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Activism in the virtual world

The last few years has seen a dramatic shake up in India’s virtual world. Various social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter and Orkut have now become major platforms for activism.

entertainment Updated: Mar 04, 2010 14:25 IST
Sneha Mahale
Sneha Mahale
Hindustan Times

TwitterThe last few years has seen a dramatic shake up in India’s virtual world. Various social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter and Orkut have now become major platforms for activism. Filled with a passion to set things right, users, especially youngsters, are using the web to create discussion forums, petitions, organise marches and even pledge money. Here are a few virtual campaigns that gained ground and impacted the real world:

Thesapling project

How it started:
Sitting at a restaurant one day, Satish Vijaykumar (founder of the project) realised that normal citizens don't have a cause that they can identify with. He then thought of buying a few saplings and handing them out to people who cared for the environment. Friends suggested he go online and involve more people in his cause. That snowballed into The Sapling Project.

RanjeetWalunj, co-founder of the campaign, says “We started it as a campaign to plant and share saplings, free of cost, to all parts of our city and beyond.” The model was simple — collect funds, buy plant saplings and distribute it to anyone who would sign up on the website or turn up at events. Also, while most tree plantation drives are done in parks or forest areas, this project concentrated on colonies and buildings in the suburbs that needed more trees.

Spread the word: Social media like Facebook helped this small initiative grow into a global project. Friends in the blogging, Facebook and Twitter community have helped increase participation and contribution for The Sapling Project.

“We think that we have triggered a small movement across the nation, where normal individuals can collectively help the environment and society. When people are participating in The Sapling Project; they are actually commit to take care of the sapling until it grows into a small tree,” Walunj says. The project has managed to distribute approximately 1000 saplings in Mumbai, 200 in Bangalore and 100 in Chennai. “We are targeting 10,000 saplings in Mumbai and few other thousands in other cities. Other cities like Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Pune and Latur will be joining in the next distribution drive,” Walunj says.

Bridge the gap

How it stared:
Sick of feeling helpless during the 26/11 attacks, Harish Iyer decided that he wanted to do something productive and be more than just a mute spectator. He started a blog, and sent emails to family and friends who advertised it on Facebook. Iyer also published his mobile number, and asked people to call for information. “I received my first call 40 minutes after setting it up. Relatives of those stuck in the Taj, Trident and Oberoi began calling me for updates which I received by calling the hotel helplines.”

Spread the word: Iyer organised a crisis management workshop using Facebook to mobilise people and dispense information.

“Personally, I feel that online campaigns don’t have a measurable or tangible effect. It does starts an internal dialogue, which is the basic requirement for any revolution,” says Iyer. Today, Iyer uses Facebook for a variety of social issues. He believes it will help bridge the distance between online activism and ground action.

Smokefree Mumbai

How it started: The Smokefree Mumbai campaign was launched on February 20, 2009 by the Action Council against Tobacco-India (ACT-India) along with partners, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), Tata Memorial Hospital, Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, Salaam Bombay Foundation, Cancer Patients Aid Association, and V-CARE, to ensure the implementation of the national legislation passed on October 2, 2008 for smoke-free public places.

ACT – India has also tied up with Association of Hotels and Restaurants (AHAR). The key roles of the campaign are to ensure compliance with the law, monitor violations and mobilise support from policy makers, organisations and civil society.

Spread the word: “Social networking sites help spread the campaign especially among the youth who are very influential and work as vehicles of change!” says Mayuri Sawant, media and public relations manager for the campaign.

Impact: “The ill effects of passive smoking are not well known or understood by the general population. We want to spread awareness about the smoke-free law in public places as well.”

Websites like Facebook help in gathering volunteer support for various activities like college fests, Standard Charter Marathon and street plays. Future plans include developing a strong volunteer base for spreading tobacco controlmessages, launching discussion forums on tobacco control among youth and increasing the visibility of the campaign on all networking sites.


How it started: Nitesh Jain has been a volunteer with lots of local and international NGOs since August 2005. He realised that while everyone talks and attends seminars and workshops, most just go back home and relax at the end of the day. “People like autorickshaw drivers and sweepers never get a chance to attend such workshops and seminars. How they will learn about any issue? I decided to start the movement by offering “free chai” to people on the streets and get them talking about issues,” he says.

