by Sneha Kuriakose

Past exercises in city planning are shown to have resulted in exclusionary urbanization. The worst affected has been the urban poor, whose unequal footing in the city not only makes them susceptible to displacements but also leave their basic needs unaddressed. This heralded the need for participatory planning to address complex urban issues. And lately, a paradigm shift is being witnessed from one of tokenism to that of a citizen-centred collaborative approach between the government and the people, for building practical solutions to development projects. The CITIIS project under the Smart City Mission has turned out to be a vital and positive step in this direction.

In Amaravati, where I currently work, a world-class city with smart infrastructure was being envisioned under the previous regime. Within the vast expanse of this greenfield city, interspersed are pockets of villages lacking basic infrastructural facilities. The village residents who largely belong to socio-economically backward communities saw their livelihoods transform overnight from agriculture to service sector jobs with the capital city announcement.  In the pursuit to develop an iconic city, they could not be left behind.

Consequently, when Amaravati applied for the CITIIS grant under the theme, 'Social Organization and Innovation in Low-Income Settlements,' the objective was to take the city's first residents along with the development process through up-gradation of facilities in the villages.  A needs analysis exercise demonstrated that their demands were simple – access to better health and education facilities, provision of a proper solid waste management system, provision of proper burial facilities and access to quality skill training.  As a result, six project sub-components were proposed, including developing Model Anganwadi Centres.

One of the unique aspects of the CITIIS project is its maturation phase. Unlike conventional projects, the 9-month maturation phase is set aside to prevent rushing into implementation while allowing the project to evolve through multiple processes. Besides, the processes are guided by the core CITIIS values – sustainability, innovation and integration, participatory approaches, relevance and feasibility.

Amaravati, with its on-ground team of village facilitators and component leads, conducted over 350 stakeholder consultations to understand the community's basic needs and aspirations. For a project as simple as an anganwadi centre, there were several takeaways from these interactions to inform our design and policy interventions. The community wanted better infrastructural facilities, play area, review and monitoring systems, separate dining spaces and crèche facility. Perception surveys and activity mapping were carried out to understand how the beneficiaries perceived their anganwadi, what spaces they envisioned and what materials they wanted them to be built with. Additionally, interactions with respective government departments brought to light administrative bottlenecks faced on the ground.

An important observation in the interactions was that the menfolk, who although happened to be at the forefront of discussions were oblivious to the gamut of services provided at the centres. Pre-school education was not given adequate attention, largely because of the lack of a supportive supervision mechanism. As anganwadi workers were not trained in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), they were unaware of age-appropriate activities and the developmental milestones achieved as a result. However, it was found that workers are enthusiastic to learn and if empowered, would be able to conduct classroom transactions more effectively.

The Amaravati SPV, comprising of social scientists, architects, planners and engineers collaborated as a team to devise solutions. Interventions were arrived at after careful examination of sites, stakeholder needs, inputs of mentors and domain experts, best practices and national policies. The project identified three synergies for developing an innovative and self-sustaining model – infrastructure development, services improvement and community engagement.

Therefore, the anganwadi centres in Amaravati have been designed as model community facilities that include several inclusive and sustainable features in its operation, choice of materials and technology. BaLA elements are incorporated into the built infrastructure to create a learning space that is fun and child engaging.  Besides, provision has been made for sensory garden, planter zones, clay and sandpits to facilitate holistic child development. Separate toilets and ramp access have been provided for children with special needs.  A crèche facility to enable working mothers to attend to regular work has been considered. A Nutri-kiosk and multi-purpose hall for hosting social gatherings would serve as revenue generation sources to cover additional O&M costs. The project has further considered aspects of durability, cost-effectiveness and energy efficiency. Owing to the limitations in improving services at the anganwadi, training and awareness programs for anganwadi workers and community have also been planned.

Despite the pandemic situation, Amaravati through the use of digital technology conducted user feedback surveys to obtain stakeholders’ views on the developed designs. The service providers and community members welcomed the designs with approval and suggestions. A crucial input received from one such survey was the provision for fire safety equipment.  

The consultative participatory planning processes are still ongoing at Amaravati. As the project is nearing the stage of execution, the takeaways so far have been immense and enriching. The villagers are excited every time we go back to them, pushing us on to commence construction soon so that their children can attend the anganwadis.  For the villagers who cannot afford the hefty fees at private pre-schools, it is a dream waiting to come true.

Making stakeholders co-participants in the decision-making process is the key to building sustainable and inclusive cities. Because the more people feel responsible for the betterment of the city, in this case, the villages within a city, the more dutiful and compassionate they will become for it. The CITIIS project in Amaravati has undoubtedly become a visible testimony to this fact.

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