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The road to everywhere

columns Updated: Feb 12, 2011 23:41 IST
Tithiya Sharma

Around the world in 54 weeks
Destination: Bangalore

Everything works like clockwork”, I was talking aloud to myself, navigating through the public transport system in Vienna, Austria.

The city seems to have put people in the heart of its development programmes. Massive infrastructure projects were underway; restoration of a historical building on one side of an arterial road and construction of an uber modern extension of its main railway station on the other.

Barely a week before my sojourn in the city, Vienna had been awarded the 2010 Scroll of Honour by UN-Habitat for urban planning. The theme for the year was ‘Better City, Better Life’.

Does a good transport system really make a city and its inhabitants more productive and peaceful? How do you invoke a sense of civic duty among citizens? How do you change the mindset of a young voter who’s convinced their vote neither matters nor will change anything? ‘The system’ is not perfect. Its flaws are deeply entrenched and guarded by the people who run it and often profit from it. But, ‘the system’ is our creation and ‘we the people’ can change it.

Swati Ramanathan says, “If you are relentless and approach it with solutions backed by scientific evidence of the flaws in the underlying structures and policies that are the building blocks of our democracy, they have no choice but to sit up and take note of what you’re saying”.

Swati Ramanathan co-founded Janaagraha, along with her husband Ramesh. The Bangalore-based organisation started as a movement to include people’s participation in public governance and has now evolved into a robust institution for Citizenship and Democracy.

The Ramanathans bring some much needed expertise, perspective and optimism to ‘the pursuit of real democracy’. Janaagraha powered successful campaigns like Jago Re — encouraging voters to register before the 2009 parliamentary elections, with over six lakh people registering from 37 cities. More recently, they launched the ‘I Paid a Bribe’ campaign, encouraging citizens to confess details of where and when they paid a bribe. The campaign brought to light the loopholes in various government institutions and the faulty procedures that make room for unscrupulous practices.

Their Area Suraksha Mitra programme aims at training members of the public in aspects of firefighting, first aid, neighbourhood security, CPR etc. It aims to build a prepared citizenry in various areas of the city to strengthen the hands of police and rescue workers in times of emergency.

Through the Ward Infrastructure & Services Assessment (WISA) programme, Janaagraha assesses the quality of life in urban areas. Rated on a scale of 0 to 10, it gives residents and municipalities an indicator on how their ward measures up to standard benchmarks set up by the government. Covering services like water supply, electricity, public health and safety, transport and environment to arrive at a rating to provides valuable information to urban planners and decision makers. Janaagraha has long advocated the institutionalisation of citizen participation with the Government of India. Their work has resulted in the inclusion of Community Participation Law as one of the mandatory reforms under the Jawahar Lal National Urban Renewal Mission. The onus now lies with State Governments to pass the law within the Mission period or 2006-2011. “People are willing and eager to participate to improve the quality of their life. There is a need to create an opportunity and a level playing field (transparent and free of corruption) for them to actively partake in every step of local governance, ensuring true empowerment of citizens”, says Swati.

Her brand of practical patriotism is the need of the hour- an educated, egalitarian vision of Indian’s future. I am excited about living in a city and a country being imagined and (re)built by citizens like Swati Ramanathan.