Rethinking Smart Cities through Participatory Governance  

By Abhishek Anil

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The Centre for Urban Policy and Research at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, along with Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Pune, organised a Mini Public on the October 13, 2017. The event was a culmination of week-long fieldwork done by the students of TISS in the Aundh-Baner-Balewadi area of Pune, identified for the Smart City initiative. The project involved identifying the numerous stakeholders of the area which included residents, hawkers and owners of small commercial enterprises amongst others to create a miniaturised participatory governance process through rounds of guided discussions and deliberations.

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The event was held at Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration. Among the attendees were individuals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds engaged in different occupations. The attendees invited represented the numerous demographic groups of any urban region. The intention behind having a diverse demographic representation was to include groups which often find themselves excluded from participatory exercises and decision making processes.

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The idea behind this initiative was to bring people — from hawkers to bungalow residents — together on a common platform as equal citizens. This would then ensure a samvaad, or dialogue among the different stakeholder groups about how these groups would like their locality to be like in the foreseeable future.
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As people trickled in, a process of registration commenced. We, from TISS were frankly quite overwhelmed with the response showed by the residents of Aundh to take time out from their busy schedules to turn up for our Mini Public. The attendees were a healthy concoction of vendors, residents and especially women eager to contribute with their thoughts and actively participate in the process.

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As the invitees poured in, they were welcomed with a display of a series of posters prepared by the students. In the picture above, Anushri explains the various limbs of governance like PMPML, Pune Municipal Corporation, Pune Smart City Development Corporation Ltd etc, which determine how our city shapes up as. These posters also highlighted the condition of the indispensable workforce behind maintaining our cities. These workers belong to the various corporations like PMC and SWACHH who work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the streets are clean, the drainage functional and the trees trimmed, without getting their fair share of recognition or even basic equipment.

These posters were intended to show the dynamics of governance at work, while simultaneously sensitizing the affluent of the plight of the people who keep the city trim and proper.

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After the people occupied their seats, the Mini Public formally commenced with Mr Avinash from CEE taking charge of the proceedings. The entire process was conducted in Marathi for the convenience of non-Hindi speakers. He introduced the concept of participatory governance and provided them with a broad overview of the themes for the day. The 40 attendees were then divided among six tables, with each table having a facilitator from CEE to guide them through the processes to come. Each table also had a fair representation of the various socio-economic and gender groups to make the process as inclusive as possible. To begin with, each table was asked to choose facets of their locality they wished to retain and the ones they wanted to expend, like trees, historical structures, bus stops, public toilets and such like. As different stakeholders used the streets differently, they were asked about the specific ways they viewed a space as public as a street which resulted in a plethora of responses. The facilitators at each table ensured the deliberations weren’t hijacked by a certain individual or group and the process functioned as smoothly as possible.

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The discussions were a stark departure from what we, the students of TISS observed during our fieldwork. Interactions with a PMC official, local corporators and residents showed the ideals of the 74th CAA weren’t followed in spirit. Moreover, the Smart City SPV didn’t involve enough participatory exercises to ensure inclusive governance. The hawkers and vendors were systematically left out and often treated as appendages to a broader and ambiguous notion of ‘smart city’. The demands of lower income groups were not given adequate attention while formal and established institutions enjoyed greater say in the discussions, partly because of their proximity to the decision-making elites.

We at CEE and TISS aimed to bridge this very gap and give the underrepresented a greater chance to voice their demands and concerns. While people engaged with each other across tables, we realized the people’s concerns weren’t drastically different after all. Each group did want safer streets and better public transport, and such demands cut across various socio-economic stratifications. It was quite heartening to see people recognise differences and still come together as ‘we’ and not ‘I’.

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Forceful arguments were made…
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…but there were a few light-hearted moments too.

When asked about what the stakeholders would like to retain or change in their neighbourhood, a variety of responses emerged. However, almost each member of the group could relate to it. Demands were as basic as an accessible footpath, streetlights to ensure safety and connectivity with the wider public transport system to make people’s commute easier. Rarely did we come across demands or aspirations which a certain section couldn’t relate to, which was a sign of how participatory governance processes can lead to symmetric development of the masses.

 

Discussions were followed by a process of allotment of funds. As in the real world the political economy plays a crucial role in which demands of the people are realised and which ones are shelved, this exercise made the participants realise why not all their demands are released.

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Which projects or amenities see the light of day depends on whether the taxpayers are willing to put their money into it. For this exercise, each group was given limited funds which was then collectively allotted to the numerous demands they made earlier. While a few demands were indeed funded, a few were shelved for a later day.

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We had a few serious listeners…
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…and a few delighted faces.

At the end of the exercise, the issue which got the maximum amount of funds was the revamp of public transport. This highlights how despite the earnest attempts of the government and auxiliary limbs of governance, transport in urban India remains abysmal, leading to an over-reliance on private vehicles. While the wealthy do enjoy the luxury of being able to afford vehicles, the economically vulnerable need an efficient public transport system to meet their daily commuting needs.

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And that’s how the Mini Public culminated with a lot of valuable takeaways, both for our stakeholders and us, the students of TISS.

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The Winter Institute is a full-fledged 3 credit Course in the academic calendar of the Masters in Urban Policy and Governance program of the School of Habitat Studies conducted in the first year. It is conceived as a platform for interdisciplinary collaborative learning through research and action in the field. The blog series showcases the work, reflections and opinions of the students, and not the Centre.

To see institute reports from previous batches visit our website: http://urk.tiss.edu/winter-institute.html
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