March 15, 1999

Urban Basic Services for the Poor: Poverty alleviation through community cooperation in India

The problem

Most urban poor communities in India are characterized by:
poor sanitation with over 50 per cent of the households without latrine or drainage;
high illiteracy rates which are three times as high as in non-slum areas;
higher infant and child mortality rates than the urban averages;
a higher proportion of especially disadvantaged groups;
a low level of utilization of existing services (such as maternal and child health care);
high initial enrollment in primary education, but a high drop-out rate (20-50 per cent) in particular among the girls.

The number of urban poor in India is estimated at 80 million, 40 per cent of the total urban population; 65 per cent of the urban poor are women and children. Women often belong to the poorest of the poor. Women play a minimal role in decision-making, with patriarchal values reinforced through tradition, religion and other socio-political institutions. They have a low rate of work force participation, and a general lack of access to institutional credit mechanisms. Low self-esteem, fear of society, fear of laws, fear of men and above all fear of violence creates a vicious inter-generational circle of poverty and deprivation.

The Urban Basic Services Programme

In 1988, the Report of the National Commission on Urbanization recommended that the urban community development strategy should be the key approach for the improvement of the living conditions of the urban poor. The Urban Basic Services for the Poor programme which is supported by UNICEF was included in the 8th Five-Year Plan, targeting 500 cities and towns. In 1994, the Integrated Urban Poverty Eradication Programme was launched targeting 345 class II towns (with populations of 50,000 - 99,999); the UBSP approach was one of the key programme components.
By 1995, UBSP was operational in 25 out of the 32 states and union territories of India, covering 283 towns and cities, and a further 244 towns and cities through state universalization efforts, reaching an estimated 5-10 million urban poor. In 80 cities, the UBSP approach reaches over 75 per cent of the urban poor population. The programme involves 65,000 women volunteers from low-income areas, joined together in over 9,000 neighbourhoods and community development societies. They work towards community improvement and self-reliant development.

The approach

The community organization system is what makes UBSP unique. Through UBSP, one paid community organizer is usually available for 2,000 households. She is expected to work intensively with the communities to help and guide women towards independence and self-reliance. She initiates the formation of neighbourhood groups of 15-40 households which select from amongst them one or more resident community volunteers as their representative. Some 7-10 groups organize a neighbourhood committee. In many places, the neighbourhood committees have formed a community development society at city or ward level for advocacy planning and resource mobilization. This organizational structure provides the framework for a systematic bottom-up planning process by the women.

The neighbourhood committee prepares area-specific mini-plans based on an assessment of felt and perceived needs. The plans of all neighbourhood committees are consolidated into a city plan for the project areas. The needs reflected in the mini-plans are matched with the resources available to identify any gaps which could be filled through the convergence with programmes of other agencies or government departments.

Another important aspect of UBSP is the drive for convergence of development activities for the urban poor. UBSP tries to link with on-going government programmes in health, education, skill training, banking etc. UBSP has developed partnerships with sectoral programmes and agencies such as water and electricity boards, banks etc. to meet state, city or community-specific needs. Over 100 non-governmental organizations are also involved; they provide technical assistance and support for community mobilization.

The joint efforts to develop and implement city-wide community action plans have for the first time targeted the urban poor in a systematic manner with inter-sectoral participation. The community system put in place under the UBSP is now available for the planning, implementation and feedback of the government's Urban Poverty Alleviation Programme. To promote convergence, UBSP's resources are often used as bridge-financing for basic community needs. Once sector convergence materializes, the investments in the communities may increase many times and the UBSP resources can be used for other community needs, e.g. thrift and credit societies or women's issues.

The activities

The bottom-up planning process by women from urban poor communities has resulted in a series of actions to improve the living conditions of the urban poor:
mother and child care: special immunization camps in collaboration with local health departments, with UBSP women groups actively involved in mobilizing communities to participate in polio eradication campaigns; special camps in low-income communities to provide ante-natal care, increase the contact times before delivery, to identify pregnancies at risk and to promote safe deliveries;
nutrition: monitoring by UBSP groups of the availability of iodized salt in their homes and comunity shops in order to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders; the promotion of use of oral dehydration salts in case of diarrhoea;
education: the promotion of primary school enrollment, in particular by girls; the follow-up of school drop-outs and non-attenders by resident community volunteers, seeking their re-entry in school; support for non-formal education for both women and children and coaching classes for school-going children; the establishment of pre-schools;
water supply: the supply of hand pumps and community taps through a participatory process involving site selection and community maintenance;
environmental sanitation: construction and repairs of both private and public toilets, some with biogas generation; the periodic collection and disposal of solid waste;
new and appropriate technology: the introduction of smokeless hearths and simple cement cast windows, doors and roof slabs, with women trained to undertake basic repairs; simple iodine and potable water test kits to make it possible for the volunteers and other women to conduct tests in the neighbourhood;
shelter: identification of beneficiaries for programme which help the urban poor to improve the quality of their housing; thrift and credit units to improve their credit-worthiness.

The impact

In 283 towns and cities, over 65,000 women, mostly with monthly household income of around US$32 serve as volunteers, planning with project staff and sector agencies in a participatory manner. The women have organized 50,000 neighbourhood groups, 9,000 neighbourhood committees and 366 larger units at ward or city level. Many of the women say that before UBSP they were at home and could not interact with outsiders. Now, they are more confident, articulate and not afraid to make their needs and demands known both within and outside their homes. Over 100 of these volunteers contested municipal elections in 1995 and over 60 were elected to date.

Submission to the Best Practices Initiative of the Habitat II Conference

Contact addresses:
Department of Urban Employment & Poverty Alleviation
Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employment
Nirman Bhavan
New Delhi, India - 110 011

United Nations Children's Fund
73, Lodhi Estate
New Delhi, India - 110 003