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Senior Ecologist and Nodal Officer Gujarat Ecology Commission, Vadodara
Communities in urban slums are poor in fiscal terms but are rich in terms of a variety of skills. Information technology can help in generating better market value for services rendered using these skills. In addition, IT can play a major role in enhancement of knowledge and specialised skills at a relatively cheap rate. While IT is a useful catalyst for leap-frogging the developmental process, the core of the issue is development of human resources. The development and strengthening of community based organisations (CBOs) at every slum is advocated. In addition, a mechanism for micro-enterprise ventures for marketing of services through the use of information technology is also suggested. These information service companies (ISCos) will become the fulcrum for the economic development of the slum communities and their faster integration into the urban milieu. A five-year action agenda has been suggested for the urban centres of Gujarat, with a focus on these two local institutions. The action points for the first three years include surveys, database development, need assessment, setting up of the infrastructure and leasing it and orientation and training of communities to prepare them for the information age. The action points for the next two years include mainly technical assistance to these two institutions and their capacity building.
Keywords: development, communities, information, marketing, services, training, networking, governance.
Introduction (What is needed?)
Urban areas have the potential to generate wealth. The poor in the urban areas are generally those who migrate from the rural areas in search of improved livelihood opportunities. The fact that most choose to stay on is a pointer to the fact that they do perceive an improvement in their living conditions – compared to the other option available to them – return to the villages. Another important conclusion may be safely drawn from the continued presence of urban poor – his ability to specialise and integrate with the urban economy. Either he hones up his existing skills or he picks up new skills, or both, in order to provide specialised services in an economy that is discerning enough to be able to keenly value these. The earlier stages of our economic development have focused on restricting migration of the rural poor to the urban centres. Realisation has now dawned that this is not viable. The focus needs to shift to the development of an enabling environment that will lead to a faster integration. Rather than considering slum communities as a mere vote-bank, at best, or a breeding ground of anti-social elements, at worst, these communities need to be regarded as a pluralistic resource-bank that provide vital support to the mainstream development of the cities and, with some support, has the potential to radically transform the overall economic scenario.
Setting the agenda (What should be the focus?)
A strategy to empower the urban poor through improved economic integration will be based on recognition of the potentials, an assessment of the possibilities and a realistic evaluation of the present policies. Some of the basic elements of this strategy, where IT can be an important tool, will be mechanisms for marketing of services, enhancement of skills and participation in development programmes. Marketing of services: The entire range of services, such as those of domestic help, plumber, carpenter, mason, electrician, barber, rickshaw driver etc., can be made available in a value-added mode through a computerised database. These are the services that are increasingly assuming significance in the modern economy. While consultants, catering industry and even beauty parlours, have been recognised as service sector industries and have been brought under the service-tax net, we generally fail to recognise the services of the unorganised sector delivered by
individuals who generally live in the poorer sections of the urban conglomerates. Creating a market by providing consumers with a range of specialised services to choose from will benefit all sections of the community. Enhancement of skills: Since improved services will mean better economic returns, there will be an automatic demand for skill enhancement. People will be willing to pay for training and education that will equip them with better, more relevant and more specialised skills. This means that they become consumers of an emergent knowledge market which provide relevant and focused training. Ultimately, a competitive market based on continuous enhancement of knowledge and specialisation of services will provide the basis of sustained economic development. Participation in development programmes: The urban poor is often deprived of basic municipal services such as drinking water supply and sanitation, access to infrastructure such as roads and power supply and basic human development programmes like health care and education. While the government deems most of these settlements as illegal, proper markets are also not created because such services demand a degree of guarantee from the residents, normally not available from the ephemeral populace in these localities. A lasting solution is possible only if the government legally recognises the existing individual ownership of land and property. Since this is beyond the civil society, the second best option is to develop peoples’ institutions that provide counter-guarantees to developmental initiatives either in the form of operation and maintenance (O&M) of infrastructure facilities or in the form of collective payments which are more secure and easy to manage.
Elements of the action plan (What is the road-map?)
