All over India, there are efforts inviting citizens to re-imagine belonging. To make the city their own.(HTPHOTO)
All over India, there are efforts inviting citizens to re-imagine belonging. To make the city their own.(HTPHOTO)

Stewards, not bystanders: Civil society creates new opportunity to co-design cities

Citizens now have more opportunities to take active part in building urban resilience
By Rohini Nilekani
UPDATED ON DEC 02, 2020 12:26 PM IST

This year, I have been from Bengaluru to Kabini and back several times. Every time I return from the forest and the rural countryside, my eyes and senses hit refresh, and I see my home city with a new perspective.

The overwhelming impression is of a metro undergoing a painful renewal. Masses of threatening concrete overhead, piles of rubble underneath. And through this grey canvas, dots of colour as hapless citizens weave through the traffic, without proper visibility or signposts, navigating past trucks and haulers, moody traffic signals and perplexing roundabouts.

It feels as if Bengaluru, like so many other cities in India, is testing its residents. The unfinished infrastructure is a poster promise of a better future. The city demands patience, demands faith, demands hope. The residents experience resignation, weariness, and a lasting numbness.

When I finally get home, I enter an urban version of the forest I left behind – my neighbourhood has a dense canopy of trees. Yet Bengaluru is not homogenous, and my sylvan surroundings are an anomaly now in the erstwhile garden city. It has a criss-cross of diverse identities and designs. It has layers and layers of privilege on top and tiers of disenfranchisement below. Yet, the dysfunctionality of the city creates a perverse equaliser. It brings an end to the secession of the elite. Our bubble breaks with the chaos of the traffic, the pervasive pollution and limitations on personal spaces.

But there are now new opportunities to engage with the city’s future.

All over India, there are efforts inviting citizens to re-imagine belonging. To make the city their own. The discourse has firmly shifted from whether the city should grow to how it should grow and change, and who should participate in the change-making.

Today’s technologies enable mass participation in civic design. In metropolitan areas and beyond, digital age civil society organisations (CSOs), often helmed by creative young leaders, use tech-enabled design to challenge the supremacy of the State in urban futures. Thriving Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs) and dynamic CSOs seem determined to take back their city.

For example, during the lockdown, Yugantar filed a Right to Information (RTI) petition to find the total number of slums and their population in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. This data was then shared with local NGOs to better target relief work. Haiyya, through a local campaign called Health over Stigma, helped hold service providers accountable for providing safe, non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health services, especially for unmarried women. Reap Benefit in Bengaluru has developed an open civic platform that comprises a WhatsApp chatbot, a web app and a civic forum. The chatbot guides users with simplified steps through a variety of civic challenges that are engaging and fun. If you see a pothole on the road, you can send photos, but go beyond reporting to next steps. A friendly technology helps convert agitation into action and turn bystanders into stewards.

Civis understands that technical environmental legislation can sometimes bypass civil society, even though we are all heavily impacted by environmental degradation. In March 2020, a draft notification with radical new rules was put up by the environment ministry for public consultation. Civis put up a simplified version and more people were able to directly participate in the consultation.

We must encourage these and many other samaaj-based efforts. More importantly, we must each find our own way to participate in these ventures. Democracy cannot be a spectator sport. Good governance must be co-created, not just consumed. No matter who you are, you are first a citizen. Even if you head a government department or a successful business — you remain a citizen first, a part of your community. And I believe it is only the samaaj and institutions of the samaaj that can hold the State accountable to the larger public interest of making our cities more livable for all.

Luckily, today’s new technologies allow us to participate more effectively with relative ease. I am not talking about simple clicktivism, but how a tech-enabled, societal ecosystem can distribute the ability to solve; can democratise civic engagement; and can help people co-create their city’s future.

However, there is an important caution here. We need civil society itself to get more digital in the digital age. Especially because only an engaged digital samaaj can keep tech corporations more accountable and prevent them from unleashing tools that distort the political and democratic process or reduce individual and collective agency. Urban movements are critical for this cause.

The pandemic has forced us to speed up our thinking on what cities should look like in the future. Citizens now have more opportunities to take active part in building urban resilience. Young leaders are creating more options for empowered citizens to co-create more humane environments. When we return to the city from the forest, we should feel a buzz, not a burn.

