What does the abandoned public toilet tell us?

[By Chinar Mehta]

Abandoned public toilets have become a familiar sight in India. Long power cuts and acute water shortages have rendered thousands of them unusable. While the burden of maintaining the toilets falls on the sanitation workers, the sanitation system remains institutionally disconnected from the water or electricity system. Across India, the continued challenges to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Campaign) have thrown light on these institutional failures and the socio-cultural politics of sanitation work. This keeps many of the newly constructed toilets unused. What causes this gap between the intentions behind these interventions and actual use?

Image credit: Karan Rai

One aspect that has recently been highlighted in social projects is to understand the “system change” required for interventions to work. Standing in typical project management terminology, system change is defined as “the emergence of a new pattern of organization or system structure. That pattern being the physical structure, the flows and relationships or the mindsets or paradigms of a system, it is also a pattern that results in the new goals of the system.” This pattern of relationships is essentially what can be understood to be a stakeholder analysis. As a methodology, stakeholder analysis is employed in a variety of industries and is tied to any kind of project management. It helps with understanding connections between things and identifying root causes. However, it often deems invisible the human dimension that is long fraught with cultural stigma, inequality, and precarity.

FemLab.Co stakeholder management: in pursuit of the invisible

Informal sectors such as construction, sanitation, gig, and artisanal work have a workforce that seems scattered. Thus, identifying stakeholders can be challenging. Important stakeholders are usually identified from the following domains: international actors, governmental (ministries and local governments), political (legislators), labour unions, private or for-profit organizations, non-profit organizations and in some cases, civil society organizations (CSOs). Essentially, the analysis (usually) reveals the impacts of a state policy initiative on various parties, which may be individuals, aggregates of individuals, or organizations. Proponents of stakeholder analysis argue that it enables the efficient and effective completion of a policy or a project that is most acceptable to all parties involved.

Stakeholder analysis is derived from a research paradigm that values the different experiences of stakeholders with the “same” reality. Take for instance the use of machines in sewer cleaning in India and Bangladesh. Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta, urban studies scholars, write that sewer-cleaning robots and machines have been rolled out somewhat effectively, but one of the issues the truck drivers and helpers face is that the machine parts are not locally available. So, while the health risks of workers are seemingly solved using machines, the workers face a reality not accounted for by the policymakers. In part, our research also seeks to identify and amplify stakeholders whose voices have so far not been heard.

Entering the rabbit hole

Two key challenges have to be met for a meaningful stakeholder analysis: Firstly, in India, where approximately 450 million workers are employed in the informal sector, revealing all the relevant stakeholders proves to be a monumental task that never truly concludes. The sectors that we have picked for this research have been selected on the basis of the existing structures of terms and conditions, collectivization, and the precarity faced by women workers in the sector. Moreover, some stakeholders such as middlemen who supply labour or connect workers to potential markets only appear as and when we examine the field. Making a stakeholder map, then, becomes a fraught but creative exercise. Consequently, a second challenge lies in estimating how localised we keep our analysis.

Each sector has its own unique networks of stakes, and a stakeholder analysis begins to reveal gaps in communication within these networks. Sanitation work, in which we largely focus on workers who are employed within the public infrastructure, includes cleaning and sweeping of houses, streets, roads, institutional premises, railway lines, train toilets, community and public toilets, drains and sewers. At the outset, the specific work that we are looking at consists majorly of government stakeholders at varying levels – national, state, and local. While local CSOs are crucial to understanding collectivization, advocacy efforts are also directed towards legislative policy formulation.

For instance, there are clusters of groups of domestic workers in Hyderabad locally, but many issues faced by domestic workers may only be mitigated by a central law since workers commonly cross interstate boundaries. This is even more necessary considering that employers in this sector are largely individuals and scattered across the city. On the other hand, sanitation work undertaken by local governments, while formalised to an extent, is closely linked to private manufacturers, contractors, and research institutions. But each of these entities is diverse; for instance, while the role of contractors has largely to do with supplying labour, contractors may be corporations or individuals. Depending on the unique conditions of contractual labour, CSOs channel their advocacy efforts towards the contractors. Moreover, manufacturers and research institutions have to work in close collaboration to develop and produce machines that help in sanitation work. However, the presence of only a few large-scale manufacturers and scattered local suppliers makes product differentiation and development difficult. This points to a gap in communication within the stakeholder network.

We have noted that even though we have a stakeholder map from secondary research, many of the stakeholders will only become visible as we go into the field. In the construction sector, contractors and builders are a diverse group of stakeholders. As we begin to go into the field, we see that labour contractors in this sector are mostly those who got promoted from the workers themselves, and they have strong ties with the community based on geographical and social location. Depending on these ties, the involvement of the contractors, and what they imagine to be their stake in the workers’ welfare will emerge from the field.

Pinning down emerging stakeholders

Pinning specific stakeholders when digital tools are involved needs more thought; these platforms seem centralised and de-centralised at the same time. For example, the supply chain in platformised work is largely opaque. In the platform salon work, particularly, issues faced by women workers remain highly localised depending on customer responses, but platform policies are formulated at a much higher level in the corporation. As Sai Amulya Komarraju writes,

“Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable ‘extra-legal’ mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure the quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource […], the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.”

Defining stakes then takes on the challenge of translating the language of the women workers to what can be included in the language that is actionable by developers and managers who develop the platform.

There may be many traditional and new stakeholders involved in these sectors. On one hand, there are emerging stakeholders that work in collaboration with traditional stakeholders, for instance, in the sanitation sector. When the Nagpur Municipal Corporation introduced watches with GPS to surveil sanitation workers, the workers and other activists opposed the move. What is important to note here is that NMC collaborated with a Bangalore-based IT company to use these rented watches to track the movement of all sanitation workers. The IT company, in this case, is a relevant stakeholder that, until even a few years ago, would not have been associated with this sector. On the other hand, we also find that emerging stakeholders may introduce us to view digital collectivisation as an alternative, as diffused as these stakeholders may be. For instance, Facebook groups where domestic workers across the world make a community, help them to articulate their common concerns, fostering a sense of solidarity and community. The members of such groups and the platform corporation are all stakeholders of different kinds, and the stakes would have to be defined with the end goal of collectivisation in mind.

What’s in it for me – rethinking stakeholder logics

Previous work on stakeholder mapping exercises has critiqued the reductionist approach that this methodology may seem to encourage. Traditional stakeholder analyses assume that stakeholder behaviours are only guided by rational, individualised concerns. “What’s in it for me?” the stakeholder seems to ask. Instead, the authors argue for an approach that takes into account the politics of “the history, the present, and the expectations of the future” which they collectively operationalise as “shadows of context”. Our initial experience in the field echoes this sentiment.

While direct guidelines about how to create a stakeholder map are useful, these guidelines have to be reorganized to reflect what we learn in the field. During this process of stakeholder mapping, we keep going back to the image of the abandoned toilet; remembering that interventions need to be sensitive to the “shadows of context”. These shadows are not only at the point of the result of an action research project, but needs to be a part of the project from the very start.

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