Small change, big city

The New Indian Express

25th Nov 2013

By Saritha Rai

The idea that ordinarily apathetic citizens can rally around to fix urban problems is gaining traction

A citizens' movement called Whitefield Rising has been building up in the Bangalore neighbourhood of Whitefield, a suburb known for the vast office complexes of a host of Indian and multinational technology firms but also, more recently, for sprawling gated communities and shiny residential high-rises. The group germinated as a residents' initiative to make the streets more livable. But within months of its inception, it has built up enough momentum to adopt a larger canvas.

Those leading the movement say it is organic, with no formal agenda, structure or goals. Their stated philosophy is: work of your own free will and at your own pace. On the other hand, the impetus so far has been the passion of the participants who are getting started on small projects. Whitefield Rising has enlisted some 10,000 residents over a few months, mainly by networking through social media.

In another locality, a group of citizens calling themselves the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust have set out to revive one of Bangalore's numerous dying lakes. Citizens of the Malleswaram area in old Bangalore are aiming to make theirs a zero waste neighbourhood. Elsewhere, an amorphous, anonymous group called The Ugly Indian gathers silently on weekend mornings — driven entirely by emails or Facebook invitations — to "fix" what it calls "black spots" around the city, whether they are garbage dumps or defaced walls. In all these instances, social media and access to technology has been a distinct enabler in getting citizens together.

The rise of civic groups in Bangalore, far outside what is traditionally considered the domain of NGOs, is a new phenomenon. The idea that ordinarily apathetic citizens can rally around small causes to make a change is gaining steady traction. Many of the initiatives offer a platform for the interested to play a role in improving their surroundings. "Initiatives like these sensitise people to the need for engaging in civic action," said Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution, a think-tank.

Those creating a participatory platform for fellow citizens are themselves from diverse backgrounds. Nitya Ramakrishnan, one of the key figures at Whitefield Rising, describes herself as a "corporate refugee" and was an employee of the multinational Cisco until recently. "Some months ago, I started feeling a sense of frustration that there are so many things I see around me that I cannot change — roads, traffic, garbage, water shortage, stray dogs..." Then, as she confronted herself with the question, "Am I only complaining or can I do my bit?", Ramakrishnan decided to quit her job and engage full-time with Whitefield Rising three months ago. "Once there is a platform, there is no excuse," she said.

She was heartened to see the group immediately attract many with leadership skills. "There are brilliant people in the surrounding communities... successful CEOs, IIT and IIM grads, Harvard and Stanford alumni, who run massive companies. How could they not be involved in solving the problems around them?" Support grew in surrounding residential and office communities. Soon, many citizens were participating by dividing responsibilities such as waste segregation, water supply and lake rejuvenation.

In the short while since its inception, small results are becoming visible. Residential complexes in the neighbourhood have adopted waste segregation and are being audited with a star-rating system. In the nearby Ramagondanahalli village, streets are transformed and locals are guarding against their reverting to the original state. City builders constructing in the area are working with the group to reduce the impact of construction. "Whitefield Rising has all the makings of an urban grassroots people's movement," described Kiran Khanna, who works for marketing at Cisco. "It is about everybody taking charge of their own little stretch."

Civic movements have captured people's attention in a big way, and the change in Bangalore is palpable, says Suresh Nair, who drives a group called Wake the Lake, which works with local citizens to rejuvenate neighbourhood lakes in Bangalore. An IIT-Kharagpur alum who worked with multinationals like Reckitt Benckiser and healthcare BPO M-Modal, Nair quit his job some months ago to head the global charity, United Way. "Earlier, people used to blame the government for not doing its job. Now every thinking citizen knows that the government has to deal with meagre budgets and a massive population in cities like Bangalore," Nair said. "There is huge interest in trying to create solutions while working with local officials."

The average Bangalorean is encountering more and more opportunities to jump in and be part of change, said Swati Ramanathan, chairperson of the Jana Urban Space Foundation (formerly Janaagraha). Change cannot be a centrist movement, said Ramanathan, whose hyperlocal civic change platform,, empowers citizens to participate in improving the quality of life in their vicinity. "Citizens are restless, they want to be involved without turning into activists. They want to be a part of change. That is the zeitgeist of our times," said Ramanathan.


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