Rohini Nilekani is chairperson, Arghyam. The piece is adapted from a keynote address for an E-Gov Foundation webinar

The views expressed are personal

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
app
Close
While social media has the ability to democratise politics, it can also silence voices. This is troubling (AFP)
While social media has the ability to democratise politics, it can also silence voices. This is troubling (AFP)

The democratic dilemma posed by social media

By Manjari Chatterjee Miller
UPDATED ON JAN 22, 2021 06:20 AM IST
The banning of Trump and others from Twitter and Facebook, and the shutdown of Parler made clear that the power to silence voices, whether of the one or of millions, lies with just three men on the planet – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No wonder defending democracy will be a huge and unenviable task for President Biden’s team.
Close
The Supreme Court, in 2019, acknowledged that internet access is integral to the right to freedom of speech and expression while adding that any restriction on internet access must pass the test of proportionality, and suggested the evolution of a rules-based mechanism to govern the internet. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
The Supreme Court, in 2019, acknowledged that internet access is integral to the right to freedom of speech and expression while adding that any restriction on internet access must pass the test of proportionality, and suggested the evolution of a rules-based mechanism to govern the internet. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Putting the consumer at the centre of Digital India

By Lloyd Mathias
UPDATED ON JAN 22, 2021 06:21 AM IST
One way to empower consumers is by creating mechanisms to ensure inter-operability, by making it easier to switch services from one platform to another. In telecom, interoperability is implemented. However, in the internet space, and more prominently in the app space, consumers do not have this choice.
Close
Project finance economies have different imperatives from working capital economies. They need investment to fill the gaps in their infrastructure and lack the resources to do so (Pratik Chorge/HT PHOTO)
Project finance economies have different imperatives from working capital economies. They need investment to fill the gaps in their infrastructure and lack the resources to do so (Pratik Chorge/HT PHOTO)

The working of a ‘project finance economy’

By Janmejaya Sinha
UPDATED ON JAN 22, 2021 06:19 AM IST
It is time to question neo-classical economic precepts on deficit and inflation for an economy of India’s nature
Close
Their success highlights the depth and strength of talent in the country (PTI)
Their success highlights the depth and strength of talent in the country (PTI)

Courage, calibre, character: India’s greatest series win

By Ayaz Memon
PUBLISHED ON JAN 20, 2021 08:07 PM IST
The experienced pros and newcomers combined to prove a point to themselves, the opponents and the world. And created history
Close
The Centre ensured the supply of drugs with equitable and integrated access (REUTERS)
The Centre ensured the supply of drugs with equitable and integrated access (REUTERS)

Managing drug security effectively in times of a pandemic

By Sudhansh Pant
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 09:19 PM IST
The Centre’s strategy to ensure sufficient access, monitor stocks and distribution, issue approvals, maintain seamless supply chain of drugs, effectively communicate with stakeholders, and evolve a dynamic Clinical Management Protocol (CMP) has contributed significantly to India’s Covid-19 management success
Close
A new report by Chatham House describes India as UK’s ‘rival’ or ‘at best, an awkward counterpart’ on par with Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It also weighs in against the idea of expanding G7 to include India (Getty Images)
A new report by Chatham House describes India as UK’s ‘rival’ or ‘at best, an awkward counterpart’ on par with Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It also weighs in against the idea of expanding G7 to include India (Getty Images)

Is ‘Global Britain’ inimical to India?

By Syed Akbaruddin
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 09:10 PM IST
There are disturbing signals from both segments of British polity and civil society. India will need to assess the UK’s position carefully
Close
Pakistan's opposition parties had united last year under the aegis of Pakistan Democratic Movement to launch coordinated attacks on Prime Minister Imran Khan(AFP)
Pakistan's opposition parties had united last year under the aegis of Pakistan Democratic Movement to launch coordinated attacks on Prime Minister Imran Khan(AFP)

Imran Khan gets squeezed between shrinking economy and proactive opposition

UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2021 05:48 PM IST
  • Differences between China and Pakistan over funding of CPEC's biggest railway project spotlights the growing pressures on PM Imran Khan on the economy front
Close
There is evidence to indicate that the PLA's work and engineering force deployed to upgrade infrastructure in occupied Aksai Chin moved back after completion of work last month
There is evidence to indicate that the PLA's work and engineering force deployed to upgrade infrastructure in occupied Aksai Chin moved back after completion of work last month

