"You must be the change you want to see in the world"—Mahatma Gandhi
Afroz Shah could have taken an easy way out. There was no compulsion for him to tread a difficult path. Yet, his earnest affection for the oceans, hidden deep inside, took over his senses and convinced him to take up the challenge while others had given up on the deplorable state of the beach in their neighborhood.
In October 2015, the journey began to clean the Versova beach, which at that time was considered to be one of the dirtiest beaches in Mumbai, as plastic and other forms of garbage had choked the water body. A task that had started with only two people eventually became a movement where volunteers came on their own accord getting their hands dirty in cleaning the beach. Slowly and steadily, the results began to show and society began to take a stirring notice. Complementing results came recognition, not only nationally but also globally. Now, the mission to clean Versova beach was not only his singular initiative, it also became the mission of Bollywood celebrities and city politicians; but here came the twist. After more than 100 weeks of sustained effort in clearing the beach of tonnes of plastic waste, the movement was called off as certain locals began to criticise this social movement by referring to it as a publicity stunt. However, after this sudden halt, lakhs of citizens' support poured in and the massive exercise has begun again with renewed vigour and fresh dreams.
The story of Mumbai lawyer Afroz Shah presents a perfect picture of the role that a citizen can play in assuming charge and taking active initiative to improve the shortcomings in her or his society. Even though it is not a new phenomenon, that changing factor has been the growing impact of social media and also, the role of mainstream media in focusing and emphasising upon local issues. In the process, a citizens' role in attempting to solve the societal issues may result in bouquets but there will be brickbats. There is also no guarantee that success will be instantaneous, as was the case of another Mumbaikar.
Much before the Swachh India campaign was initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, Jyoti Mhapsekar founder of Stree Mukti Sangathana (women freedom organisation) began her work to undo this social evil, in the year 1999. The objective went beyond setting up of compost units and negotiating better segregation of waste. There was also the realisation to provide more respectability to the waste pickers and also enhance their skills, so that, they are able to comprehend the social importance of the work they are practicing. In the process of learning a new skill, they are able to provide better for themselves as well as their future generations.
Jyoti was dealing in an environment where women were stubborn about change and were less eager to adopt new skills in the fear of having to forsake their traditional sources of income. Most of them were widows who came from the regions of Marathwada, Vidarbha, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They were in the search of a steady source of income to sustain themselves and their children, even if it amounted to being exploited.
Yet, after more than 19 years of persistent efforts, over 4000 lady workers have been imparted with new skills that have taught them the methods of reusing collected garbage as a useful resource. More importantly, it is not only the lady workers but their children also who are participating in the learning process. However, the problem has still not been completely resolved and the solution to Deonar, the landfill site in Mumbai, has still not been addressed.
The story of the two Mumbaikars may have been highlighted across media platforms; but, in a country of 1.25 billion people, there ought to be many Mhapsekars and Shahs living in distant parts of our vast country. As the country grow, the challenges accompanying development also multiply. Amid this changing scenario, the relevance of a citizen's participation becomes even more significant than before.
In the rural as well as in the urban context, there are various challenges where public agencies have either not been able to find the solution, or have been lackadaisical in their approach. Where the public agencies have faltered the reliance on private houses has provided a new sense of hope. Nowhere is this hope more visible than Gurugram, a city whose massive growth potential was realised in the mid-80's. It quickly leapfrogged and over the years became a hub of powerful multinational companies, tony residential neighbourhoods, glitzy shopping complexes, most sought after service centers, young start-ups, malls and a manufacturing centre for the leading automobile companies and their ancillaries.
Over the years, various titles have been given to describe the success of Gurugram and among them is that it is the country's first private city. Yet, now, the consequences of an absent public participation seem to be glaring in the face. The city may boast of top educational institutions but various shortcomings still result in parents preferring their children's admission in Delhi schools. The absence of government healthcare facilities and an overdependence on private healthcare is resulting in a situation of medical horror; infants as young as of 17-months-old are dying on the allegations of refused admission to hospitals. Even as the state government formulated a strong real estate law, thousands of homebuyers continue to protest on a daily basis, either due to the lack of facilities or due to delay in the possession of their homes. Waste management in the city continues to be a daily hurdle and has resulted in the green belt of Aravallis being converted into an area of dumping garbage. The Central Pollution Control board in 2017 placed Gurugram higher than Delhi in registering poor levels of air quality.
Amid these problems, the perseverance of the citizens to make the city a better and more sustainable place carried on in one form or another. A wide array of citizens, ranging from an ex-banker, television actor and an Army officer are also actively involved in protecting the Aravallis from becoming extinct. The Right to Information, which was again achieved through active citizen's pressure is being used to widely to report the deficiencies in public, medical and educational sectors.
While the government for long has asked the corporate sector to contribute in improving the state of public services, Tushar Meherotra, a Class-X student from the city took the lead and adopted a government school. Realising the impact of the digital medium, he asked for funds from the city residents. Transparency and clarity in the process has resulted in him receiving a favourable response.
It was not only their passion that caused so many individuals to go beyond their mundane duties; it was also a result of grief and the realisation, hoping that nobody else has to witness this despair. Barun Thakur father of seven -year-old Pradyuman, who was brutally killed in the washroom of his school, duly formed a trust under his son's name. This foundation will inform parents of the safety guidelines that educational institutions must comply with and also provide a platform for the parents to share their grievances, so that the authorities can listen and act upon the complaints.
As has been the case in Gurugram and other parts of the country—is citizen's movement the only way to battle exigencies or does it provide public establishments a method to further abdicate their key responsibilities?
"Citizens today are forced to come out and take charge because sadly the government institutions are driven by selfish and vested interests. Citizen participation can be up to a certain point. It is important that the system is rectified so that the citizens feel compelled to be a part of this set-up and take steps in improving it," says Colonel (Retd) SS Oberoi, an enviornmental activist in Gurugram. Colonel Oberoi who is also embroiled in various legal against public institutions provides a slightly skeptical view.
On the other hand, Mukesh Bharadwaj, who felt motivated to participate in the Indian Against Corruption movement in 2011, still feels optimistic about a citizen's power. "Citizen's participation has always been there, it is just that now with large platforms of digital and mainstream media, their work is further highlighted. Irrespective of the communication platforms, good work will always be highlighted. People still respect Baba Amte, Anna Hazare and even Arvind Kejriwal when he was an RTI activist because of their stellar work in their neighbourhoods," says Bharadwaj.
"I have always felt that taking a plunge in these activities is fraught with several risks. At first, even though people support your initiative, chances are that they may not participate because they are earning members. Further, as the impact and success of these citizens increases, many start viewing them suspiciously and even accuse them of having their own vested interests in serving the public," he further adds.
As the nation celebrates its 68th year of being a Republic, we must remember the defining line of our democracy: It is of the people, by the people and for the people. The common word in this significant sentence is people, and thereby, it is befitting for a robust democracy that the ultimate power must reside with the people.
With great power comes great responsibility. This responsibility is laden with complexities, criticism, frustration and even ungratefulness. Yet, it is a massive responsibility nonetheless.
A responsibility that will ensure a better today, tomorrow and the best future for our generations.