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Monday, October 20, 2008

Janaagraha: Enhancing citizen involvement in local governance

Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan started Janaagraha, an NGO that wants to enhance citizen participation in local governance.

Making money is tough and forfeiting it once you have it is next to impossible! Especially, if you are a young banker or an architect living the Big American dream. But, there are those who dedicate themselves to a cause.

The husband-wife duo Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan returned to Bangalore to bring about social change through what they thought was practical patriotism. And so they started Janaagraha - a movement to make the public system more accountable through citizen participation. A utopian idea you would think and one that predictably met fierce opposition from the word - go.

Ramesh Ramanathan, Co -Founder, Janaagraha said,"In the earlier days on a regular basis the local city corporation would have regular meetings where they would talk about Jannagraha's work as being wrong and illegal and that we are trying to set up a parallel system of government. On a couple of instances they also passed couple of resolutions in the parliament saying that stern action should be taken against Jaanagraha. We' have also had at a personal level in the early days threatening phone calls - people saying that we know your children are going to school from a school bus. Why don't you go back from where you came and this not what middle class Indians should be involved in. You don't know what you are getting into.

All that, did not deter this brave couple from continuing the movement. In the past seven years they have pumped in nearly USD 1.5 million of their personal savings to make this venture a successful one. And successful it has been. Janaagraha has worked in areas like municipal reforms, urban land reforms, public disclosure and electoral reforms.Today Janaagraha is not just a movement but an institution for citizenship and democracy.

Ramanathan said, "We broadly do two sets of things; one is we work with government in a series of things which we can call supply side reforms because lots of things inside government have to change for cities to be better. Laws have to change, institutional arrangements have to change, skills have to be built all of that. We also work on the side with citizens, called demand side participation. So broadly these are the two things we work on.

Swati said, "We have created something called city connect whether you are BCCI or CII or Nascomor whatever it is. Ask for whatever you are doing as an organizaton, continue doing that but can we all come together in one voice for something which we all care about to improve and not just to take it to your place of work but for they city as a whole. Because that is the social capital that we build in the city that we are working in and this has taken off quite dramatically.

What has also taken off quite dramatically is Janaagraha and Tata Tea's Jaago-re campaign which aims at converting India's million non-voters into active voters.

Sangeeta Talwar, ED Marketing, Tata Tea said, "It is appropriately timed because this is the year when in another six months the country will vote and we looked at the statistics and only about 10% of urban youth actually go to vote. The whole idea of this campaign is to empower the youth with a thought that the power to influence and choose lies in your hands.

And all this has been achieved through a 200 member army of citizen volunteers. KK Nair, Volunteer said, "I have always worked with the corporate sector. So when I came in here, I spent 3-4 weeks working in Jaanagraha before deciding on whether I would do some work for them."

Cheryl Rebello, Communications coordinator, Janaagraha said,"It has been extremely inclusive in it's approach to urban governance. Whether it be bringing in political representation, whether it be bringing in the bureaucrats, business leaders, communities, we have always looked to bring in everyone all players on board."

Inclusiveness and transparency are the pillars on which Janaagraha has been built. But where does the money for these ambitious programs come from?

Until now Janaagraha has been funded by corporate grants and personal donations. It has also partnered with the Institution Of Chartered Accountants or ICAI and the Election Commission of India to efficiently manage its 14 ongoing programs. That's not all - Janaagraha will venture into 10 cities over the next 5 years.

At last count there were 1.5 million registered NGOs in India. Just about 15 of them focus on urban reforms - pretty much on the lines of what Janaagraha does. And if you want to join in then take your first small step towards better governance by registering as a voter. Be the change that you want to see.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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