Gloom and the glamour town

Stereotyping and labelling of things and process is a practice of comfort: it gives the mind the luxury of having little to exercise itself over. This is more evident in the way people normally talk of the urban poor in negative terms. But Vandana Desai veers away from that practice and focuses on two key issues: first, the impact of community mobilisation on upgradation of slums; and the extent of the residents' participation, and how this affects the likelihood of servicing.

The study provides an insight into the problems which are paralysing the efforts of community participation among slum dwellers, and seeks to discover whether state and community involvement can be harmonised, or whether the two approaches are antithetical.

The case studies reveal that the urban poor are increasingly restricted in their access to local resources necessary for slum rehabilitation or upgradation. Despite not being socially, culturally or politically marginal, they are rejected, stigmatised and repressed.

The state response to community participation has, at the least, been manipulative, the most glaring example being the linking of local community activities with the local ruling party. Slum movement has often been supported by governments to gain political support and contain urban discontent and conflict.

The crucial finding of the study is that the formal existence of representative institutions does not automatically ensure the slum residents' participation in the process of taking decisions which affect their lives. Political knowledge and local influence is concentrated in the hands of community leaders. It is they who play leading and representative roles on behalf of an entire slum community. They also use the social control system to make the slum community accept their decisions.

Where community organisation did, in practice, affect the local community, it operated in such a way as to enhance the participation of the local elite in decisionmaking and access to local production resources, while excluding the poor with a vengeance.

One of the costliest mistakes made in self-help programmes is the attempt to undertake them with essentially the same staff as would deal with conventional housing projects. Self-help programmes need differently oriented personnel to deal with their social content. This is a landmark study for those involved in community participation and social scientists.