Small change, big city

The idea that ordinarily apathetic citizens can rally around to fix urban problems is gaining traction

A citizens' movement called Whitefield Rising has been building up in the Bangalore neighbourhood of Whitefield, a suburb known for the vast office complexes of a host of Indian and multinational technology firms but also, more recently, for sprawling gated communities and shiny residential high-rises. The group germinated as a residents' initiative to make the streets more livable. But within months of its inception, it has built up enough momentum to adopt a larger canvas.

Those leading the movement say it is organic, with no formal agenda, structure or goals. Their stated philosophy is: work of your own free will and at your own pace. On the other hand, the impetus so far has been the passion of the participants who are getting started on small projects. Whitefield Rising has enlisted some 10,000 residents over a few months, mainly by networking through social media.

In another locality, a group of citizens calling themselves the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust have set out to revive one of Bangalore's numerous dying lakes. Citizens of the Malleswaram area in old Bangalore are aiming to make theirs a zero waste neighbourhood. Elsewhere, an amorphous, anonymous group called The Ugly Indian gathers silently on weekend mornings — driven entirely by emails or Facebook invitations — to "fix" what it calls "black spots" around the city, whether they are garbage dumps or defaced walls. In all these instances, social media and access to technology has been a distinct enabler in getting citizens together.

The rise of civic groups in Bangalore, far outside what is traditionally considered the domain of NGOs, is a new phenomenon. The idea that ordinarily apathetic citizens can rally around small causes to make a change is gaining steady traction. Many of the initiatives offer a platform for the interested to play a role in improving their surroundings. "Initiatives like these sensitise people to the need for engaging in civic action," said Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution, a think-tank.

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