Paint the path to awareness
Empty canvasses of pillars and boundary walls abound our urban spaces—couldn’t these be utilised to pave the way for a better-informed India?
Yesterday, I was stuck in a dreadful traffic jam. For anyone in a metropolitan city, this is routine. With no interesting company, I looked around to kill time. What do I see? Well, no prizes for guessing. First, the traffic signal countdown timer caught my attention. Its slow-moving numbers often irritate those in a hurry. Most can't wait to see the light next to it turn green. With nothing better to do, I glanced out again. On one hand, there were passengers in other vehicles sharing my irritation. On the other, people, both young and old, quickly moved in to sell books, idols, and other articles. Still bored, I continued looking. There I saw a flyover with its empty pillars staring back at me. And lo and behold, a realisation dawned on me. So much free display space going waste. Can't it be put to use?
Well, this is already happening in a few places. Take Bengaluru for instance. An anonymous group called the Ugly Indian has cleaned and painted several flyover pillars. Similarly, the Magarpatta flyover in Pune has received a makeover. After being duly cleaned, artwork and social messages have been painted on it. Even the capital city seems to be catching up. Some time back in Delhi, artists with a group of hearing-impaired children took to paint a flyover in Lodhi road using sign language. Phrases like 'proud to be deaf' and 'deaf culture' were painted in English along with parallel instances in sign language to spread awareness. Not very far away, beautiful paintings adorn one of the flyovers in ITO. These instances of beautifying structures and spreading social messages are few and far between. What about the rest? Can one systematically put these spaces to productive use?
A starting point is to identify matters in need of wide publicity. One obvious choice is the entire gamut of government schemes. Salient features of schemes can be displayed to make citizens aware. Schemes on health and education, skill training and employment, financial inclusion and pension can be publicised. Those on empowering the girl child like Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, where bank accounts can be opened for them providing high-interest rates, can be one example. Others like 'USTTAD' (Upgrading the Skills and Training in Traditional Arts/Crafts for Development), that targets a certain segment of society (minorities), can be another. As per the target audience in an area, schemes can be adapted into art. These need not be limited to Central government schemes.
Next could be important laws for common people's knowledge. In the recent times, several instances of rapes have come to the fore. Be it the one in Kathua or in Unnao or the Nirbhaya case. To deter criminals from committing such heinous crimes, some pillars can be dedicated to exhibiting the maximum sentence for such crimes. Others can display messages against indulging in them. Reading such information at prominent places can spread the message to a wider audience. Apart from heinous crimes, information on other incongruencies like cheque bouncing and its sentence can be put up. Moreover, legal rights of citizens like those under Consumer Protection Act, 1986, National Food Security Act, 2013, among others, can also be displayed. Moving a step ahead, even fundamental rights like the right to education for those between six and 14 years (Article 21A), the abolition of untouchability (Article 17) or prohibition of trafficking of human beings and forced labour (Article 23) can and should be publicised.
But, once displayed, the job is not done. It is often said that 'change is the only constant'. Therefore, if a new scheme replaces an old one or a legislation is amended or repealed, necessary changes must follow through. Even otherwise, it would still be a good idea to keep displaying different schemes and laws at one place. This would offer something new to passers-by while assisting the functioning of the Indian democracy.
Now, comes the twist. The aim is not just to communicate the message. It is also about making it interesting and reader-friendly to access a large, diverse audience. To grab attention, lines from ancient culture and traditions or quotes of famous people can be painted. The key would lie in innovatively using these to drive home salient features of schemes and laws. Take for instance the crime of theft. To make the message interesting, it can be linked to one of Buddha's teachings against stealing. To reach out to more people, it would need to have some useful information for everyone. Be it an illiterate artisan, a man from another state not well versed with a city's language or women with no eyesight, one can try to cater to all. Points can be conveyed through text, diagrammatic representation, sign language or a language understandable by most. Additionally, one can explore the option of announcements at some places to reach out to those without sight. Even people selling articles at traffic signals should be able to understand these messages, despite illiteracy. To enable reading of this information at night, lights can be creatively used. Instead of sticking posters, messages can be painted. This will help in changing them periodically simply by painting new ones. Relying on an eco-friendly paint can also be explored.
But who can do this? Well, it can be a collaborative effort of the government and the citizens. Since it is the government's duty to disseminate information on laws and latest schemes, they can provide finances and the necessary support. From amongst citizens, it may be worthwhile to create an opportunity for children and adults with an inclination towards painting to accomplish the task. As a gesture of appreciating their effort, artists can be allowed to sign their names below the information. This would boost citizen engagement. Further, artists involved will also receive some recognition and a valuable platform. Such an effort would give people a sense of ownership, pride, and belonging.
Now, we come to other benefits. There is a Latin maxim 'Ignorantia juris non excusat' which means 'Ignorance of the law does not excuse'. Yet, most never open up bulky statute books to read them. Many don't even know their legal rights. By displaying the salient features of important laws, this gap in awareness can be addressed. Information on crimes like rapes, murders, female foeticide, acid attacks can dissuade people from committing them. This would reduce crimes. Similarly, information about schemes would reach the intended beneficiaries.
Flyovers and their pillars are huge structures that are visible from a distance. Therefore, information painted in a big font can grab the attention of a large number of people. It can reach pedestrians, people selling goods at signals around the area and nearby construction workers. Even those stuck in traffic jams can constructively use their time by gaining information while waiting for the green light. The best part is that no one has to undertake any extra effort. Just keeping one's eyes and ears open will suffice. It can also become a unique feature for propelling tourism. Artistically painted spaces would beautify the otherwise monotonous pillars. It's a win-win situation for all – the government, people, and society.
For a start, a pilot project can be undertaken. After that, the canvas need not be restricted only to flyovers and pillars. The Delhi Metro already publicises some schemes inside its coaches. Now, metro pillars can become the next canvas. Let's convert our boring surroundings into a huge canvas and paint our way to awareness.
(The author is a lawyer and Young Professional with Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, NITI Aayog. The views expressed are strictly personal)