In the late 1990s, one man mobilized the residents of a small town outside Chennai into contributing around 12 crore to build a sewer network. R.S. Bharathi, chairman of the Alandur municipality in Tamil Nadu, had wanted the entire town connected to an underground sewer network. He initially approached the World Bank for funding. The World Bank said he needed to raise at least some of the cash from residents. Bharathi began the campaign hoping to raise 3.4 crore from people.

Finally, the project, including a solid waste treatment plant, was completed in just five years, from 2000-05.

It’s a story Isher Judge Ahluwalia—chairperson, board of governors, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier), and author of books like Urbanisation In India: Challenges, Opportunities And The Way Forward and Transforming Our Cities: Postcards Of Change—has shared before in her writings. She now hopes to retell it, and others in the same vein, at the India NonFiction Festival (INFF) in the Capital this weekend to illustrate the power of the individual to fix some of the most pressing problems of our times, including poor sanitation.

Niche conferences and academic seminars are often the loci for discussion on key issues, from governance to sustainable development and gender inequalities. It’s where subject-matter experts and intellectuals are most likely to converge, talk about their research and share ideas on addressing these concerns. And yet most of the solutions they come up with need the understanding, and buy-in, of the general public. The INFF holds out the promise of being one such platform.

Some of the speakers at the two-day festival will, in fact, talk about examples where individuals have been agents of change, and how people in the audience can participate in, and drive, similar transformations.

The two-day festival will see over 30 speakers, including former Union cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, politician K. Natwar Singh, former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter and writer Daman Singh, socialite Bina Ramani, former comptroller and auditor general of India Vinod Rai, justice Leila Seth, sociologist Dipankar Gupta and journalist B.G. Verghese.

Executive development and knowledge media company LeapVault organizes the festival in two cities—New Delhi and Mumbai. This edition, the second in New Delhi, will have panel discussions on topics like economy versus ecology, good governance and public policy, business and innovation, urbanization and development, India’s changing political and social landscape, changing values and behaviours, and gender norms.

Former Planning Commission member Arun Maira, one of the speakers this year, says, “In so many situations, the solutions seem to lie with the people." Maira says he will talk about his latest book, Redesigning The Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions. The underlying premise of the book, he explains, is that contradictory pulls, like the desire for new ideas and creativity on the one hand and for maintaining order on the other, can sometimes stall change in everything from business to governance. People don’t always believe this, yet it’s often the same contradictory pulls that they contend with in, say, traffic snarls. The solution is to create a win-win proposition, to identify and enable all the stakeholders by making a “better plan". Maira cites the example of the Delhi Metro. “It’s Indians doing it in an Indian context in a messy Indian city," he says.

Ritu Menon, co-founder of the Kali for Women publishing house and co-author of Borders And Boundaries: Women In India’s Partition, who more recently penned Out Of Line: A Personal and Political Biography Of Nayantara Sahgal, will be one of the speakers on the panel discussing gender inequality. Menon says she will talk about her latest book and the many reasons why people today should look to Sahgal as a role model. Menon says Sahgal was very political in her views—something that most young people in the country aren’t today, she says. Sahgal spoke out against the nationalization of banks and the Emergency imposed by her cousin and then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in the mid-1970s, for example. She also walked out of an abusive marriage at a time when it was “unheard of" (her separation from her husband was raised as a question in Parliament).

“Research shows people under 35 in India are the most conservative in the world," Menon says. It just might help young audiences to broaden their world view to read about Sahgal, her personal life and her politics, she adds.

The India NonFiction Festival will be held from 15-16 November, 1-7pm, at India Habitat Centre, Lodi Road, New Delhi. For the schedule of panel discussions, visit