Civic Innovation
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how community engagement is key to fight urban sustainability challenges?

February 10, 2020

The recent rise of civic activism in India for local and national issues exposes key challenge – Citizens are unhappy & anguished. They are discovering what they care about. They are speaking up, be it online using social media platforms or by standing on the road demanding for a better city, country and world. But the big questions remain, is anyone listening to these voices? Is there any innovation in community engagement to engage with different voices?

Rising Urban Population

Urban India is transforming. The urban population in India was about 380 million in 2011 and is expected to grow by 250 million or more by 2040. For our rapidly urbanizing cities, sustainability challenges are becoming more and more visible. Managing this growth while effectively providing sustainable solutions is possible only through good governance that provides quality of life, employment, housing, sanitation, healthcare and education for all people including the vulnerable groups.

Adapted from artwork by JOANNE LIU (Twitter: allthings_hk)

Community Engagement is The Key

Community engagement is the strategic process to address issues and achieve sustainable outcomes by working with identified and impacted groups of people. Through this process, the focus of decision-making shifts from an individual to the collection such that decisions are acceptable to all, citizens and elected officials.

Involving the public in issues that matter promotes peaceful and meaningful discussions, enables informed decision-making, enhances trust in leaders, improves public perception of organizational performance, enhances the likelihood of public acceptance, and creates robust and sustainable policies and plans.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 also targets enhancing “inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management.” Community engagement is implemented and practised successfully in several countries around the world including India. Yes, including India.

The Present Conundrum

Villages in India practice engagement in some capacity in gram sabha (village assemblies)through the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) that enabled “local self-governance” in rural India. However, its urban counterpart, the 74th CAA failed to implement real change. Today, the 74th CAA is limited to Environmental Impact Assessments and Master Planning processes where the public can send recorded feedback, but not much evidence is available to support consideration of this feedback.

The current state of public involvement in India’s urban democracy is limited to inclusive voting, Ministry-level surveys, protests and rights-based initiatives, signing petitions, and social media activism. Existing practices only provide information and sometimes allow hearing of grievances. Clearly, this is one-way communication. It results in anger and distress mainly arising from sentiments associated with not being heard. With critical decisions being made without consulting the public, matters further get out of hand and turn into vandalism and other acts of rebellion.

Participatory Decision Making Is Future

What we need is a two-way community engagement strategy. Participatory decision-making is based on hearing all perspectives including those who are usually oppressed and don’t have other resources to voice their opinion. 

Consulting and involving the public at every step and considering the feedback received, brings about behavioural change that will generate collaborative outcomes, improve overall well-being, and empower the community.

IAP2-symbols of public engagement


Create Safe Space for Listening & Engagement

While it is far from realization in India given its socio-economic and political complexity, there is space for public participation beyond what is currently being done.

The key is to start small, on less controversial matters impacting smaller groups of people, while ensuring awareness around issues is built as more people start involving themselves in civic matters.

The most effective way to enable community engagement is through collaboration between leaders willing to champion the cause and planners working outside of the government to facilitate the process.

The rising interest of the public in civic issues is an opportunity to build on. Multilevel cooperation for good governance is urgently needed to provide safe spaces for listening to and engaging the public. This democratic reform by the means of community engagement will be essential for Indian cities to effectively resolve urban sustainability challenges.

As Jane Jacobs said, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

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