Civic action 2.0 in Bangalore

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." -Margaret Mead

There's a large global movement of cities working to reduce and adapt to climate change, but top-down directives don't work without pressure from below. There are tremendous opportunities for small groups of citizens to make change at the local level. In Bangalore, we met civic activists working on transit, transparency, and waste management, helping change the course of the city from the bottom-up.

CITIZEN ACTION: We talked to Pranav, a Bangalore transportation geek and a co-founder of Praja. When he returned to Bangalore after a stint in the San Francisco Bay Area, he found a civic ecosystem driven by individuals and egos, without a lot of room for lay citizens to get involved. Friends and neighbors would complain about things, but would often be stuck restating the problem, rather than trying to change the situation. He started working on the Praja project in response, an online platform for citizens to discuss civic issues, and track and influence policy. The system encourages breaking down campaigns into lots of small, achievable, slots for interested people to work on issues of concern: read a document, attend an in-person meeting with city officials, get feedback from others. A small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the city.

Pranav loves working on transit issues, both because of it's importance, and because it's an angle to get apathetic citizenry involved. You can work around patchy power (generators) or dirty water (purifiers), but you can't buy your way out of bad traffic. We'd been hearing about Bus Day, a high-profile monthly event where Bangalore residents are encouraged to take the bus. It turned out it was a Praja project. Bus Day was brainstormed on the site, as a way to encourage driving citizens to get reacquainted with the system. "Cars are advertised every day. You just don't see public transit advertised." With support from other local activists and influencers, Praja members were able to get the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) to run with the idea. Now they're trying to measure the impacts: police reported up to 30% less traffic in a few areas, and air pollution decreased 8-12%. But there's much more to do; to help deepen the conversations, they recently ran Mobilicity, a free public conference about sustainable transit.

GOVERNMENT 2.0: Anirvan met Ashwin Mahesh, an Ashoka fellow, and the founder and CEO of Mapunity, a for-profit social venture research lab developing tools for government. Ashwin is a former NASA climatologist who returned to India in 2005. He launched India Together, an online policy newspaper with 200,000 readers, which exposed him to a wide range of civically-minded community leaders. Returning to India, he started looking at government with fresh eyes, amazed at the scale of the problems, and agencies' lack of capacity to take on those challenges; he started working with the eGovernments Foundation to develop tech tools for government, but Ashwin found that techies were sometimes more interested in building technology than actually applying it. "You have to be an insider to change the system." This is where his experience with India Together paid off; his network of readers helped him get funding for Mapunity, and access to government. Ashwin exudes self-confidence, a techie outsider turned relatively powerful unelected insider getting stuff done; I'm glad he's one of the good guys.

Mapunity's work powers Bangalore's tech-driven transportation infrastructure. Online, users can access realtime traffic and transit help. By phone, citizens can get traffic/carpool info by SMS. At select bus stops, electronic displays show the time till the next bus. All this is powered by mashing up various types of city and transit data, along with teledensity information from a major mobile phone company. Mapunity's been selling parts of this system to other major cities around India. Other Mapunity include developing a new series of easy-to-use bus routes in Bangalore, SMS-based microfinance and disaster management tools, city management software, and a city election voter information site. Ashwin's irritated by the lack of understanding of social venture organizations; "India knows how to judge a $200 million company, but not a company that affects 200 million people." As with many social venture tech companies, the goal is to be a thought leader, and not necessarily a product leader; Cisco might eventually do a better job than Mapunity, Ashwin says, but Mapunity's more effective at integrating and launching in the space.

I asked Ashwin about climate politics, given his background with climatology. "In India, we have no way of getting experts into political discussions. You send filler to COP15, with little idea. Japan sent climatologists, and we sent the environment minister. That's why we don't have all the skills we need." Americans would get India to the table, he figured, but ultimately, India wouldn't be terribly important in the global climate space; only China and the US really matter.

WASTE: We've often been most inspired by youth activists, but in Bangalore, we were bowled over by Almitra Patel, a 75 year old activist-engineer-architect-environmentalist, and a force of nature. She's made a name for herself as a self-educated waste management expert. We met Almitra at her Bangalore-area home, where she shared bittersweet stories about local planning struggles, her work with a Supreme Court-appointed committee on solid waste management, and constructing cost-efficient rural schools buildings. If Pranav is a silent enabler of group action, and Mahesh an insider, Almitra is the perpetual lone outsider, a citizen activist, always collaborating heavily, but working under her no name but her own.

Almitra started thinking about solid waste management in 1991 when the streets of the village were taken over by dumped garbage. She went on to file Public Interest Litigation for hygienic solid waste management, and was appointed to the resulting committee created by the Supreme Court, publishing the first set of national waste management policies for large Indian cities. But waste management isn't a matter for policy wonks--it's something communities and governments needs to have a stake in. After the 1994 Surat Plague, caused by clogged sewers, she and her friend Captain Velu hit the road with a "Clean India Campaign" to help communities learn about possible solutions. Per The Hindu, "This consisted largely of Captain Velu, Almitra and one of her neighbours actually barging into municipal offices of 29 cities in the next 28 days," jumping out of a slogan-adorned van wearing red jumpsuits. Government officials wouldn't normally want to talk to citizen activists, she told us, but the excitement and commotion of their visits would have city officials inviting them in. One strategy she remembered fondly was to get communities to hold rangoli competitions, which got people to start cleaning the street in front of their homes.

Political will, not technology, is what's holding back implementation of cheap, ecologically sound, solid waste management practices. She tells us how she'd work to convince city employees to try techniques like composting, but would have local officials push back, complaining about the low cost. Commercial incineration plants are expensive, which allows for kickbacks; nobody offered bribes for cheap community-based composting. Bangalore is cleaner now than when Barnali was growing up there. The garbage dump outside her parents' house is gone, and uniformed women pick up garbage every day. But Almitra explained the rest of the story: garbage truck drivers often don't bother taking the garbage to the designated area, but drop it off just outside of the city limit, so they can siphon off their trucks' expensive diesel fuel. The trash gets illegally dumped in rural areas right outside of town, and as the city boundary moves, the ring of garbage moves with it. As with so much in India, it's the corruption, big and small, that's the killer. And with all that, Almitra Patel keeps soldiering on, juggling a dozen unrelated campaigns and issues at once.

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About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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