Harnessing the power of Internet for change
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On 1 March, Gurgaon-based financial analyst Vaibhav Aggarwal started a petition on Change.org. The purpose: gather support against the finance minister’s proposal to tax the employees’ provident fund (EPF). “This is a draconian act and will be a killer blow to the already tax burdened salaried class which pays 30% income tax + 30% taxes in indirect form i.e customs, excise, service tax, etc.,” Aggarwal wrote.
On the day it was posted, Aggarwal’s petition got 100,000-plus signatures. The next day, the government indicated it was thinking about a roll-back. By the time it finally withdrew the tax on 8 March, around 240,000 people had expressed their support for the online petition.
“A lot of people were angry about the EPF tax,” says Preethi Herman, country director of Change.org India. “Vaibhav chose to do something about it.”
Every month, some 2,000 petitions from India are started on Change.org. Not all of them are as successful as the EPF roll-back call by Aggarwal, but they all give ordinary people a chance to draw attention to issues they care about. Between 14 March and 15 March, for example, more than 115 students and parents logged on to Change.org to start petitions to the Central Board of Secondary Education. Their grievance: they thought the math exam for class XII boards was exceptionally tough and they wanted the examiners to be lenient while marking the test. “You and I don’t think about math papers, but it is clearly very important to these people,” says Herman.
In 2014, Change.org got a special mention in the e-Governance category of Manthan Awards given by the Digital Empowerment Foundation.
Here’s how Change.org works: anyone can sign up on the website and start a petition. “We are an open platform. We have very broad guidelines. For example, a petition can’t bully and it can’t incite violence. If we detect anything like that, we take the petition down. But apart from that, people can start a petition on any subject,” explains Herman.
For some petitions, Change.org staff step in to provide strategic support. Like with the EPF petition by Aggarwal. The team, comprising seven members in India, realized the scope of the idea, and came on board early to streamline the message. This is rare, though, says Herman. It covers under 1% of petitions started, she adds.
At its core, Herman explains, Change.org is a technology company with a social impact built in and a “B-corporation”, which means it ploughs back the profits from ads and investments back into the platform. The technology end of Change.org is handled by the US head office.
Since 2014, Change.org has grown from 1.6 million registered users in India to 4 million users, says Herman. In terms of features, Change.org has added a crowdfunding option in the US. In a blog post, Colin Mutchler, the founder of crowdfunding site Louder which joined Change.org in October to offer the feature, said that an online petition is only as strong as the community that runs it and often the people who start the petition don’t have the money or resources to see it through. That’s where the crowdfunding comes in. Herman says the feature will be launched in India soon.
Already, Herman says, there are examples of petitioners taking campaigns offline, and seeking solutions by taking the signed petitions to the authorities. “The term slacktivism is so misrepresented. It undermines the power of what can be done on the Internet,” she says. Slacktivism refers to actions performed on the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement.
The Save the Bellandur Lake petition started by Bengaluru-based Sanchita Jha in October is one example, says Herman. In addition to the online petition, Jha used Change.org to call an in-person meeting of supporters and share a call-for-action poster online.
She also started a Facebook community to save the lake in which “snowy froth” and fire erupted as untreated sewage swirled in the waters. In November, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah committed Rs100 crore to set up sewage treatment plants and clean up the lake.
“Not 100% of petitions get victory,” says Herman. “But one-third gets to the goal the petitioners set at the start,” says Herman. “Think of it as New-Age activism.”
In this series, we revisit past winners of the mBillionth and Manthan awards to understand the initiative’s progress.