India should be wary of Chinese mind games

UPDATED ON JAN 13, 2021 12:31 PM IST
  • Withdrawal from the vast Tibetan and Xinjiang military region means little in an era of stand-off weapons and long-range missiles. The Chinese PLA has capacity to deploy troop divisions within a week with metalled roads and optical fibre cables up to the last military post and advanced landing grounds (ALGs) all along the LAC.
Close
President Xi Jinping, unconcerned about China's isolation, is expected to take steps that raise tensions ahead of the 100th anniversary of the communist party
President Xi Jinping, unconcerned about China's isolation, is expected to take steps that raise tensions ahead of the 100th anniversary of the communist party

Xi Jinping is preparing for a special birthday party. It has repercussions

UPDATED ON JAN 10, 2021 02:26 PM IST
  • The 100th-anniversary celebrations of the Chinese communist party would be projected as a strong counter to the so-called ‘century of humiliation’ that the Chinese empire and the Republic of China faced between 1839 and 1949 at the hands of western powers, Russia and Japan.
Close
Oli has been emboldened to stick to power even by breaking the party. In the process, the shallowness of Oli’s opportunistic and politically driven anti-Indian nationalism has been exposed(AFP)
Oli has been emboldened to stick to power even by breaking the party. In the process, the shallowness of Oli’s opportunistic and politically driven anti-Indian nationalism has been exposed(AFP)

What India should, and shouldn’t, do in Nepal

By SD Muni
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 07:59 PM IST
Irrespective of whether Nepal has elections or witnesses the restoration of Parliament, a prudent course for India would be to let Nepal cope with its internal political mess
Close
India is currently the world’s third largest consumer of oil with growing demand and limited domestic supplies. Import in 2019-20 was 1.6 billion barrels and will increase as its economy expands.(REUTERS)
India is currently the world’s third largest consumer of oil with growing demand and limited domestic supplies. Import in 2019-20 was 1.6 billion barrels and will increase as its economy expands.(REUTERS)

To secure India’s energy future, create a sovereign wealth fund and invest

By Amit Bhandari
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:43 PM IST
Norway is an example of prudent management of the windfall from high oil prices of the past, with which it set up a rainy day fund — now one of the most powerful and successful in the world. India is witnessing a similar windfall, in reverse, due to low oil prices — and needs to plan for the time when prices will be higher. That time is now.
Close
Health workers conduct a dry run of Covid-19 vaccination programme, New Delhi, January 6, 2021(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Health workers conduct a dry run of Covid-19 vaccination programme, New Delhi, January 6, 2021(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Devising a vaccine strategy for India

By Reuben Abraham and Anup Malani
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:43 PM IST
Focus on allocation, distribution, financing, communication and certification
Close
The white supremacist disregard for the sanctity of law has been on the increase during the Trump presidency and the contrast with how Washington dealt with peaceful protests by African-Americans in recent months is illustrative of the deep racial fissures that still fester in US society.(AP)
The white supremacist disregard for the sanctity of law has been on the increase during the Trump presidency and the contrast with how Washington dealt with peaceful protests by African-Americans in recent months is illustrative of the deep racial fissures that still fester in US society.(AP)

January 6: A black day for US democracy

By C Uday Bhaskar
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:41 PM IST
The erosion of democracy in the US, led by a defeated president, emboldened by his white supremacist base, will have both domestic and geopolitical consequences
Close
The shutdown of courts across India provided an opportunity to adapt to digital modes of working(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
The shutdown of courts across India provided an opportunity to adapt to digital modes of working(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Ensure access to justice in a post-Covid world

By Leah Verghese
UPDATED ON JAN 07, 2021 07:20 AM IST
Any move towards the online functioning of courts must account for the digital divide in India
Close
Great cities and societies are not those that unquestioningly preserve everything from the past. They evolve and add new things while retaining the best from the past
Great cities and societies are not those that unquestioningly preserve everything from the past. They evolve and add new things while retaining the best from the past

The new architecture of a new India

PUBLISHED ON JAN 06, 2021 08:23 PM IST
India needs iconic buildings for functional reasons, to reflect new aspirations, and move past the colonial legacy
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP