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The rise and rise of civic activism in Bengaluru

The growth and deepening of democratic roots in the country can be traced to the passing of the 73rd and the 74th amendments to the Constitution which empowered citizens — both in the urban and rural areas — in matters of governance.

It became the enabling provision for the transformation of a representative form of democracy to that of a participatory style, and ensured the objective of keeping elected representatives alive to the needs and aspirations of the community.

It gave a fillip to civic activism in the form of the formation of resident welfare associations (RWA) at the ward level, and other specific interest groups to interact with the authorities on a continuous basis.

To trace the birth of such movements in Bengaluru, one has to go back to 2000 when the citizens’ platform, Janaagraha, was floated by an architect–banker couple, Swathi and Ramesh Ramanathan, who resettled in Bengaluru from the U.S.

The basic objective of this platform was to provide citizens a forum to collectively interact with elected representatives and share their idea of development.

Prior to the formation of Janaagraha, there were many RWAs in various localities that were working in isolation to an extent that they were unaware of each other’s existence.

Drawing from my personal experience, it was for the first time that many of us, in the field of civic activism, met each other on Janaagraha.

We began meeting on a common platform interacting with civic officials and putting across our vision of development of various localities and the city as a whole.

One of the significant achievements of this movement was the acceptance, by the then Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP), to place before the citizens a quarterly report on the programme of works on a ward-wise basis and to seek feedback and further inputs from the citizens.

This document was called Arthika Darpana, and was a financial mirror of the ward-level activities, especially its finances. It was for the first time in the country that a civic agency was openly placing before its citizens a detailed report of all its activities. It led to transparency and accountability through a structured citizens’ participation and paved the way for the implicit acceptance of the idea of participation.

Lower down from the city-level, the RWAs from Padmanabhanagar area, which was then the largest and the most backward ward in the city, decided to form a federation of 42 RWAs to represent citizens.

In solidarity: A file photo of protesters opposing the construction of the steel flyover between Hebbal and Basaveshwara Circle during a campaign initiated by Citizens Against Steel Flyover.

In solidarity: A file photo of protesters opposing the construction of the steel flyover between Hebbal and Basaveshwara Circle during a campaign initiated by Citizens Against Steel Flyover.   | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

In fact, the BMP in its annual report mentioned this as a pioneering effort and recognised it as the first of its kind in India.

The efforts in making Padmanabhanagar a well-developed ward in Bengaluru is well known.

We surveyed the entire area of more than 12 sq. km and documented the status of civic amenities. The findings became the standard source of data even for the BMP. Similarly, many such federations, notably in Pillanna Garden Layout in the East, associations in the North East, and Sanjaynagar ward in the North were formed.

Birth of new forums

Many of us who were part of the Janaagraha movement broke away from the organisation and formed the Citizens’ Action Forum (CAF).

The reason was the difference in opinion as to what form the growth in civic activism should take. There were many who felt that ultimately, civic groups should try to get a share in the political power as a logical growth path. To achieve anything significant, this was inevitable.

The promoters of Janaagraha were against this and hence many of us parted ways with it.

One of the important achievements of civic activism in Bengaluru is the practice of bringing all contesting candidates in a constituency on a common public platform for an interaction. This was started in 2008-09 during the Lok Sabha elections. CAF, along with many organisations like CIVIC and federations and RWAs, held such interactive meetings all across the city. Today, it has become a standard practice during election time.

CAF, again along with many like-minded organisations, started a movement against the practice of blindly increasing property taxes once in five years without tackling the equally important issues like the efficiency of tax collection.

We created a city-wide concerted movement to raise the level of public awareness and make the political class also aware of the issue. It was done through a series of public workshops and seminars where we ensured the participation of politicians and the bureaucrats. We enlisted the support of organisations like FKCCI and made it a very inclusive movement.

Finally, in an overflowing public meeting at Ravindra Kalakshetra, the then Minister thought it wise to withdraw an order increasing property taxes. It was a triumph of civic activism. CAF has taken similar action with respect to Akrama-Sakrama, preservation of lakes in Bengaluru, etc. We take pride in the fact that it was CAF that highlighted the importance of interlinking of lakes in Bengaluru. Today, it has become a part of every lake activist’s demand. There were many other significant groups that were playing a similar role.

The other important movement which has caught the attention of the public and the government alike is Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB). The movement has been able to achieve success in its fight against infrastructure projects like the steel flyover, giving an impetus to the commuter rail movement, and most importantly the birth of ward committees or sabhas.

The ward sabha issue was taken to the High Court by CIVIC where they were successful in getting a favourable order. Thereafter, with the involvement of Cfb they have been able to force the BBMP to implement the order. All this is mainly due to the participation of a large number of volunteers which has made the authorities sit up and take notice. It seems to be moving along in the right direction.

All of them are doing a great job of promoting civic activism in their chosen fields of endeavour. The most important aspect is the acceptance of civic activism as a necessary part of democracy and I am glad to say that Bengaluru has been at the forefront of this movement in the country. Perhaps the only other city which is seeing a similar movement is Delhi.

But let us consider the shortcomings of the kind of civic activism that has taken root in Bengaluru. The major grouse is that the movement is oriented towards the fulfillment of middle-class aspirations, ignoring the needs of the urban poor, and hence very elitist in nature. This is true to a large extent and immediate corrective steps need to be taken to set it right by including groups representing the interests of the urban poor and arriving at a common agenda before placing it in front of the authorities. Another glaring shortcoming is the lack of proper codification of the citizens’ participation process, which allows the political class to simply ignore the suggestions. This is an area that needs the involvement of the political establishment. It has also led to the politicisation of sections of the civic movement. It needs a concerted and joint effort on the part of all civic activists.

If we address these shortcomings and remain alert to challenges ahead, civic activism in Bengaluru will become an even more powerful force.

(The author is one of the founders of Citizens Action Forum and served as its first president.)

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 6:47:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/the-rise-and-rise-of-civic-activism-in-bengaluru/article31880947.ece

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