Gurgaon: Recently, Ankita Anand literally handed out garbage to parents of the children who study at the pre-school she runs in this suburb of New Delhi.
It was at the behest of local residents of her tony Gurgaon neighbourhood; the trash was to be used as a prop in a protest berating the civic authority for an illegal garbage dump nearby that emitted a terrible stench.
Health hazard: Unfinished public works projects dot Gurgaon, home to large numbers corporate professionals. Rajeev Dabral / Mint
At the most recent demonstration on 22 September, which included parents from Anand’s school, cricketer Yuvraj Singh joined his neighbours in naming an adjacent traffic circle Kachra Chowk, or garbage junction.
It was the latest in a series of protests for civic causes staged by residents of city suburbs, from Gurgaon in the north to Bangalore in the south, that are home to large numbers of technology, finance and other corporate professionals. The protests stood out for their theatrical, yet non-partisan, nature.
In Bangalore, a 5km potholed stretch of Bannerghatta Road inspired frustrated commuters to carry signs such as “BG Road should be renamed Bumpy Road” and “Where is the road? Help us find it”. Another Gurgaon protest saw residents take over an empty swimming pool.
“It is quite a contrast to the attitude of (other) metro residents,” says Anand Kumar, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Social Systems, “where they have an attitude of benign neglect towards civic amenities and conditions of public health and hygiene.”
Slideshows and laptops
New-age protesters in the suburbs, where public issues trump political ones, are more likely to be armed with slideshows, laptops and irony rather than bricks and bamboo staves.
In fact, Gurgaon’s most recent demonstrations were born out of a PowerPoint presentation. Prabhat Aggarwal— who is a resident of a neighbourhood developed by DLF Ltd and chief executive of Parsec Technologies Pvt. Ltd, a company that makes technology for call centres—was riding a bicycle when he spotted trucks dumping garbage on the side of the road. He took photos, created slides and brought them to his neighbours.
“We used to get the stench and think it was individual drainages and get them cleaned regularly,” says another resident-turned-activist, Sunil Jhaveri, who is chairman of investment advisory group MSJ Capital and Corporate Services Pvt. Ltd. “We did not realize it was a much bigger issue.”
A dozen families from the affected areas, worried about both the smell and the possible diseases and contamination the dump might bring, waited out months of meetings with officials, complaints to the police and a legal filing in a Haryana court.
When nothing worked, they tried a different tack. In August, around 50 donned masks to protect themselves against the noxious smell, and protested at the dump site, holding signs that read “Creating a dengue city”, and “Ill-ennium city”, riffing on Gurgaon’s nickname of Millennium City.
On 22 September, 400 more joined the morning rally that bestowed garbage chowk with its new name.
“I have never seen such mobilization,” says Sudhir Kapoor, secretary general of the DLF City residents’ welfare association, or RWA, who also helped organize a protest last year against Gurgaon’s severe summer-time power cuts.
Some of their creative inspiration for the garbage demonstrations, Jhaveri says, came from a protest staged a few years ago at another Gurgaon development, Hamilton Court. The issue there was non-existent progress on the unfinished road that led to the complex.
Lacking the funds to do anything that cost money, the local RWA erected bamboo poles, attached a red cloth between them, and wrote sly messages such as “Iddhar kuan uddhar khai, yeh sadak hamne garv se banayi”, or “Here a well, there a gorge, we’ve proudly made this road”, attributed to Huda, the Haryana Urban Development Authority.
“Our methodology was, we don’t want to do mud-slinging, slogan shouting, throwing eggs,” says Neeraj Seth, a member of the Hamilton Court RWA. “We wanted to be intellectually stimulating, with just a little creative bent.” Within a month, he says, construction started on the road.
The cause and strategy behind Bangalore’s Bannerghatta Road protest, too, were similar. “The road was pretty pathetic,” says T.K. Chandrasekar, who was president of the local Mantri Residency RWA when the demonstration was organized. “There was no road, only potholes.”
Residents of the complex, which was overwhelmingly populated by professionals from the technology industry, spent a few months chasing government officials before striking out on their own.
“The whole concept was not to block the traffic, not to disturb pedestrians,” Chandrasekar says, “and we clearly mentioned no political parties, no unions. We were looking for participation from seniors, ladies and schoolkids.”
After the protest, Chandrasekar says, a public works engineer met with them, laid out a plan, and gave them weekly updates on the progress of the road.
The new kind of activism makes sense for Bangalore, says Muralidhar Rao, who is involved in public causes in the city and is active in an online forum called Praja.in. “RWA(s) consist of elderly, retired; youngsters are all pursuing their careers and can’t always afford time,” he says, “all these techies who would otherwise never have been involved, get involved through the Web.”