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Brokering the social contract in India’s slums

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-07-2017 Livemint

Are slums a sign of economic energy and springboards to a better life, as some economists like Edward Glaeser have argued? Or are they metastasized poverty traps, as others contend? The jury is still out. Either way, their pervasive presence across the world—from the megacities of the developed world to the urban sprawls of Latin America to the emergent hubs of Asia and Africa—points to the reality of the developmental challenge they present.

A new study by Tariq Thachil of Vanderbilt University and Adam Auerbach of American University now gives intriguing insights into how those challenges can be tackled.

According to the UN, a billion people live in slums worldwide. The 2011 Census pegs that figure at 68 million for India. That’s more than the population of entire countries such as Argentina or Australia, Spain or South Africa. These are people struggling to survive on the fringes of our cities—next to open drains and disease-infested sewers, without proper access to hospitals, schools or toilets, in settlements so unsafe that even the agents of state, with their guns and uniforms, fear to tread these parts.

Indeed, so precarious is their position that it would seem that these citizens barely have a contract with the state. But as Thachil and Auerbach show, that’s not necessarily the case; political brokers do operate in the informal space between the state and the citizen. These brokers or slum leaders emerge through a solid bottom-up process. The study, covering 2,199 residents across 110 slums in Jaipur and Bhopal, found such informal leadership to rest on “local public support”, and to be “pervasive and contested”.

Perhaps the most important finding of the study was that the slum leaders weren’t necessarily local thugs who ruled through fear and intimidation. They were legitimate representatives in that they were actually selected by residents, often through the ballot, for their ability to negotiate with the state and deliver the goods, such as water supply or ration cards or caste certificates.

Notably, the selection of these leaders was not driven by ethnic factors, but by factors based on leadership quality. Thachil and Auerbach note: “Our findings challenge conventional wisdom on Asian and African politics, which predict that distributive expectations based on co-ethnicity will predominantly guide leadership selection. Instead we find non-ethnic indicators of a slum leader’s efficacy, such as their educational attainment and occupational connectivity, often match or trump the value of co-ethnicity.”

What impact does this have on policymaking, or our approach to slum development and rehabilitation? If slum leaders are only about muscle power, as previously imagined, then they have a vested interest in keeping the slums poor and underdeveloped—because that’s how they can keep control. However, if the slum leaders derive their legitimacy from actually delivering goods and benefits to residents, as this new study shows, then it means that local governments can actually co-opt them in their slum development efforts. In other words, slum leaders can be partners in change and not obstructionists or a hindrance to development.

Slum leaders, for example, can be particularly helpful in combating crime because they are already the go-to person for dispute resolution for residents. Slum residents are usually reluctant to approach law enforcement authorities owing to their own precarious legal situation (think of a property dispute between two slum dwellers, with both shanties having been built illegally), so they go to these leaders instead. Also, the leaders themselves have an interest in keeping their territories “crime free”, for the reasons mentioned above.

That being said, the study does not seek to portray informal slum leaders as especially virtuous or altruistic. Nor does it contend that no slum leaders use coercion or violence to gain or maintain their authority. Instead, it suggests that the majority of leaders rule not through the barrel of the gun, but by earning reputations for getting things done for the settlement. This could help us understand how policymakers should approach them with respect to slum development and rehabilitation efforts.

Indeed, as Thachil and Auerbach note, “understanding informal authority within poor urban communities is essential for designing community-driven development efforts. Practitioners look to local leadership as a crucial component of pro-poor targeting, induced participation, and project sustainability”. One example is that of the women slum leaders in Ahmedabad, who worked with the municipal corporation to overcome opposition from slum residents who didn’t trust the government to build new apartments for them in place of shanties. In addition, it is also perhaps time to recalibrate theories of ethnic politics and party-voter linkages in the expanding cities of the developing world.

How do you think the state can leverage slum leaders for developmental processes? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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