Information technology (IT) has the potential to play a key role in translating this agenda into a viable action programme. The basic steps will include the development of a database that is wide in scope and deep in content, setting up a network for easy access and evaluation of comparable data and professional management that maximises economic returns. Development of database: An urban slum profile is created through the development of a detailed database on the human resources and the physical infrastructure. The data on human resources will focus on individual skills and professional abilities. Aggregation will be available at the household level and the entire slum level. Data on physical infrastructure will be available at the slum level, to be linked to the household level at a later date. The development of the database on human resources will begin with the census records and the voters’ list – their verification and validation – and move on towards details on individuals. Data on health will be most important, particularly for children below the age of fifteen, and will include medical history pertaining to vaccination, major diseases and any known genetic traits. In addition, reproductive health data for women between the age group of 15-45 will be collected and collated. At the social level, incidences of malaria, water-borne, air-borne and other specific health hazards will be documented. Data on education will not be restricted only to the formal mode, but also assess the skill levels acquired through experience and other non-formal modes of learning. Relating this to livelihood, in terms of nature of work, mode of operation and available references, will be a more precise method of assessing the knowledge level. Given the fact that a large number of individuals in this country are under-employed, rather than unemployed, it is also necessary to probe for skills that are not self-evident to the individuals themselves, e.g. traditional songs, dances, handicraft etc. Data on physical infrastructure will include details on roads, water supply, drainage, electricity etc. In addition, details of the available public facilities like health centres, educational institutions etc. are important. An important aspect will be the details on cost – both capital as well as recurring – of infrastructure. Related to the costs will be the institutional mechanisms for meeting these expenses. The role of civic authorities, people’s representatives and funding agencies need to be spelt out clearly with regard to each available infrastructure in a particular slum area. Networking of information: This is needed at three different levels – the intra-community network, the slum-city network and the worldwide network. The intra-community network will seek to enhance the basic awareness of the communities regarding developmental programmes, their costs and management framework. Community ownership and decentralised management mechanisms will lead to reduced transaction costs at the
macro level while ensuring better utilisation of facilities at the micro level. Transparency in adherence to norms developed by the communities, particularly with respect to the payment of individual user charges, will be a major disincentive for default. On the economic front, individuals will have the option to pool their resources in order to generate better opportunities. Even from the social perspective, objective information will replace half-baked information and gossip, thus leading to better decision-making in issues such as marriage. The slum-city network will seek to improve the marketing of services available from the slum areas by increasing the reliability of the services, improving valuation through an evaluation of the services and raising the standards of services by inducing competition. Registration of the service providers at the community level and referrals from previous clients will go a long way to provide reliability of the services offered – something that becomes a major bottleneck in an economic transaction in the urban setting. The prospect of positive reference from a client, especially in a competitive environment, will ensure higher quality of services. Thus, the system will work through a set of positive feedback that will ensure proper valuation of services and a constant effort towards increased value-addition. The world-wide network may seem redundant in the initial stages. However, it is a low-cost option that offers a fabulous choice to the enterprising individuals to explore larger vistas. Increased global awareness is also likely to bring about an impetus for faster development through the use of innovative strategies. Also, the international developmental agencies are more likely to assist such communities, since these are more visible, lend themselves to independent evaluation and are transparent in their operations. Management of information: In the information age, management of information has to be a profitmaking business venture – a challenging task indeed given the poor understanding of what constitutes valued information, particularly in the context of the urban poor. The basic information has to be detailed, multi-sectoral and free. It is the depth and the breadth of this database that will determine the success of a business model based on value-added services thereafter. This critical step needs imaginative leadership, professional management and financial resources. The investments are bound to be front heavy and the returns will only start trickling after some time-gap. The value-added services will be in the form of facilitating transactions, providing customised information and back-end services. Each successful transaction, be it hiring a rickshaw or hiring a domestic help, will entail a service charge levied on either the provider or the consumer, or both. Even before an actual transaction, a consumer might like to obtain a comparative statement of the various service providers in a particular manner, which may merit an additional payment. Development of skills through specialised training programmes, obtaining feedback from consumers for use as future references and other forms of documentation will constitute some of the back-end services.
Operationalising the action agenda (How to go about?)
There will be two clear phases of operation: the first needs heavy investment in terms of human and infrastructure development while the second needs effective governance and technical assistance. Phase I (0-3 years): A competent development agency is an absolute pre-requisite to spearhead the process. In the present context, it could either be a professional NGOs or socially oriented business establishment, or both, in order to bring in the financial resources, management skills and social sensitivity. The major action points in this phase will include: • Survey and data collection may be done by a professional agency, in collaboration with the spearhead agency. There are three major sub-components – (i) human resources, (ii) civic amenities and infrastructure and (iii) policies, programmes and institutional set-ups. Government and civic records, group interviews and questionnaire surveys, and mechanisms for volunteering information will have to be used. Active participation of local persons, preferably those who would later play an important role in managing the information kiosk, would be important. Assessment of needs maybe done through a competent market-research agency, along with the spearhead agency. The assessment will seek to explore the nature and diversity of services required, degree of skills demanded and willingness to pay.
