Working to scale up innovation

Sheela Patel

The municipality of Mumbai and the state government of Maharashtra may have been ‘the enemy’ for Mumbai’s pavement dwellers, but they were also crucial to solving their problems of homelessness and insecurity. Before the poor and their leaders could engage these government bodies in dialogue, however, they had to develop a clear consensus about their own priorities and negotiating position.

This was one of the lessons learned by SPARC[1] in its partnership with two people’s organizations, Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). Another lesson – which runs counter to one of development’s most cherished beliefs – is that, in scaling up a solution, NGOs can sometimes be a bottleneck, not an aid.

In 1984, when we founded SPARC, we wanted to create an organization that would participate in making development work for the poor in a way that also ensured their central participation in the process of change. We began to work with the pavement dwellers in Byculla in the city of Mumbai, and within two years we were in a partnership with Mahila Milan and the NSDF (the Alliance). The foundation stone of this partnership was poor communities’ understanding of the political and other reasons why they never get secure tenure in the city and, as a result, neither home nor secure neighbourhoods.

As I write this, we are in dialogue with the municipality of Mumbai, the Government of Maharashtra, and various bilateral and multilateral institutions that want to ensure the relocation of Mumbai’s 23,000 households of pavement dwellers as part of a decade-long ‘makeover’, worth millions of dollars, of the city which is India’s financial capital. We can claim that the kick-starting of this strategy is our contribution. It is also a good to time to reflect on how and why it has happened.

Pavement dwellers and the Alliance worked for 20 years, from 1984 to 2004, to ensure that pavement dwellers were relocated; the relocation plan was finalized in 2004-05. While this strategy was being designed and negotiated with government, over 18,000 households who lived along the railway track in Mumbai were relocated, using the strategy they had developed as part of a large Mumbai Urban Transport Project. Since that project worked at scale, 32,000 households (other than pavement dwellers) that would otherwise have been evicted as part of road-widening schemes are now planning their relocation with the Alliance and the state government. Many cities in India and other countries are visiting Mumbai to see how the federations of communities and households, in partnership with the state authorities, have produced this win-win strategy which ensures people get a secure environment and the city increases its infrastructure investment.

Key lessons learned

Although the state, ie the municipality and the state government of Maharashtra, was ‘the enemy’ that sanctioned the demolition of these people’s homes, they also held the key to the solution of this crisis. Among many other revelations about seeking to produce change for the poorest and marginalized groups in the city, this was the one that stood out. We also realized that conquering the anger and hate and starting to seek a working partnership requires a strong and pragmatic attitude.

Creating a mechanism that allows the poor and their leaders to interact with the government and its varied institutions was crucial. However, that was only possible once the federated communities and households had developed a consensus about setting priorities, identifying the non-negotiable elements of the strategy to be presented to the state – and, most important, presenting a way forward for the poor and the city to work together to produce change. This was a lesson for us professionals. We were locked in a paradigm where the poor made demands on the state. The community federations forced us to rethink this, insisting that the main focus should be on demanding policy change, access of the poor to land and resources, and allowing the communities of the poor to manage the delivery of the ‘project’ outcomes.

Communities need access to finances and advocacy spaces during the project to ensure that the project is not destroyed through dependency on the state for all resources. NGOs and community-based organizations always fear cooption by the state. This is often the most crucial stage of the partnership. If the systems and mechanisms to produce change are not transformed, conflict over processes continues to occur. If NGOs and CBOs don’t have the financial resources and the social and political clout to disagree and seek renegotiations, all gains made at policy levels can be lost. The Alliance has always ensured that it is not dependent on financial assistance from the state to sustain its core activities.

It is vital to ensure that a solution designed for several thousands of households does not become derailed in implementation, and has gradual, demonstrated steps. Often a terrific solution conceptually is a disaster in execution. Federations find cascading scale from small, modest numbers to increasing numbers a useful strategy. It also helps produce rituals of management, and clarifies roles and functions and locations for arbitration about conflicts. As far as conflicts are concerned, we found the challenge was to create a mechanism that identified potential or actual problem areas, and to build networks of people who initially resolved the conflict or problem and scaled the solution.

The role of NGOs in the constantly changing relationship between the communities and state institutions cannot simply be ‘assumed’. The popular development conception has been to move from state delivery to NGO delivery. At least in our experience, however, the NGO is a bottleneck and rarely able to scale beyond a certain point. Instead, we found that activities initially undertaken or facilitated by an NGO could be transferred to the community federation leadership (we found that only organized communities manage the long-term implications of the development activities where change has to be sustained long after the project is over). This is done through two vital mechanisms. The first is the locating of champions in the process from all the key agencies delivering solutions. Once the state agencies see federation leaders are deliverers of vital solutions, they move from seeing communities as passive beneficiaries to seeing them as active changemakers and realize they have to actively engage them. The second is sustaining a workable strategy through changing leadership within the state and other institutions.

A solution designed for any one group is adaptable and, in modified form, can be used by other groups in similar conditions and community leaderships’ championship of the process is reinforced. Robust strategies are crucial for scaling. It is vital that others seeking to explore similar solutions and bringing issues and concerns of adaptation are linked to the process as it develops. At the same time, their interest in adapting the strategy reassures its original developers that the solution is moving in the right direction.

1 Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres. The NGO SPARC and its partners in Mumbai, the National Slum Dwellers Federation and the women’s collective, Mahila Milan, are together known as the Alliance.

Sheela Patel is Director of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC). She can be contacted at


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