Role of Communities & Civil Society in Urban Planning and Development

Session Report
Nikita Bhardwaj

Urban Policy & City Planning is an online one-month online immersive certificate training course organized by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, IMPRI, New Delhi in July 2023. An informative panel discussion on the topicRole of Communities & Civil Society in Urban Planning and Developmentwas held on July 19, 2023, by Ms. Vanessa Peter, Founder, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), Chennai. 

Ms Peter shared insights on two broad topics- “Existing Challenges in Community Participation” and “Role of Activists and Civil Societies to enhance the participation of communities”

Existing Challenges in Community Participation

Ms Peter begins by stressing the need for community-led initiatives instead of just community participation. Today cities are eventually evolving for the haves and have-nots but the perspectives of the poor in policymaking are hardly heard. There is an absence of participatory, community-centric processes facilitated to highlight their issues and suggestions. She emphasized the need for community-led initiatives because the participation of vulnerable communities, who are often left out, is crucial for creating inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. She shared her experience of being part of the third master plan for Chennai when a person from the disability rights alliance put forth that the websites cannot be accessed by visually impaired persons.

She also mentioned that only a few selected civil society groups participate in policy decisions. This biased process where certain players have the advantage of having the draft even before the consultations take place and some sections do not receive it even after the consultation is a major challenge to community participation. Secondly, most of the policy documents are available on web portals and in English which makes it inaccessible to many communities. She mentioned that NGOs like the IRCDUC had to do a lot of advocacy to change the medium of information to their local language.

Class divide among the attendees of the meetings is a major impediment to community participation, for instance, the RWA from affluent sections attend the meetings whereas the vulnerable communities are often not represented. She also mentioned that NGOs might highlight community issues but this does not equate community’s own involvement. 

 She further talked about the key principles of community-led initiatives:

  • Recognition of communities and civil society groups as key stakeholders and recognising diversity and vulnerabilities
  • Specific participatory processes should be designed with community-based groups.
  • Participation of children should not be overlooked – Right to Participation to be upheld (Example: The Bala Nagara Sabhas is not recognised by Tamil Nadu State Policy for Children)
  • Participation should be Community-led in all stages of design, implementation, feedback and evaluation.

Role of Activists and Civil Societies to Enhance the Participation of Communities

Consultations are often too technical and very difficult to envision. Moreover, communities face difficulty in writing extensive feedback. NGOs play a crucial role in helping them to frame their feedback and send it to the government. Thus, it becomes imperative for NGOs to conduct parallel processes as they provide safe spaces for vulnerable communities to voice out their opinions when mainstream processes are restrictive. Such parallel processes are also a demonstration to the government on how consultative processes should be conducted for communities.

She mentioned that some of the suggestions from the communities meaningfully contribute to policy making. Citing the example of Chennai master plan consultations, she explained that people are able to map and prioritize the facilities they want in their city like hospitals, maternity care, market spaces, street lights, green spacing and rainwater harvesting but no resettlement in the slums. 

She concluded by saying that we cannot sideline people’s participation in urban planning as they also have visions and aspirations for their cities and the right to voice them. The process should not be tokenistic or just for the sake of it, but it should uphold the principles of participation to ensure that communities have social mobility. 

Dr Rumi Aijaz thanked Ms Peter for her enlightening and thought-provoking insights. He reiterated the sad reality of community participation despite the rules and laws in place. 

This was followed by a question-and-answer session which involved a discussion around the politics of representation within a community and the need to conduct parallel processes to tackle it, and steps to address the financial sustainability of community-based initiatives by setting up community resource centers which are linked within existing government schemes. Ms Peter also highlighted that the starting point of these initiatives is very crucial because when communities see the meaningful impact brought by their intervention, they take up the onus of working towards issues affecting them combined with communities gaining more confidence and better negotiation skills and thus there is no turning back. 

Nikita is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

See picture gallery from the session on Instagram: IMPRI (@impriindia) • Instagram photos and videos

Read more session reports for Urban Policy & City Planning:

An overview of Urban planning in India
Mobility and Urban Transport in India