Development of the database application is another specialised activity requiring the involvement of professional software developers. Ease of operation, flexibility of analysis and ease of enhancement are some of the key features, necessary for success. In addition, managing transactions, either through registrations or payments, or both, will have to be secure, swift and simple. Orientation and training of communities, preferably through a hands-on approach, in collecting, using and updating of information. A variety of training modules could be designed – some aimed towards imparting general understanding and use of IT by the entire community, and some aimed towards development of entrepreneurial skills for a few select members who would then be able to sustain the business model, either on their own or through partnership ventures. The spearhead agency, in collaboration with specialised agencies, will have to conduct these programmes. Setting up of infrastructure, including an information booth – a kiosk – in every slum area that will house not only the computer systems, but also a blackboard and a notice board. The amount of electronic resources, including bandwidth, will be assessed separately by professionals developing the database application. Leasing out of the infrastructure to entrepreneurs, on the basis of norms developed by the spearhead agency, in consultation with the CBOs.
Policy/ institutional support, in the form of incentives to establish micro-enterprise ventures in urban slums, facilitation in data collection and networking and legal support to the CBOs, will provide a major boost to the process and add to its sustainability. There is already a favourable climate for the establishment of business ventures in Gujarat. Apart from the general entrepreneurial skills available, there are specialised institutes like the Enterprise Development Institute (EDI), Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) and Lokbharati (Sanosara) that train professional managers and development specialists. Tax and other incentives are often given to the manufacturing sector on a routine basis. One could, therefore, push for both fiscal as well as non-fiscal incentives to such micro-enterprise ventures in urban slums of Gujarat, preferably in partnership with local persons, that provide a wide array of information related services – Information Service Companies (ISCos). Government and civil society work closely for the development of poorer sections of the society in many parts of the State of Gujarat. The Urban Planning Partnerships (UPP) is one such example. A pro-active role of the government in data collection and networking of different slums of the city will strengthen the programme in many ways. Data related to the physical assets, their costs of maintenance and persons responsible for managing these will be made available to the general public, who will act as a watchdog in enforcing a better work culture. Improved awareness will also lead to enhanced participation of the communities in the process of governance. The most crucial policy support will be the legal recognition of the community-based organisations (CBOs) at the slum level as key partners in the process of decentralised governance. Some of the key functions of these CBOs will be to • formulate norms for operation and maintenance of physical infrastructure and essential services; • register the service providers from their areas and provide necessary counter guarantees for economic decisions at the community level; • act as market regulators at the micro level by registering individual service providers, regulating norms for transactions and arbitrate in case of internal disputes. Phase II (4-5 years): A couple of year’s handholding by the spearhead agency would be necessary to provide for additional strengthening of these institutions. The major action points in this phase will include: • Capacity building of the CBOs: In addition to the policy support, the CBOs will need to develop an ethos of debates and discussions – the basic principles of democratic governance. While on the one hand it would serve as a single entity for managing any major external development programme, it needs to have a detailed set of norms for internal management – be it payment of user charges, providing participatory labour inputs or election of office bearers. Capacity building of the ISCos: In addition to the policy incentives, the ISCos will need to develop managerial and entrepreneurial skills in order to sustain themselves. They need to be encouraged to innovate and create a shelf of value-added services, while strengthening the few that ensure steady
returns. A professional evaluation of the quality of services offered, their market value and consumer feedback could be used to develop a system of rating and even instituting an award. • Development of back-end services: A variety of teaching and training modules need to be developed for the enhancement of skills within the communities. While the basic knowledge related to hygiene, public conduct and citizen’s responsibilities would be freely available, those skills that ensure economic returns to the individuals need to be paid for. In addition, basic education for any person below the age of 15 would be available free of cost in a modular format. Basic accounting and communication would be the focus of these teaching modules. Ideally, these services could be rendered through an independent, professional agency working through a separate, focused programme supported by the government. Independent rating agencies and certification mechanisms will also develop in due course of time.
Critical elements (What will decide its success?)
In order to realise the full potential of this programme, it is necessary to know the critical elements involved. Managing human skills: It is necessary to overcome our initial awe of the various gadgets that are involved and start recognising the human element that drives it. Investments in training and education of persons is much more rewarding than investing in the latest hardware alone. Managing change: There is often a tendency towards complacency once a “project” is done. In contrast, old information has no value and hence needs constant updating. Enhancement of skills, persistence of individuals and upgradation of technology is vital for success. Managing exchanges: Swift response, ease of communication and credibility of the institutions are essential in realising the full benefits of the programme.
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