Whenever I meet Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan I feel a bit like Helen Hunt in that 1996 film Twister, reeling from the thrill of trying to understand a tornado. Only in this case it’s two cyclonic columns, impossibly synced in pace and purpose. They’ve been tearing around in an alternate universe for 14 years now (Vanvaas, Ramesh jokingly calls it) and would have long given up if it weren’t for each other. “We’re consumed by our work. It can leave you dry, parched, demotivated. I’m always rushed and relentless. Ramesh is always in hyper mode,” says Swati. “Doing this together is what keeps us going,” says Ramesh.
Their story might sound familiar; they were one of the inspirations for Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades. Two NRIs in posh jobs who decided one day they wanted to leave that world and come back, give back. They were social entrepreneurs long before the term became fashionable. They wanted to change urban India at a time when most people were betting on the power of rural India. Swati and Ramesh have always believed that cities and towns would drive the social, economic and political transformation of this country. Finally they’ve been vindicated. “Urban power is here to stay. If there’s one satisfaction after all these years, it’s this,” says Swati.
Once back in their hometown Bangalore, they invested $1.5 million (around Rs.8 crore now) of their savings in the first five years to set up and run Janaagraha, a volunteer-friendly non-profit that would work with citizens to improve the quality of their urban life. For them, that meant better infrastructure (“The road is actually the microcosm of everything that is wrong with our democracy,” Swati emphasizes) and better citizenship (improving participation in civic issues). Now they manage a cluster of organizations addressing the different challenges of urban India. Janaagraha has grown into an institution for citizenship and democracy, with 106 employees and an annual budget of Rs.12.5 crore. Over the years, 15,000 volunteers have been mentored here.
Co-founders Swati and Ramesh remain the organization’s first volunteers. They work 18 hours a day without a salary (they reimburse their company the difference of flying business class). Even on their twice-yearly family holidays Swati’s camera is usually full of pictures of drains and recycling bins. “Nation-building is a very complicated exercise. Unlike in the private sector, you can’t declare victory in social change. You have to go back to the core reason for why you get up every morning. And for us that core reason is that we have each other,” says Ramesh.
Between providing microfinance for the urban poor through Janalakshmi Financial Services (Ramesh hopes it will be a bank by next year), building low-cost houses, conceptualizing and running several high-impact online initiatives, including the popular IPaidABribe.com and the recently launched IChangeMyCity.com, taking over the civics class in 150 schools, convincing the chief minister to budget Rs.200 crore so they can help build 45 world-class roads in Bangalore (Swati’s even written the template that will be used to improve Indian road design), creating master plans for those invisible, chaotic towns you might often drive past en route to a weekend break, and running an urban curriculum for civil service officers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, there’s no time left for a social life. And these are only some highlights of the work they do.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Swati: We discuss issues threadbare. We disagree a lot as well. Ramesh: My mother always says I can’t understand how you guys operate. There’s an enormous amount of debate between us, the process is really important."
They were the catalysts for the birth of the government’s ambitious JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) to make our cities efficient. They drafted two of its laws, on community participation (in 20 years this will be as powerful as the Right to Information Act, Ramesh believes) and on financial disclosure. Swati’s baby, the India Urban Space Foundation, will write the guidelines for spatial planning in the second stage of JNNURM.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Swati: Anything to do with financial stuff is all Ramesh. All the rest is me (laughs). Ramesh: At work, there’s yours, mine and ours. Janaagraha is complex because it is ours. We’ve learnt through lots of trial and error and many conflicts to demarcate its seven programmes. So there is some clarity of role."
If some of this is a little difficult to grasp, it’s because they often focus on fixing the mechanics of democracy. They’re experts on everything from why India needs state-guaranteed land titles and why segregation is not the simple answer to Bangalore’s garbage problem, to why we can’t change our cities by standing for elections. Low urban turnout during elections is a fallacy, they believe. “We want to prove that the idea of an apathetic urban India is a media mythology,” says Ramesh.
In 2009 when they launched an ambitious online campaign Jaago Re! with Tata Tea, they could register only 600,000 voters of the 1.8 million who applied. Since then they have partnered with the Election Commissioner of India to fix the back-end systems which manage urban voter lists. They have worked hard to clean up the voter list in one constituency in Bangalore. “It is the foundation on which good quality candidates will be able to be successful. The hidden story is that you can have the best candidates stand for elections but they will never win unless the voter list is cleaned up. It’s almost impossible to win,” says Swati.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Swati: We get into each other’s territory all the time. Ramesh: Harmony is not the absence of conflict. It’s the resolution of conflict in a constructive way. We trust each other. Swati: There is a huge trust."
Through all of this they are each other’s biggest cheerleaders, each other’s clearest mirrors. They discuss everything, they argue about everything (“The pretence that somehow a great relationship is about the absence of conflict is completely misplaced,” says Ramesh), they have no secrets—possibly because they met at 18 and all their experiences since have been shared. “Friends tell us it’s a scary level of openness,” says Ramesh. “I completely trust that I can be the worst person I am with Ramesh and that’s okay,” adds Swati. Harmony is for sissies.
"DO NOT OPEN: Ramesh: There’s no place we don’t go with each other. It’s a commitment we made."