A Brighter Future for Agra’s Slums
[16 October 2012] -- “Having a home toilet was considered a luxury that only the wealthy could afford,” says Meera Devi, who lives in a one-room, mud-brick house in an informal settlement in Agra, India, within view of the Taj Mahal. So Meera would rise before dawn each day and walk half a mile to a vegetable patch. Looking out for leering men and piles of faeces, she would find a spot to crouch and defecate.
Meera’s story is familiar to the nearly one-fourth of Agra’s 1.6 million residents who lack access to toilets. They must endure embarrassment, illnesses and lost productivity that perpetuate their poverty and stymie the region’s development. Mounds of untreated human sewage also foul the environment. Such conditions have been exacerbated by the city’s rapid but chaotic expansion, and have the potential to cripple its valuable tourism industry.
That is now starting to change, thanks to a grant from the Cities Alliance, plus additional funding from one of its members, USAID, and implementation support from the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE).
Meera Devi, resident of the Kuchpura neighbourhood of Agra.
This support has enabled Agra to prepare an inclusive city development strategy (CDS), based on hard data on the informal settlements, and to launch two pilot projects—the Mughal Heritage Walk and a partial upgrading of the Kuchpura settlement, where Meera lives. The city then developed an inclusive, citywide slum upgrading plan—the first of its kind in India. It marked a notable departure from the conventional project-based resettlement approach, and it predated the national slum upgrading programme, Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY).
While funds are still being sought to implement the comprehensive plan, the first endeavours are already bearing fruit: The state government is expanding or replicating the pilot projects, and slums have become a key component of the development agenda. The Cities Alliance grant has thus already triggered $22 million of additional investments.
Building on the early successes
The Mughal Heritage Walk involves trained local youths guiding about 500 tourists a year among the lesser-known monuments in and around Kuchpura. The tourists are also shown traditional practices and can purchase specially designed souvenirs. The income is split among tour guides (who earn nearly double the official minimum wage), residents who provide other services, and a community development fund.
“After seeing my toilet, all others in my street wanted a home toilet too. They do not wait for government subsidies as before, but willingly spend their own money. … The place is beginning to look so much cleaner.” -- Meera Devi
Due to the walk’s success, a similar tour is now being designed in the old town area surrounding the Taj Mahal; the city is also planning to spend US$4 million for physical improvements to roads, drains and other infrastructure components along the tour route.
The second pilot programme improved Kuchpura’s sanitation by building toilets for Meera and other residents, paving streets, and improving drains. As a result, today Meera only needs to walk a few steps to her own latrine. She acquired it with a loan that she repaid with income from a new job promoting hygiene and sanitation to other residents.
The effects are much more than cosmetic. “Having a toilet has changed everyone’s lives,” Meera says, “but especially for women.” She no longer worries about her eldest daughter suffering the same indignities and infections she herself endured. “All three of my children are studying. My eldest daughter is taking computer, accounting, and English classes and says she will become better than me.”
A Community-Driven Approach
A key element of Agra’s slum upgrading plan is that Meera and her neighbors were included in the process. For example, city engineers went on site visits and participated in community discussions. This has led to more localised—and more effective—solutions that take into account such factors as a slum’s geography, trunk infrastructure, and household vulnerabilities.
“This is the first time I have seen a development project engaging people through discussions, resource maps and various other techniques,” says Agra council member Siromani Singha. “It has led people to have an ownership of their problems and also their solutions.”
For example, planners helped residents decide how to resolve the problem of having no access to clean drinking water, except through expensive tanker deliveries. They chose to seek assistance from the private sector to improve the highly unsanitary waste-water drain abutting their settlement. The new Decentralised Waste Water Treatment (DEWAT) system treats sewage in a bio-remedial, gravity-based, energy-free manner and recycles it for agriculture and housing construction.
The DEWAT has become an icon as well as a viable strategy for inclusive development. The state’s tourism department is planning to invest $4.3 million to build three DEWATs to improve the much larger Taj East Drain, while ensuring toilets for nearly 4,000 nearby houses and intercepting and diverting their sewage. A doorstep waste collection system is also being implemented.
Such successes have convinced officials that outreach to slum households is integral to the city’s development and should be allotted adequate state resources (US$14.1 million has been set aside to expand services to slums). Urban bodies have also begun involving community groups in planning, in recognition of their important role in sustainable change. Moreover, Agra is taking the lead in spreading these approaches to other states.