municipal Accountability

I. Working for the people, with the people?

It would be fair to say that this particular session at Do Din could be located at the intersection of what we have called the Talk Space and the Geo-Hack Space. The broad objective of the session was to discuss, in anchor Nitya Raman’s words, “how to use tools like maps and data to improve the ability of residents to make better claims on the government”. The session was an open forum anchored/moderated by Nitya Raman, founder of Transparent Chennai. Other participants in the debate included individuals from Hazards Centre – New Delhi, YUVA – Mumbai and others from Transparent Chennai. Also involved were the panel of hackers, Arun Ganesh, Kaustubh Srikanth, Sajjad Anwar and Sumandro Chattapadhyay and other enthusiastic attendees. The session largely revolved around a handful of questions. How do technology-driven data-solutions exclude the urban poor? What kind of strategies could be developed to involve communities and address this problem? What are the possible uses and misuses that the generated data could be put to by various stakeholders, especially the government? All in all, the session was a systematic exposition of the antinomies of working with data and a detailed deliberation on how these are mediated by politics.

The anchor Nitya Raman introduced the session by casting a fundamental doubt on the exercise of policy advocacy through the use of tools like digital maps. She did this by contrasting her own organization Transparent Chennai (TC) with an older Chennai-based organization called Pennurimai Iyakkam (PI). PI started off as a collective of young professional women who would meet and discuss the various issues faced by women in the cities. Gradually, they evolved a setup wherein women, mostly from the slums, could address their domestic grievances. Further, the women of PI found that these grievances were not just private, but embedded in larger public issues. Thus, PI also started undertaking slum-work and eventually its leadership was taken up by slum-dwellers themselves. This resulted in PI developing into one of the most effective slum-rights and housing-rights movements anywhere in India. Nitya suggested that the kind of institutions put in place by organizations like TC (which are tied to cutting-edge technology) preclude the possibility of replicating the trajectory of PI. She posited that in the present setup, while TC is committed to working for the poor, it could never become of the poor. But besides this submission, she set the tone for the larger discussion with the suggestion that perhaps it is necessary to inject a more explicit politics into data-driven policy advocacy.

II. The Experiences of Transparent Chennai

After Nitya’s introduction, the team from TC presented some of their experiences of working with spatial data for Chennai and how they engaged with the government and with the public. For instance, with the project of mapping how garbage was collected, or not, in different neighbourhoods in a particular ward, TC was able to involve both people and the government. The data was mapped manually by TC volunteers and then presented and audited at public meetings. The data highlighted certain neighbourhoods where garbage collection was infrequent. A commonality found among these neighbourhoods was that they had voted against the present Councillor, which confirmed a prevailing suspicion. But the maps also triggered several other interesting conversations involving engineers, local residents and authorities. The data was also presented to the Councillor he was found to be very receptive. Data of this kind thus enabled the Councillor to be held accountable and also for him to prioritize future interventions.

Currently TC is making attempts to encourage resident groups or government departments themselves to take the initiative for such data-collection projects. However, the movement is slow. There have been some instances where local NGOs have approached TC with certain projects. They discussed the example of an NGO that sought to set-up night shelters and wanted TC to provide them with spatial data regarding the locations where homeless are mostly found. Once TC had mapped the locations where there were large clusters of homeless people, the NGO could make an informed decision on where to locate the new shelters.

III. The Imperative of Context

Dunu Roy of the Hazards Centre in New Delhi suggested that the business of data-driven advocacy can be given a more explicit political content, if it is carried out with greater attention to context and perspective. For instance the mapping of waste collection from the perspective of the garbage collector would be very different. In this map, waste doesn’t just disappear rather it goes through complex circuits of collection, transportation, treatment, recycling, dumping and reselling. The picture thus undergoes great qualitative and quantitative changes with changes in perspective. Dunu also stressed the importance of carefully selecting the categories we use. The category of “homeless”, for example, is one among many choices. One could also choose to privilege the identity of certain people as “workers” rather than “homeless”. One must also ask, what do they perceive themselves as? The trajectories of projects would be substantially different based on the identity selected. Another representative from Hazards Centre added that perhaps designing maps that can give a dynamic picture of the various inter-linkages to broader contexts would make mapping a more explosive exercise.

IV. The Case of YUVA and Mumbai’s Existing Land-use Maps:

Right at the outset the anchor had suggested that the forum should brainstorm about how to address a particular case. This case was provided by Arvind Unni from YUVA – Mumbai. YUVA is an NGO that had taken an unprecedented initiative in Mumbai. In 2013, the MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) had initiated the process for chalking out the Master Plan or Development Plan (DP) for the next 20 years in the city. YUVA got involved in the process and through intense campaigning brought several other NGOs, CBOs and citizen groups to the table. MCGM has provided them access to several maps which are in a physical form. One of these is a map of the existing land-use patterns in the city. An investigation of this map revealed that several plots of land marked as vacant on the map were actually slums, adivasi-padas, etc. Adivasis in particular were completely invisible on the map. Arvind wished to know how digitzation of maps and crowd-sourcing of data could be useful to address this problem.

The brainstorming began with considerations about whether crowd-sourcing would be the most appropriate technique. Since it is specific communities that are missing on the maps, perhaps the best way to go about it would be to involve those communities in the process. Questions were also raised about how these maps could be used by different stake-holders. There was particular concern regarding exposing too much information about communities to the government. It was largely agreed that the exercise of mapping these communities to challenge the government’s maps was desirable albeit with due caution regarding the nature of information that goes into the map. It was suggested that there should be some campaign to build consensus within the community regarding the relevant information they wished to pass on. This would make the process participatory and empowering. Dunu Roy suggested that the process of deciding what kind of data should be made public should be informed by two things: a consideration for the history of communities and also their contributions to the urban economy and secondly a study of government documents that state what it had proposed to do for these communities. These two considerations would help locate the communities within a larger political economic context and would make the decision-making better informed.