VBJ Chelikani Rao aspires to a world that is humane and of high quality. An urbanised society and a ‘flat culture’ can initiate such an idyllic world.

When a person in his Seventies returns to India after living in Europe for decades, one would imagine he’d choose to live in a spacious villa, far away from the hustle and bustle of apartment complexes spread across the city.

Not so with V.B.J. Chelikani Rao — he not only lives in a flat in a middle class locality in Hyderabad, but celebrates the ‘flat culture’ by working to integrate Resident Associations across the state, and encouraging them to live in a real ‘community’ setting.

“Flats have the potential of creating a healthy culture of sharing and caring unlike bungalows and villas that certainly give you space and privacy, but alienate you from your neighbours,” say Chelikani Rao.

Rao is currently working on integrating Resident Associations across the state as he prepares for the National Conference of Resident Welfare Associations (NCRWA) at Hyderabad.

Philosophy comes easy for VB Jagannadha Rao Chelikani who is driven by a quest for an elusive culture that rises above divisions created by a feudalistic setup he grew up in. Petty passions, divides of caste and economic disparity and narrow feudal hierarchies — these were normal for any young man in India in the 60s, especially in rural Pithapuram, Andhra Pradesh. Armed with humanities and law degrees from Andhra University and Osmania University, Chelikani Rao set out to study in Paris, France and thereby discover the world.

His tryst with Paris that began in 1967 with a course in constitutional law from Sorbonne and a Ph.D in International Relations and Diplomacy, went on till 1997 when he chose to return to India. A long association with UNESCO, Paris for 35 years as an official of various NGOs honed his skills in social engineering experiments. “Since UNESCO is an international organisation, I had a wonderful exposure to social realities across the world — Europe, Americas, Africa and Asia — and the diverse challenges faced. Besides meeting interesting people, I also learnt a lot about development, institutions and more importantly about myself.

Europeans excel in educating you in your own context, and I was trying to become a global citizen, so measuring myself (as an Indian) against them was a challenge that spurred me on,” he reveals.

Connecting his past with his present work with Resident Associations is easier when you realise that he believes transforming institutions is the key to social engineering in India. “We have enough political democracy and we can’t improve upon it, now we need an equivalent socio-economic democracy to facilitate inclusive growth. We are too steeped in medieval thinking which excludes people from each other; it prevents people from having a better quality of life.”

‘Better quality’ is a mantra that excites Chelikani Rao. If an apolitical Election Watch he works with addresses political environment, he made efforts to improve the life of active senior citizens through the AP Federation of Senior Citizens Organisations. He the now Chairman of the Board and Managing Trustee of the International Foundation for Human Development (IFHD), a voluntary non-profit organisation working for promoting a holistic approach to human development in all its dimensions.

Flats offer an opportunity to create new micro-communities. This resident of Balaji Residency in middle-class Tarnaka says, “Flats have the potential to foster inclusive growth as they can create new micro-communities in an urban setting. The very concept of having you own residential unit to live in and also have common areas in the basement, corridors and elevators imbibes a ‘care and share’ culture.

Contrast this with a bungalow or an independent house, where you own property exclusively. In flats, common problems unite people and if a ‘micro-community’ culture is introduced, it can make an immense difference. Residents who create a community that is focussed on development and solving common problems will definitely foster a positive, development-oriented society. We have tried this successfully in our Balaji Residency; we have residents of different communities and faiths in 23 flats. Yet we have found common ground in our lives, we celebrate festivals together and share our personal and professional concerns. If one of us has a professional problem, someone from the 23 homes will suggest a solution, if someone is sick and alone, one of the other residents will accompany them to the doctor or buy medicines. That kind of unity and caring doesn’t come easy, we have to build it.”

Don’t these cultural aspects more naturally in a rural milieu? Aren’t pressures of urban life and double income families a hindrance to creating a caring society?

Chelikani Rao is quick to disagree. “We tend to romanticise our villages, but tell me do we really have a wonderful life there? The farmer who grows our paddy and vegetables has no interest in growing a beautiful garden in his yard; he takes no interest at all in flowers, birds or finer cultural aspects like music or art. He lives and works with nature but doesn’t love it. He is interested only in survival and livelihood. Rural life is fraught with caste and economic divisions, squalor and poor quality of life. It is in cities that one sees better inclusive life and development. If urban facilities are made available in villages, life there would be far better for villagers. Urbanisation of rural life is the answer to social inequalities. ”

Rao adds, “Migration from villages and overcrowding of cities would reduce if rural life were to improve. Europe is completely urbanised; there you find artists, painters and the affluent living and working in rural areas. The artist comes to the city to exhibit his works. But that is their context and we have ours in India. But I think learning to live without divisions begins in the urban setting, not in rural areas. That’s why we must work towards a world where the ‘flat culture’ surrounds you.”

Chelikani Rao is currently working on integrating Resident Associations across the State as he prepares to host the NCRWA at Hyderabad later this month.