Community Groups and Planning Action:
The Need for Citizen's Participation in Decision Making

Hari Srinivas
Case Study Series E-147. August 2022

  • Prologue
    Much of the current discussions on citizen's participation, particularly with reference to countries in the Third World, is limited to low-income groups and how it could be used to improve their living conditions. Clearly, an effort or movement to bring the entire populance into the sphere of citizen's participation has to be made in order to create a more equitable and liveable environment, both in urban as well as rural areas. In this case study however, the scope of citizen's participation as a planning component has been limited to urban low-income groups alone. What is citizen's participation? What are the preconditions and applications of participation? Besides attempting to answer these questions, the case study presents a "Citizen's Participation Model". An example of successful participation, in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, India and its people's organization is presented.

    Citizen's Participation Defined

    What exactly is citizen's participation? The idea that people should participate in planning, implementing and managing human settlements has gained acceptance among governments and development agencies. Arguments in favour of citizen's participation has been touted for long, and ultimately it means a readiness of both the government and the citizens to accept certain responsibilities and activities. It can also mean that the value of each group's contribution is seen, appreciated and used. The honest inclusion of a community's representatives as "partners" in decision-making, makes for successful citizen's participation.

    But, the allegiance to participation remains verbal in most cases. When it comes to implementation, authorities advance numerous reasons why participation is "impossible" or has to be restricted to some forms of consultation of beneficiaries. Preconceived notions, neglect and contempt, mutual distrust and arcane codes and bye-laws have only exasperated the situation.

  • Preconditions to Participation
    Past experiences on citizen's participation in various countries in Asia and Africa has clearly shown that participation cannot just happen; nor can it be taken for granted, either. There are several preconditions to participation which have to be met before it can be applied and sustained in a particular situation.

    • Participation has to be a gradually developed response to an actual and pressing collective need of the citizens. This is need is used as a rallying point for the community to come together.
    • The benefitting target group of a participative action has to be clearly defined, in order to utilize the common interest in securing their position and improving their living conditions.
    • It is of critical importance to inform the selected target groups, in a comprehensive manner, of all the relevant features of the programme. The aims, finance, technology, organization, management aspects have to be covered.
    • In order that communication links between the authorities and the target group be maintained, there should be a strong community organization within the settlement, which could seek the assistance of an external NGO for information and motivation.
    • A smooth functioning of the community organization structure ideally evolves through the collective efforts of the residents, with the aid of an accepted local leader. This is critical in representing the aspirations of the residents.
    • The community leader and other members should be trained in the management process. Management is an important tool for reaching the desired aim of a self-help project, of keeping records and making responsible decisions in financial matters.

    Applications of participation

    There is a wide range of applications that participation can be utilized - practically any situation which requires consensus in decision-making and action. Some of the widely advocated applications include settlement planning, decision-making, implementation, financing and construction. Participation can take different levels, from the citizen's having no voice at all in the proceedings to that of advisory roles and full representation in all stages. For Citizen's participation to be truly effective, it is necessary for the people to be involved in all stages of planning, design, implementation and evaluation. The very success of a project may sometimes depend on the degree of participation of the beneficiaries.

  • Mumbai, the Metropolis
    The population in Mumbai, primarily due to the tremendous economic momentum, has doubled over the last 20 years. Migrants, who constitute much of this increase, continue to enter the city at an estimated rate of 300 families per day! The city infrastructure can far from cope with the increasing demands made on it. Environmental and housing problems are acute, to say the least. The combined output of the housing agencies - a merge 40 to 50 thousand units annually, is just a small fraction of the number required. Hence, formal housing is exorbitantly expensive and far from the reach of the poor, which most migrants are. Even options like providing sites and services for self-help housing do not seem to work in this sea-bound city. The result is that more than half the population of the city live in "congested, unhealthy, unserviced and filthy" slums. This has led to its inevitable effect on the city's health and environment. But beneath all these lies the most critical quality of all, that offers hope for the future: the ambition, determination and perseverance of the migrant poor to improve themselves and their surroundings for a better life.

    This is where citizen's participation comes in. The case study presented here illustrates an example of the people's organization, PROUD (People's Responsible Organization for United Dharavi) and the participation methodology that they adopted in improving their settlement.

    Growth of Dharavi

    Dharavi today Dharavi: Asia's largest slums.
    Commensed: 1880s
    Land area: 2.1
    Population: about 1,000,000.
    Population density:  > 277,136/
    Lteracy rate: 69%
    Businesses: 5,000 with 15,000 single-room factories.
    Turnover: Informal economy produces about USD 650 million per year.
    Dharavi, described as Asia's largest slum, is in an area of about 600 acres and is inhabited by more than one million people. Located in the heart of Mumbai city, the settlement is bound by the Mahim Creek and railway lines. The settlement in 1890 was well outside the municipal limits of Mumbai. By 1944, the settlement had grown to 130 acres, doubling by 1956 to 330 acres when the total area under slums in Mumbai was just 500 acres. Though it is obvious that the settlement grew and reached it's present size and condition gradually, over the years, nothing was done to improve it.

    Location of the Dharavi district

    The Mumbai Municipal Corporation considers the residents of Dharavi as illegal squatters (which they are, in the true sense of the word) whose shelters may be demolished at any time. In fact, maps at the BMC show the Dharavi area as "vacant land"! The BMC owns 70% of the land, Government of Maharastra (of which Mumbai is capital) owns 10% and private owners make up the rest.

    Settlement Morphology

    The present 600 acres making up Dharavi are divided into five major areas: Mukund Nagar, Central Area, Social Nagar, South Area and South-West Area. Each of these areas have dozens of chawls (clusters or streets of houses and other buildings) each containing about 50 to 100 people.

