One of the greatest challenges with the community approach can best be understood with the example of the water issue which we tried to resolve at a migrant labour community where I have been volunteering.
Without doubt, water was the biggest issue that the community explicitly mentioned and we got into action by speaking to individual homes, trying to gather the community to discuss this issue, and finally managed to get the buy in from about 20 families who were willing to participate in contributing towards solving their water issue. Because there was no water provided to these tent houses, majority of them had to walk a distance and fetch water from a public tap, often at odd hours like 3 am to avoid being harassed by other local residents who used the same tap. Around 30% of the tent houses came under a leader “Mestri” who built a tank and ensured that a water tanker provided them their required water supply at a cost. But for the remaining 70%, there was no leader and they had not yet come together as a group to make it possible to get a tanker.
In the initial stages, we had 2 main apprehensions
- Will people avail the services even if we get a water tanker, given that the people we gathered did not have an official leader or head like a Mestri
- Will people be willing to bear the cost of the water when we get a tanker (Rs. 2 per pot)?
Both these doubts were put to rest when we experimented with getting a tanker early morning, around 6 am on 2 days. As we recorded, 28 families gathered on both days. On the first day, about 152 pots of water were collected and on the second day, around 185 pots were collected (to break even we needed at least 200 pots of water to be collected). Also, people were willing to pay then and there although we did not collect the money during these two days of experimenting.
The problem that we had not anticipated was that the tanker owner complained about having to wait 1-2 hours to let people fill the pots of water, and they would’ve preferred filling the water in a community tank to save their time. This meant the community had to come together to construct a cemented tank or purchase a Sintex tank to take this initiative forward.
Meeting for community to take ownership
Following these 2 days, we deliberately gave a gap of few days to see if the community would be really interested in this initiative and come forward for it. At this point, we realised that to take it forward, involvement of the community was a must and they needed to take ownership to drive the process.
To our surprise, when we next visited the community after a gap of about a week, men and youth themselves approached us asking about the water issues. We quickly asked them to gather and for the first time, about 12-15 men gathered themselves, eager to participate and discuss water. This was a big step in itself, since we had never managed to get the men together and previous meetings that did happen, happened mainly with women who connected with us better due to the health initiatives.
The discussions proceeded well with older men taking initiative and saying that they will bring together 30 households and each family will pool in money to build/buy the community tank, from which only those who paid would have access to the water. One of the elderly men, the hotel owner, even offered to pay a higher amount (upto Rs.500) from his end to build the tank if we ran short of money from other families. The only remaining aspect now was for 1 or 2 members of the community to take leadership roles on behalf of the others to drive this.
In order to let the community take responsibility for the decision of selecting their leader, we walked out for 10 minutes to give them time to think and arrive at a decision. It was at this point that the person from the community (Mr. Eerappa) employed by the other NGOs working in the same community entered the meeting and tried to steer things in a different direction. He started putting thoughts of a paid worker taking charge of this initiative into people’s minds and got the rest of the community to elect him to be that leader.
Why water needs to be a community initiative
At this point, it is important to understand the reasons for which we wished the water initiative to be fully community led and owned (nobody is paid to drive this), rather than an entrepreneurship model with one person getting paid to provide water to others.
Water is a basic necessity and one without which people cannot survive. With all the environmental changes happening around us, talks of water scarcity being the next big problem is not fiction. The next war might as well be for water. Given these circumstances, we need to think on a long term basis and question what will happen if there is a water crisis tomorrow in Thuburhalli. By creating an individual driven, paid model of providing water, are we not likely to be transferring power of exploitation to an individual who can decide and charge whatever comes to his mind, if and when there is a crisis? Since water is going to be everybody’s problem, isn’t it necessary that we bring people together to think and act for each other, keeping in mind a future where not all will get enough water even if they fought for it?
These thoughts were conveyed to the community during the meeting, but every time a quiet voice of a youngster or another person rose in understanding of such a thinking, Mr. Eerappa was quick and loud in dismissing it, and stating that unless we took responsibility to pay someone to drive it, they will not come together for resolving their water issue. It is both sad and funny that the community thought they can point this at us, assuming that we (as most other NGOs) stand to gain something by helping them solve their water issue. After all, they have repeatedly seen how NGOs use short-cuts, often consisting of monetary incentives, to finish the work and publish reports, with little thought of the repercussions of their methodology. And it is but natural that the community thought the same of our initiative and intentions.
It is extremely unfortunate that NGOs, government and society together have made people think only in terms of material gains, even for basic necessities such as water. So much so that they refuse to come together even for their own good, unless an external entity pays them for it. This could be one major reason that prevents them from being empowered – they do not act, even for their own good, unless someone pays them for it.
This is the primary reason why the community approach will be difficult, if not impossible. We first need to undo the damage created by existing systems, before we bring people together to help themselves and each other to become independent.