How Do Institutions and Infrastructure Affect Mobilization Around Public Toilets vs. piped Water? Examining Intra-slum Patterns of Collective Action in Delhi, India

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Why does a slum community mobilize differently around different public services? I use qualitative data derived from ethnographic fieldwork in four urban slum communities in Delhi, India, to examine the strategies they employ for countering everyday problems of access to water and toilets. While literature explains communities’ use of informal arrangements and political engagement to access water, what is less clear is why similar strategies do not emerge in the case of toilets. While collective action literature focuses on community-level factors such as social capital, trust, ethnic heterogeneity, and intermediary organizations, it often ignores how services interact with the slum ecology and the institutional frameworks they are embedded within. Caste, gender, religion, class, and influential slum leaders no doubt mediate everyday social relations in Indian slums, but communities that surmount these obstacles may still not be able to mobilize in a way that improves everyday service delivery. I argue that communities are able to coordinate when they think their efforts will yield success – both locally in terms of inducing reciprocity and reducing free riding as well as when they get appropriate institutional support for their initiatives. Infrastructural characteristics unique to a service determine whether reciprocity and cooperation can be sustained within the built environment of the slum. Bureaucratic complexity determines whether communities will be able to negotiate successfully. In the case of water, easy adaptability within the neighborhood and ease of bureaucratic access allow for sustained coordination within communities. The infrastructural nature of toilets makes it harder to find arrangements that will work within the slum ecology and induce cooperation. The complicated institutional dynamics create obstacles on top of that deter sustained mobilization. What communities experience instead is a sporadic pattern of collective action around poorly functioning public toilets.


World Development




Political Science