    There are about 150 chawls in Dharavi. These residential areas with their places of worship, shops etc. cover a major part of the land, which in certain ways, is similar to small towns, since it also has small scale and indigenous industries as well as shorehouses dealing in recycled wastes. Individual house quality range from kuccha dwelling (using impermanent materials) to pucca (permanent materials) houses.

    Before the emergence of active citizen's participation in settlement development, besides a few roads, essential services were practically non-existent. The occasional drain was perpetually clogged and a good part of the open spaces including the streets doubled as garbage dumps. Obtaining drinking water was desperate - the infrequent water supply service active for only a few hours every day. Even now there are no individual service connections for water or sanitation.

    Contrary to stereotypes, residents of Dharavi are literate and have certain amount of formal education, and a few even a university degree. Most have stable employment in a variety of occupations. Many are also self-employed. A rich variety of socio-cultural features characterize the residents - who speak different languages and espouse different religions.

    The Emergence of PROUD

    The need for people to come together to solve their collective problems had been cultivated by chawls banding themselves to form committees. But islands of Chawl Committees were not very effective in dealing with issues that were settlement wide, and where dealing with the city government were concerned. To create a stronger representation by unifying themselves was a natural conclusion.

    The awareness levels of the people mounted with the efforts of several NGOs which organized community development and training programmes. One of the main objectives was to build a people's organization with its structure derived from the chawl committees' issue-solving processes. For example, in September 1979, they had identified the source of the drinking water problem and organized a meeting of the local people in Social Nagar. Delegations to the local municipal office were mobilized to pressure them to provide drinking water. The result was a series of public taps that were installed in Social Nagar.

    This kind of action-oriented approach which netted fast results caught the imagination of the people and was crucial for the formal launching of the People's Responsible Organization of United Dharavi on 2 December 1979, "by, for and of the people of Dharavi".

    PROUD: Aims and Objectives

    At the base of the structure are the approximately 150 chawl committees. Comprised of the residents of a chawl, it has office bearers such as a president and a secretary. These organizations work on local problems. Meeting monthly, the residents discuss problems, issues etc., and where required, they plan and take local action. The chawls, depending upon their location, fall under one of the five area councils - one each for Mukund Nagar, Social Nagar, Central Area, South Area and South-west Area. These councils are made up of presidents and secretaries of the chawl committees. It serves as a middle link in the communication process of PROUD. Local problems which cannot be solved by the chawl committee are brought to the attention of the Area Council, which then tries to solve it or passes it on to Executive Committee. The Council acts as advisors for the Executive Committee as well as send "area representatives" to the Executive Committee.

    The Executive Committee is responsible for the smooth functioning of PROUD. It formulates policies, actions, programmes and implements them, provided they meet the approval of the people at the Annual Convention and the General Assembly. These later two act as a parliament, open to all the residents of Dharavi.

    The committee office bearers, numbering eight are elected by the people at the Annual Convention. The Committee also consists of two Area Representatives from each Area Council and presidents of the Issue Committees.

    PROUD's Issue Committees
    The Role of Issue Committees

    The work and the role of the Issue Committees is one of the easiest ways to observe the involvement of PROUD in improving the quality of life in Dharavi.

    • The Water Committee: This was one of the first issue committees formed, with the solving of the water problem in Social Nagar. The committee now sees to the fact that a minimum number of taps are installed in most localities and supply is maintained. Public pressure, demonstrations etc. are used to obligate the authorities to make necessary provisions.

    • The Drainage and Garbage Committee: The problem of garbage was accentuated every monsoon when the whole area was flooded. When repeated appeals failed to clear the garbage, the residents protested by dumping it in the municipal offices! The committee is fully engaged in the maintenance and construction of drains, clearance of garbage and emergency work during monsoon.

    • The Health Committee: Besides identifying factories in the surrounding area that affect the health of the residents and lobbying for their removal, the health committee, with the cooperation of NGOs, organizes check-ups, health camps and vaccination drives for the residents.

    • The Latrine Committee: The committee's responsibility encompasses the construction and maintenance of public latrines, besides the water and electricity for them.

    PROUD's Weakness

    The early actions of PROUD dealt with issues of immediate concern. The early successes of these helped to gain public participation and support. When struggles grew longer and victories less frequent, participation showed a downward trend. PROUD, due to its huge size, does see lapses in communication with all levels. This has resulted in a weakening of the base - not knowing what was going on, many people participated less, which is a serious disadvantage for a people's movement.

  • Epilogue: Citizen's Participation is Here to Stay
    There is little doubt that the concept of citizen's participation is here to stay. In terms of its actual achievements, the record has not been too impressive. However, it is rich in potential and low-income families are basically able and willing to participate in the development of their settlements. The lack of a sense of participatory democracy, technical know-how and/or financial resources are sometimes obstacles to participation on the part of the poor; an unwillingness to share power, a sense of elitism, dependence on high standards are some of the obstacles on the part of the officials. Such obstacles can be overcome by training and awareness building.

    Good practical examples of citizen's participation are not easily available. Since skills in participation can only come through application, it would be worthwhile for the international agencies and national governments to invest money in initiating programmes in participation. The experience gained from such programmes should be well-documented and used in training. There is a need for more study and action in this area. This would allow useful exchange of ideas, knowledge and experience between trainers and practioners. The funding agencies interested in promoting participation should remain open and flexible in considering different approaches and measuring their relative impact.


The write-up is based on field work carried out in Dharavi, Mumbai, India, including interviews with residents, community leaders and NGO staff members.

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