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How Citizens and Communities Shape our Cities

Societal Thinking | Civil Society | Nov 27, 2020

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s keynote address at eGovernments Foundation’s Connect For Impact Webinar on how citizens and communities can shape our cities.

Recently, I have been travelling from Bengaluru to Kabini a lot in these last few months, and every time I return from the forest to this megacity, Bengaluru, I’m able to see my home city from a new perspective, with fresh eyes. The overwhelming impression I get is of a city undergoing a painful renewal, masses of threatening concrete overhead, piles of rubble underneath, and with all manner of dangerous spikes poking outward. Through this grey canvas, hapless citizens can be seen as dots of colour, doing their best to head on through traffic without signposts or proper visibility, and navigating through large trucks and haulers, past moody traffic signals or perplexing roundabouts.

It seems as if this city, like many other towns and cities in the country, is actually testing its residents. The unfinished infrastructure is a poster promise of a better future at the far horizon, and the city demands patience, faith, and hope. The residents, on the other hand, experience resignation, weariness, and a kind of lasting numbness. When I finally get home, I enter an urban version of the forest that I left behind because my neighbourhood in Koramangala has a dense canopy of trees with a mix of mammals and avian diversity. But Bengaluru is not at all homogeneous. It has a criss-cross of diverse identities and designs. It has layers upon layers, like all cities, of privilege on top and tears of disenfranchisement below, yet the dysfunctionality of the city is 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 the squeezing of personal spaces. But it’s these visible cracks that have left us with an opening and there are now new opportunities to engage with our city’s future.

Many groups are engaging citizens to reimagine the city and make it their own. The question has moved from whether the city will grow and change to how it should grow and change, and who should participate in the change making. In his 1960 classic, ‘The Image of the City’, Kevin Lynch says that the metropolitan region is now the functional unit of our environment, and it is desirable that this functional unit should be identified and structured by its inhabitants. The good news is that many new citizens-based nodes are challenging the supremacy of the state in urban futures. Whether it is the thriving RWAs in the city or the many new dynamic CSOs and non-profits, there seems to be a growing determination to take back the city. These new efforts are building on many movements in Bengaluru that began in the ’80s with the aim of improving the governance of the city.
I always joke that there are more urban reformers per square foot in Bengaluru than anywhere else in the world. And these efforts were made both on the supply side and the demand side. BATF was set up in the SM Krishna administration to bridge the demand side to the supply side and make the supply side more coordinated. Then Janaagraha came along to broaden the scope and ambition of citizen engagement in the governance of the city. eGov Foundation came along to help the government use technology more effectively to collect and analyse data, to create better access to its various services. These are only three out of dozens of examples, and today’s Samaaj is evolving even further. Our present technologies can enable mass participation in civic design for the first time ever and the better delivery of public services.

This is happening in all the major metropolitan areas of the country, and it’s now extending beyond. For example, sometimes, even the simplest data is not available to the public and RTIs need to be filed for even the simplest of information. So when the lockdown was announced, Yugantar in Hyderabad filed an RTI to get the total number of slums and their population in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. That data was shared with local non-profits, who started to target relief and health work in those areas. Another example is Haiyya in Delhi, which addresses the issue of access to sexual and reproductive health services, especially for unmarried girls. They did a campaign called Health Over Stigma, spearheaded by young women. Haiyya helped to hold service providers accountable for giving safe and non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health services. As a result, the Delhi Medical Council has committed to providing these services throughout the New Delhi region.

Reap Benefit has developed an open civic platform that comprises a WhatsApp chatbot, a web app, and a civic forum, to guide first-time users with simple steps using a variety of civic challenges that are fun and engaging. Through decentralisation and communitisation, as they call it, many people can now get better access through WhatsApp. So if you see a pothole on the road, you can type that into the chatbot and send a photo, and then have a discussion on what you should do about it. So that agitation and anxiety can turn into real action. During COVID they were able to reach more than a million people with direct relief using this sort of decentralised community model. Jhatkaa also uses mobilisation and awareness building to aggregate citizen voices. Last year, they organised one of the biggest climate strikes in Bengaluru with 1,500 people, and created a lot of awareness videos which got three million views, and 14,000 people signed their petition for cleaner air. On the other hand, Civis looks at environmental legislation, which is usually so technical that regular citizens or civil services find it difficult to understand, even though we are impacted by what those laws are framing. So in March 2020, they put up a simpler version of the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, and they received more than 400 comments which will hopefully be taken into consideration when the final rules come out. We must applaud and encourage all these Samaaj-based efforts, but more importantly, each of us has to find a way to participate in these attempts. We need a broader collective action of the Samaaj because urban design is not a spectator sport. Good governance is not an entitlement – we have to co-create it. No matter who you are, you are a citizen first.

For years now, my work has been devoted to the premise that it is only the Samaaj and institutions of the Samaaj that can hold the state and markets accountable to the larger public interest, and can uphold our individual rights and freedoms. This is where we can creatively work together on the most complex problems that we are facing as a society. Luckily, today’s new technologies do allow us to participate more effectively with relative ease. But I’m not talking about clicktivism. I’m talking about Societal Platform Thinking i.e. how a technology-enabled social ecosystem can create discoverability of solutions. It can create better access to services because we are all engaged in making the whole system better, and it can improve our ability to make meaningful choices. We need civil society itself to get much more digital in this inevitable digital age, so that a digital Samaaj can keep tech corporations from amassing unconscionable power and from creating tools and products that distort the political and democratic processes as we are beginning to see.

It’s more important than ever that organisations like eGov and other civil society organisations work together from the demand side and the supply side to strengthen societies’ own interactions and interfaces with the Samaaj. Of course, we have to be careful that we prevent technologies from amassing power that will reduce individual or collective agency and strip meaning from social connection. This is not ideal speculation, and the time has come for us to persevere patiently but creatively and challenge any technology future that is more of a dystopia than a solution to our current problems. So this battle has to be engaged in by the Samaaj, and hopefully represented by civil society organisations so that technology can be an enabler of our common intent for a good society. I think we’re at a very exciting inflection point where urban spaces are going to be reimagined and redesigned.

This year of the virus has forced us to speed up our thinking on what cities can look like in the future. This is not the last pandemic we shall see, and it is only the beginning of climate change, so how are we going to adopt urban resilience? Technology and civil society will play a huge role in this, but moreover, every single one of us has to believe that we can participate and therefore we will. We must start thinking about how each of us can build on this momentum and build back a better, new normal. We must create cities that we are proud of belonging to, and cities where our children can breathe.

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