Spread the word: The movement was started on Facebook in March, 2009 in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Pune. People in Mumbai and Pune contacted him via Facebook. Facebook and online promotions have helped the campaign reach New York, leading to a few sessions of Free Chai in NYC.

Impact: The campaign started with a ‘Save Water’ cause. “Hundreds took our movement seriously by saving water in their houses and asking friends to do the same. Now, after the completion of three months, the campaign will launch a second round in Mumbai around April 2010,” Jain says.

Indiapeace campaign

How it started: The idea of the campaign came from eight college girls in Delhi. “We wanted to do something about the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It was a complete student initiative to make a change,” says Kanika Nayar, co-founder of the campaign.

Spread the word: Facebook helped advertise the campaign, drawing people from different parts of the country and the world.

Impact: Nayar says, “The campaign was one of the best things that I’ve ever done. And it taught me that if you want to change anything, you have to be part of the change. There’s no point in simply complaining. We managed to get a lot of signatures from people who wanted to be part of this change.” As part of the campaign, an online petition asking the government to take action against terrorism was sent to the Prime Minister. Also, marches were held in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to demand action. Several candle night vigils were held to ask for peace.



How it started: Turning the iconic freedom struggle slogan “jail bharo” on its head, Minister of State for Women and Child Development, Renuka Choudhary, in February 2009, suggested that the only way to tackle the moral police was to launch a “pub bharo andolan”.

Choudhary had been at loggerheads with the Karnataka government for failing to protect women in the aftermath of the Mangalore pub attack. Not only were women beaten up in a pub, but young girls had received threats warning them not to wear “noodle straps or tight jeans” and celebrate Valentine’s Day. The idea was the brainchild of Choudhary’s daughter, Tejuswini. She says, “I saw the footage on television and the idea to start Pub Bharo just popped into my head. I couldn’t accept the way those women were being treated and wanted to show that those sort of violent acts don’t work.” The idea was to get the youth to go to pubs in droves to make their point.

Spread the word: Facebook helped spread the word and gather volunteers faster than traditional methods.

Impact: The campaign was successful as Muthalik was put into preventive custody on Valentine’s Day. There were no demonstrations of violence and everybody was able to express themselves and their right to freedom. Future plans involve creating media that propagate new images of women.

Pears campaign

How it started: Pears, which was among the world’s first registered brands, had recently changed its age-old formula, trebling the number of ingredients. Customers criticised the addition of chemicals to the 221-year-old formula.

Caroline, founder of the campaign in the US, began searching for a tangible way to see if what mattered to her really mattered to others. She says, “My hands went immediately to the keyboard of my computer to find the community I needed.” She turned to Facebook since she had seen the power it holds.

Spread the word: The Facebook page allowed her to connect with others in different countries.

Impact: The Facebook campaign forced the makers of Pears Transparent Soap to abandon the new formula after customers complained that it ‘smells and feels disgusting’. The group called Bring Back the Original Pears Soap said that the new soap, which is made in India, smelled strongly of frankincense, rather than the old ‘mild and spicy herbal fragrance’. Following a deluge of complaints, owners of the Mumbai-based brand Hindustan Unilever Ltd, agreed to produce something ‘much closer to the old soap’.


Other causes

Vindaloo against violence
Thousands of Australians let their tastebuds do the talking when they sat down early this month for “Vindaloo Against Violence,” a mass dining event in protest of the attacks against Indians. The brainchild of Melbourne digital media designer Mia Northrop, the grassroots campaign started as a humble event on social networking site Facebook but exploded with more than 10,000 registered participants.

Campaigners in Mumbai are planning to organise a No Tie Day on May 3, 2010. Discussions will be held on power saving methods, weather appropriate dressing and the impact of global warming.

The campaign was kicked off on February 5, 2009, to oppose the Sri Rama Sene. Nisha Susan, originally from Bangalore and working with a Delhi-based media house, got together with friends and started the initiative, which has spread like wild fire. They collected 3,000 panties from across the country and sent them to Muthalik and his aides as a form of protest on February 14, 2009.

Recently, a global Facebook campaign encouraged women to post the colour of their bra to encourage breast cancer
awareness. Volunteers, who work with breast cancer awareness programmes, opined that the campaign may not be such a bad idea.

First Published: Mar 04, 2010 12:56 IST