Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Swati Ramanathan | Empowering the urban citizen

The apathetic urban citizen is a myth—in the 14 years of working at the grass roots, we have yet to meet an Indian who does not care. Our experience has been that most urban citizens simply don’t know how to participate in making a difference.

Part of our challenge has been in making it easy for citizens to participate and take ownership without making it so hard that they have to give up their entire life in order to do so.

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Swati Ramanathan

Unfortunately, our governments have, slowly but surely, squeezed the oxygen out of citizenship, especially in cities. In countries like the US, governments make every effort to encourage citizen participation by giving room for citizens to take ownership in local matters. In urban India, we have become an entirely mai-baap sarkaar, bringing in the culture of dependence, allowing no space for civic responsibility. In fact, we are fast becoming part of the problem. We throw garbage indiscriminately, build our driveways on to the street, park without consideration—because we lack ownership of any public space.

The Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy has a large mission—we are committed to transforming the quality of life in our cities.

What defines Janaagraha’s approach is that while we are always strategic about the big picture, we are never too impatient to ignore details. Ultimately, details make the difference between success or failure. The Jaago Re! One Billion Votes campaign (launched by Janaagraha and Tata Tea to awaken and enable the citizens of India to register for voting) is an example of that. Today, the error in the voters list in our metros is anywhere from 40-60%. It has taken us six years of work on the ground, and with the Election Commission, to understand the full nature of the problem and come up with a scalable solution.

This brings me to another important aspect of our work—pilots on the ground to test the hypothesis. We get our learning from pilots so our solutions emerge from the experience of “doing". It is dangerous to get seduced by the idea of scale—“just push it through, and things will fall in place". Change in the public arena is not quite that simple and rarely works as anticipated. If one thinks of the city as a complex system (akin to the human body), every part is independent, but interlinked. Piloting is an important step in finding solutions because that’s where you understand what the links are, and how they influence the issue you are looking to solve and which laws needs to be updated.

Janaagraha works with both citizens and government. Just as working only with government makes one merely a think tank with no real understanding of how change occurs at the grass roots, so also working only at the grass roots may provide anecdotal successes, but rarely results in scalable change. Not all government is inefficient. We work with those within the government who we believe have leadership and courage.

A distinguishing factor about Janaagraha is our early embrace of innovations in technology to propagate scale on transforming citizenship. We started with Jaago Re! One Billion Votes, launched, which is now being taken forward around the world, and our latest is the most exciting—, a hyper-local site for participation which has won the Google Global Impact Award 2013.

We’re often asked how we ensure that the poor don’t get left out—mobile phones provide the possibility for inclusion. But I want to make a point here. It is a fallacy to believe that all change requires everyone to participate or it is not worth doing. Demands for change in urban India can be on the back of the middle class, which is articulate, has the greater ability and luxury of time to participate. But the platforms for change must be inclusive. One cannot ask the poor, who are fighting for survival, to become activists for change.

One of our critical advocacy successes is the inclusion of a law for citizen participation in our cities as a mandatory reform condition to states for allocation of Central funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. If you are a registered voter and live in rural India, you are a formal member of the gram sabha, a constitutionally mandated platform. The local panchayat is required to hold a gram sabha every month where citizens participate in decision making on local issues. But urban India has no such provision. An urban resident’s call to citizenship is limited to an occasional trip to the ballot box.

The Model Nagara Raj Bill, 2004, which was drafted by Janaagraha and introduced by the government of India changes this dilution of urban citizenship. The reform introduces the urban equivalent of the gram sabha, termed “area sabha". The structure for urban participation is based on the smallest neighbourhood unit in each ward—the polling part. The ward is made up of a number of polling parts, each polling part is an “area". Registered voters in each “area" are members of the area sabha, electing their “area" representatives along with their ward councillors. Each “area" representative is a member of the “ward committee", with a formal role in the decision making and budget for the ward. The area sabha provides the last mile connectivity between citizens and local government.

The test for social reformers is to be around long enough to gain credibility and the respect of both government and citizens. We have been doing this for 14 years now, so I think we have proven that we are serious, committed and focused. Our end-point of improving our cities and the quality of citizenship remains. Sometimes we are told that we are doing too many things, but we have one life to live and huge ambitions for our country.

While we are impatient for change, we have realized that change is a long process and not all of it even possible in our lifetime. But the demand for change must be urgent, the pressure relentless.

As told to Seema Chowdhry.

Swati Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (, and chairperson of Jana Urban Space Foundation (

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