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Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan at their central Bangalore residence. Photo: Aniruddha Choudhary/Mint.
Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan at their central Bangalore residence. Photo: Aniruddha Choudhary/Mint.

Gale force

Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan. Together they have been working on changing urban India for 14 years now

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.

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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.

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.
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.

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.
DO NOT OPEN: Ramesh: There’s no place we don’t go with each other. It’s a commitment we made.
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