Women’s History Roundtable: Nithya Raman on urban planning for women in India


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Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Nithya Raman of Transparent Chennai addressed the Prajnya Roundtable on 14th July. Transparent Chennai was launched in October 2010 in order to collect data related to the city, and share it with the public.

The first question addressed by Raman was the importance of urban planning for women. She pointed out that with the economic growth in cities (due to the boom in the service sector), there is an ever-increasing demand for better infrastructure.

Before 2005, management of cities was in the hands of the State governments. However, in 2005, the central government intervened in this area by setting up JNNURM – the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Fifty thousand crore rupees has been earmarked for JNNURM in development funds.

With the establishment of JNNURM came the implementation of data-driven governance; the introduction of central government-mandated reforms in various areas by gathering and using more data about cities as a base line for reforms. While this is a sound approach to development, the problem lies in the execution of this program. Raman showed us that the quality of the data collected is usually poor; and though data collected by the central government is slightly better than that collected by the states, data gathered at the city level is found to be of the worst quality and extremely difficult to access.

Raman told us that in her experience, city-level data has become progressively worse since the 1970s. The records are poorly maintained, stored in less-than-optimum conditions, and not available for public access. Apart from these obvious shortcomings, Raman pointed out that all these records exclude the vast population that constitutes the urban poor.

She referred to statistics related to malaria as an example of poor record-keeping. Government statistics show that the incidence of malaria has decreased progressively. However, this data is collected by the corporation health inspectors, which means that it is collected from Primary Health Centres (PHCs) and other government hospitals. This kind of data collection overlooks the fact that only a small portion of the public actually uses these PHCs (as the quality of healthcare is quite substandard). Most people prefer to be treated at private hospitals – not all of which are registered. Many individuals even simply go to the nearest pharmacist, list out their symptoms and procure the medicine suggested by him. Thus, we can see that the government data collection ignores these informal providers of medical care. Raman estimated that 60-70% of medical establishments are unregistered. This limited approach towards data collection is reflected in the numbers: the Indian government estimates 2 million malaria cases per annum, but the WHO estimates this figure to be around 10 million per annum.

Raman then moved on to address the question of slums in Chennai. An early survey of slums in Chennai was done in 1971. The findings revealed that one-third of the population lived in slums. Acting on these findings, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) built a number of tenement houses. A second survey was conducted in 1986, and more slums were added to the list.

Shockingly, no slums have been added to the list of slums in Chennai since 1986! In fact, census officers were only allowed to enumerate the population in officially recognized slums in Chennai. This means that JNNURM funding can only be used for officially recognized slums – which are a small percentage of the slums in the city, given its rapid expansion. Hence, the housing plan by TNSCB provides housing for a meager 20% of slum dwellers.

Raman concluded that all these instances are further proof that it’s impossible to have an effective strategy for urban planning without real data. Relocation doesn’t seem to be a viable long-term solution when we only have limited data to work with.

The final point of discussion was perhaps the most important: sanitation in the city. Raman presented us with a disturbing fact: the Corporation of Chennai doesn’t maintain a register of the number and location of public toilets in the city. After filing an RTI, Transparent Chennai found that there were over 700 toilets as per the official record, but only 572 of these seem to actually exist.

Apart from the discrepancy in data; it also emerged that most public toilets are not used by women for various reasons such as lack of water supply, safety etc. In fact, people have even taken up residence in some unused toilet blocks!

The TNSCB undertook a survey of unofficial slums, and found that toilets were only built where municipal land was available. In a state where land is acquired for almost any industry; it seems absurd that the government will not or cannot acquire land to build public toilets.

Raman concluded her talk but mentioning a few possible methods of intervention to ensure safety of women in urban areas (which is always under-reported). She suggested mapping harassment in Chennai, to identify locations and times which are particularly dangerous for women; and also generating data to fill in the gaps and ensure that harassment is adequately reported in the city.


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