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Why are social movements important in Urban design?


Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India

“If you can create a social movement that people want to join, they will bend their energies and ideas to you.”

― David Brooks

Remember these lines “Kaale Megha! Kaale Megha! Paani toh barsao?”


Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India

India once had a rich tradition in water management. There were knowledge systems that formed the collective knowledge about this subject. The British undermined this knowledge. They then centralised the provision and management of water to the state thus replacing communities and households as the primary units. The British steadily impoverished the rural communities. This lead to the destruction of their resource management systems. With the destruction of the indigenous financial system, community property became nobody’s property (Narain. S, 1999). This resulted in a gradual decline in the traditional methods and knowledge systems of water management. Moreover, this emphasis on administration was perpetuated through the education system. The British educated an entire class of Indians who no longer appreciated or understood traditional systems, so much so that after its independence, even the leaders of modern India turned their backs on the traditional systems. They invested heavily in mega-irrigation projects and mega-bureaucracies to manage its water systems. Over time this led to a downfall in community self-management as bureaucratic intervention.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India

It is evident from the research on urban systems that cities have systemic deficiencies. And that the cities are at a similar configurational failure. Often, the states have low capacities to provide for their citizens and they have high informality in the procurement. The authoritative bureaucracies, thus, face systemic deficiencies that prohibit local development. As discussed previously, the urban systems are inadequate in addressing the challenges. This includes urban equities and fairness, political autonomy and centralised structures and deprivation of the quality of urban living. These systemic deficiencies impede progress and development. So, to ensure participation, they push the authoritative structures to negotiate with citizens. This is done either through direct or indirect market-based forms or through social movements. This engagement is but an acceptance of the notion that - some urban challenges are best resolved by engaging with local citizens, thus encouraging collective action and self-help.

With time, grassroots co-production has moved beyond local issues. They tackle more substantive issues at the collective level. It has enabled negotiations. People have thus gained better control over processes by having a sustained dialogue with the state. Such a dynamic negotiation with the state can be achieved through three strategies– first, local action in procurement of services; second, deliberate discussions with the state; and third, robust networking within the community. Co-production extends political practices to the urban poor. It simultaneously encourages the state to have a proactive engagement with them. Thus, co-production has not only become favourable but also instrumental in improvising the organisational groups of the urban poor.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India

This dynamic, thus, resolves a paradox. Such participatory strategies can effectively manage services of the authoritative structures of governance that manifest in unequal and non-democratic ways. The state agencies view themselves as legitimate stakeholders who control the development activities. And, in doing so, they deviate from the notion of a democratic collective. Amidst this constant dilution and concentration of power, grassroots co-production redistributes this power. This ensures effective and fair provisioning of services to all the citizens. As a democratic practice, it highlights the need for participation and inclusion of those in need. Moreover, by orienting the public towards the idea of self-reliance and by having sustained dialogues, such initiatives change the socio-economic behaviour of people. So, to force the state to act at the community level, such initiatives exert simultaneous pressure on both parts of the system. They encourage bottom-up initiatives and resist the top-down configurations of the system. On the one hand, they encourage the citizens for co-creation. While, on the other hand, they resist central political forces.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India

If there is such a transformative approach to our urban challenges, why do we rarely see such approaches taking up forms in our cities? One obvious reason is the lack of social capital needed to seed and operate such initiatives. And the lack of skilled organisations hinders opportunities. So, in cases like these - the state itself can be an initiator of co-production. By working with the local groups on generating social capital and making local groups, it can seed grassroots initiatives. By doing so the government benefits both themselves and the people in overcoming the challenges. Let’s understand this dynamic through the domain of water management. In rural India, various fruitful resolutions have emerged through a grassroots collaboration of the state and the public.

Ralegan Siddhi, Maharashtra

Ralegan Siddhi is a drought-prone area of Maharashtra. Krishna Hazare is a retired driver from the Indian army who began constructing storage ponds, reservoirs and gully plugs for this area. Due to the steady percolation of water, the groundwater table began to rise. Simultaneously, government social forestry schemes were implemented. About 300,000-400,000 trees were planted in and around the village (Chopra and Rao, 1996). This increased availability of irrigation water. The land that was once lying fallow came under cultivation resulting in a substantial increase in the average yields of the farm produce. Today, not a single inhabitant of the village depends on drought relief.

An impressive system of decision-making has been created in the village. About 14 committees operate to ensure people’s participation in all decision-making. To make community decisions, a participatory democratic institution was created. They called it as the Gram Sabha. It involves every villager in the development process. And they exert social pressure wherever required. In other words, Ralegan Siddhi has given greater importance to participatory democracy over representative democracy.

Jhabua District, Madhya Pradesh

Hazare’s work in Ralegan Siddhi inspired many. One of them was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh. He initiated a state-wide participatory programme for water management in the Jhabua District. This watershed management programme has become an outstanding example of government intervention promoting public participation in environmental management.

In the 374 villages within the Jhabua district, 1,748 women’s groups were formed. Serious efforts were made to give local communities power for decision-making and control over resources. For instance, the role in managing the funds was taken by the villagers. A Watershed Development Committee was created. This committee brought together all the important interest groups. This, thus, replicated the concept of the Gram Sabha. By doing so, the programme created several tiers of institutions. At the state level, an institution for policy coordination; at the district and watershed level, an institution for implementation and coordination; and at the village level to ensure participation. This place, which once looked like a drought-prone area, began witnessing a healthy vegetation and its wells started brimming with water.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India

Such transformations involving people’s participation often remain scattered. If not, they are led by NGOs, like the Paani foundation. But, they are rarely taken up by governments. Even if they do, their devolution of power to local communities has been half-hearted and inadequate in most cases. But, the cases of Ralegan Siddhi and Jhabua are inspiring and unique. They have shown us the enormous opportunities in addressing challenges through participatory approaches. These examples show how the government bodies can help the people to help themselves. Such participatory management practices must be underpinned by community-based decision-making systems and institutions which promote community action.

As Ackerman put it, “the supply side of the equation is crucial. Without capacity and well-financed state apparatus that can actually respond to popular demands and participation, such accountability mechanisms would create more disenchantment than hope.”

A sympathetic engagement between the state and local people would play a pivotal role in the formation of organised groups to deliver forms of co-production. Therefore, the state can play a dual role. One, by helping the people with economic options, and two, they can work with their co-production movements.

The message on the idea of co-production is clear – it is a tool. As a tool, it strengthens the capacity of civil society through collective practices. It contributes to the collective knowledge by disseminating it to the groups. These groups participate in the collective resolution of their issues. Co-production also enhances the social consciousness amongst groups as it resists the individualisation of ideas through an increased network of participants.

The takeaway here is that co-production organises people at the neighbourhood level. But, it also builds on the knowledge to impart a collective understanding of the mechanisms of the state as they create newer forms of knowledge, they enable the marginalised and the poor to occupy the spaces of governance in their own right. Co-production provides a political arena to challenge and contest undesirable forms, systems, and dimensions of governance. It also corrects the concepts and rationale through which public services are accessed.

Ayadi Mishra, Aishwarya Jadhav, Ajinkya Jamadar, Urban Design Theory, Architects, Architecting, Architecture, Architectural, Design, Planning, Urban, Urbanism, City, Cities, History, Zeyka, Zeyka India



About the Writer

Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.


About the Editor

Aishwarya Jadhav is an architect, urban researcher, and software trainer by profession. She is a travel enthusiast, architectural photographer, and literary writer. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Sir J.J. School of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience working at Urban Liveability Forum, Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living and Abhikalpan Architects and Planners.


About the Illustrator

Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.

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