Sagar Belkhede had made his peace with the anonymity of big city living. “I grew up in a closely-knit neighbourhood in Nagpur where everyone knew each other. When I started working in Pune, I found no one had the time for that.” Until 2009 when, caught up in a prolonged tangle with a builder over his flat ownership, he realized the need for a neighbourhood support group.
“There were about 100 flat owners in the same complex who were all affected, but we could never figure out a plan of action. We were never able to meet because of long working hours. Some of us were living in other cities,” says the IT professional.
He and other people in the neighbourhood hit upon the idea of forming a community portal and turned to online property management firm CommonFloor. Someone in the group had heard about this firm from a friend; apart from selling real estate and managing apartment activities, it claims to have set up platforms to connect neighbours in 50,000 communities across India.
CommonFloor helps communities set up these platforms for free, supporting the exercise by displaying advertisments on the network. The group just told CommonFloor that a platform for private communications was needed, and the company handled the rest.
Welcome to the new-age neighbourhood, where you can enjoy the community support system of the old days without fearing that your privacy will be invaded; ideal in these times when busy professionals have little time or inclination for that cuppa and chat at the neighbours’. From mundane matters like maintenance fees and society meetings, to play dates and shlok groups, the number of gated communities relying on such portals to interact with the people next door is growing.
“We have 100 or so modules within the system to help residents interact,” says Param Sidhu, co-founder of JustMyNeighbour, which has set up portals for more than 3,000 societies across 10 cities in India, with facilities like discussion groups and SMS alerts. “Like the ‘Ask a Neighbour’ forum which helps residents find good schools, plumbers, even check out a domestic help. The idea is to create an effective management system for the society,” says Sidhu. “We even help societies sell advertising space. There are different events like Diwali melas which have advertising potential and we help connect with corporates so it helps generate revenue for the society.” Like CommonFloor, JustMyNeighbour also follows a free, ad-supported model, with members from the community acting as content moderators.
For hundreds of young, urban Indians who work long hours and have long commutes, these online communities are coming to replace the close-knit neighbourhoods they grew up in. And their numbers are likely to rise. A 2010 report by the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that by 2030, 70% of new jobs in India are likely to be created in cities, where the population will soar to 590 million (it was 340 million in 2008).
“You basically log into your community,” says Belkhede.“There is an option to send emails to people in different flats. There is a lot of flexibility about how to communicate.” The portal had just started in 2009 when Meghana Behere, Belkhede’s neighbour, moved in. “For a working mother like myself who is away from home 12 hours a day, this is a lifesaver,” says Behere. “It’s nice to be able to come back at the end of the day, hook on and know what has happened in your neighbourhood. Not everyone is around through the day. To give you a small instance, if someone leaves their car lights on, a message is posted, and that is such a help.” Does it replace the community spirit she grew up with? “I don’t think you can virtualize what a touch of the doorbell gets you; like someone asking you what you think of their sari design. That conversation or face-to-face time can never be replaced by technology. But this is of great convenience,” says Behere.
“We did not know any of our neighbours and lived like strangers in the same community for over a year, until we faced a sewage issue in the building,” says Bangalore-based Vikas Malpani. His experiences led him to start CommonFloor.com with two friends. Today the company claims to cater to societies across 120 cities. “We realized that getting everybody together and addressing the issue was more difficult than actually fixing it.”
The USP, Malpani believes, is the sheer convenience. “There is no separate URL that a society has to provide. Once a person has bought or rented a property, he can register at the apartment community on CommonFloor.com to reach out and connect with others of the same community. Day-to-day needs like garbage disposal, maids, security, etc., can be discussed and many features are integrated with email and SMS, making it easy for users to interact. And one can set up their community networking free of cost,” he adds.
Facebook and email groups where many communities have come together are popular too. But they come with certain disadvantages, says Pune-based IT professional Sonu Krishnan. “Groups like Google just send a mail, so you cannot contact people who have no access to mail,” he says. “These platforms (like CommonFloor.com) facilitate greater interaction by sending SMS. It gives you the option of being an administrator, which Google does not. Here I can select a committee and they can select how they want to handle the conversation.”
“Facebook (FB) is a social network where you go for entertainment,” adds Malpani. “It is not a forum to get things done. You won’t go to FB for a plumber. Here you can get quotes for plumbers and cobblers. It’s a mini Just Dial built into the system.”
Despite its various benefits, for many people it is the personal connect that counts. Especially for the older generation, as Mumbai-based Mathew Yohannan found when he started a community platform on Google, Royal Park Plot C2, for his neighbourhood two years ago. “For the older lot, they still believe in noticeboards and notice copies coming to their house.” Adds Krishnan, “We still need to meet once in 15 days and discuss what is happening. Not everyone is tech savvy and some points of view are best communicated face-to-face. Arguments especially can get ugly.”
For others, like entrepreneur and young mother Hetal Adukia, the lack of face time is the biggest advantage. Adukia lives in Planet Godrej, a gated community of 400 flats not far from the cosy south Mumbai neighbourhood she was raised in. “It is not like the place where I grew up but who has the time for that kind of interaction now? Here, I never have to worry about how my kids will be occupied. There is a whole bunch of activities which are posted online and we just log on and choose. This is the way forward according to me.”