The state’s initiatives provide a blueprint for sensitivity towards and inclusion of marginalised communities
G Mathi Vathanan | December 8, 2020
There are two parallel narratives to India’s growth story. While one is steering towards achieving rapid economic growth, aiming for the $5 trillion economy, the other, in stark contrast, is marred with pervasive gender inequalities, wherein deep cultural biases deny women and other minority groups such as transgenders equal opportunity to participate in the social, political and economic spheres of the country.
Achieving gender sensitive social inclusion is the key to sustainable and equitable development. Women and transgenders can act as active catalysts to drive sustainable development. Recognising inclusive societies and attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as closely entwined issues, The government of Odisha is actively working towards finding solutions to make women and transgenders equal participants in the growth process. One of the strategic steps in this direction has been the state’s efforts to involve them in urban governance initiatives in a big way. This approach and the state’s experience in their recent initiatives hold critical lessons on effective integration of women and transgenders in various service delivery processes to enhance their social as well as economic status, as well as in mainstreaming of these marginalised communities.
One of the exemplary moves of the state has been to mobilise women and transgender self-help groups (SHGs) for management of its WASH infrastructure facilities and services. This community-based approach to manage the state’s WASH initiatives is a significant push to give marginalised communities a huge recognition in the society. Moreover, engagement of the women and transgender groups has resulted in enhanced community ownership making the initiatives sustainable in the longer run. More than six lakh women SHGs are now functional across Odisha under the Mission Shakti programme and are engaged in various income generating activities.
In a recent effort, the Odisha government transferred the operation and maintenance (O&M) of septage treatment plants (SeTPs) to SHGs run by women and transgenders in eight out of 10 cities having such facilities with each SHG earning nearly Rs 1.2 lakh per month. This model offers women and other vulnerable communities with alternative livelihood options, as well as a platform for exploring further growth opportunities. SHG members engaged are compensated for the human resource deployed at the SeTPs and are ensured periodic health checkups.
What is particularly noteworthy about this initiative is the necessary handholding and mentoring support for the SHGs by the urban local bodies (ULBs) and other state agencies to build their capacities, skillsets and confidence. In the city of Cuttack, for example, the Bahuchara Mata SHG of transgenders is now managing the treatment plant, which earlier was typically managed by male technical resources. They were trained extensively on the operations and are now proud managers of the facility. Encouraged by this intervention, the state is engaging SHGs across the faecal sludge value chain. Some of the SHGs are now looking after the O&M of over 150 community toilets (CTs) and public toilets (PTs) earning more than Rs 1,500 per seat; IEC and data collection for insanitary toilets, desludging practices, mechanised desludging; construction of toilets in select ULBs.
The state of Odisha has also made a paradigm shift in implementing decentralised community-centric solid waste management (SWM) system with women and transgender groups anchoring the various activities in the SWM value chain. The Swachcha Sathis engaged from these groups are responsible for bringing about behavioural changes to ensure household level source segregation which is vital to this decentralised model. In addition, they along with sanitation workers play a critical role in transferring the segregated wastes to the micro composting centre (MCC) and material recovery facilities (MRFs) in the city and also in marketing the compost. Over a period of time, around 11,660 SHG members will be managing all MCCs/MRFs in the state leading to employment generation of 42.5 lakh women days and generating wages worth Rs 145 crore annually.
Going beyond sanitation, women SHGs in Odisha are also given the opportunity to manage pipe water distribution and consumer management in the ULBs. These Jalasathis are responsible for field testing of water quality, facilitating new water connections, regularising unauthorised connections, meter reading, bill generation, user fee collection using hand-held POS devices and facilitating complaints redressal. The Jalasathis are paid incentives linked to performance. This is already implemented in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Puri, Khurda and Jatni ULBs and is being rolled out in other cities. About 5,000 women Jalasathis are to be engaged in this programme eventually as part of the state’s ambitious mission to provide pipe water connections to every urban household by March 2022.
In addition, the state has roped in SHGs for Aahaar – the government-run subsidised meal programme for the urban poor. Around 150 SHGs have been partnered with for managing Aahaar Kendras and each SHG member earns more than Rs. 8,000 per month through this partnership. Besides, these women led collectives have also been leading the fight against the COVID pandemic that was very effectively managed in Odisha. They have been at the forefront of managing quarantine and COVID care centres in the state, doing intensive survey of households, providing dry rations to isolation homes, preparing masks and sanitisers, disseminating information on safety protocols etc.
In yet another unique initiative, the state has come up with an urban wage employment initiative called UWEI to provide wage employment opportunities to the unorganised, informal and migrant workers in the wake of lockdown and slowdown in the economic activities. In this initiative also, the state has consciously stitched the partnership with the community based institutions such as women SHGs and slum dwellers associations (SDA) to play the role of implementing agencies for execution of small works up to Rs 2 lakh per project and to function as implementing partner for high-value projects for which the groups are paid supervision charges.
While these are all of initiatives are being taken by the state to involve women SHGs and transgenders as partners to manage Odisha’s urban governance, we are also mindful of the challenges that need to be overcome. Regular and timely payments to the members of these SHGs, having gender-friendly contracts, professionalising the urban services provided by women SHGs, and ensuring their capacity building and providing them with mentors, sensitising various functionaries (government officials, elected representatives and other stakeholders) to deal with them empathetically in a supportive manner, creating an enabling ecosystem that provides a gender sensitive ambience at the work places – these are all areas that need to be focused upon.
Clearly, the value that these groups can add to governance activities knows no bounds. That said, participatory urban governance works as an effective entry point to drive the narrative of gender equality and empowerment of marginalised groups. The state of Odisha is a shining example of this approach. Its pioneering efforts towards inclusion of marginal communities in urban governance programmes is a blueprint for other states to adopt a vision for gender equal societies – a prerequisite to sustainable development and inclusive growth.
G Mathi Vathanan is Principal Secretary, Housing & Urban Development Department, Government of Odisha
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