The phones are ringing continuously this mid-morning in the office space that Haiyya shares with another company in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. A local newspaper has carried an article on the not-for-profit group and there are lots of enquiries. For Deepti Doshi and her activist colleagues, there’s unexpected additional work this morning.

Founded in 2012, Haiyya is a “platform for ordinary citizens to come together and make a difference collectively on civic and public problems they want to see changes on," says Doshi, director, Haiyya, in between phone calls. It works on the simple model of community organization, encouraging citizens to assume leadership positions and addressing problems in their area. This happens at a “hyper hyper" level, says Doshi—it could be in a person’s building or street.

This leadership bug spreads in the locality, for other citizens to get involved. “I can’t emphasize how hyper it is," says Doshi. “The snowflake model does grow on the outside and holds itself together. Then Haiyya is no longer needed. Fundamentally, we don’t believe in apathy, we believe people haven’t been given an appropriate platform."

The newspaper report that has created such a hum here is on one of Haiyya’s public safety programmes to create a neighbourhood watch. But the initiative that’s keeping Haiyya busy and will continue to do so over the next year is its “Right to Vote" campaign, in which its volunteers are helping people register for the 2014 general election.

“Haiyya never started because of the election," says Doshi. “They just happen to be next year. There is a lot of energy in the public to get involved in some way. We are capitalizing on that energy, riding on the wave. Our point is to get people involved with the daily issues. We will convert all these volunteers and energy to some sort of action, then say democracy may start with voting, but you have to take charge of some of these issues."

Doshi, born and raised in the US, was studying for a master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School in the US when activist Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement was gathering pace here. She had previously worked in India, on earthquake relief in Gujarat in 2001, and had been a management consultant and entrepreneur. But her thoughts were on how this movement would be sustainable. “I wish Anna Hazare had told people: find an issue in the neighbourhood, and said, I would send someone there to help you solve that corruption issue," says Doshi. “The movement externalized the problem, pointing fingers as opposed to taking responsibility for the problem. What we say is: Start in yourself before you point fingers somewhere else. First look at the community we live and work in."

She was on a visit to India when a chance meeting with an information technology (IT) entrepreneur, who shared her wish of breaking middle-class apathy, gave rise to Haiyya. The entrepreneur, whom Haiyya does not want to identify, asked her if she would give up her job for this work.

Haiyya started in February with a fellowship class, repeated over a period of three-four months. This helped the fellows train to be community organizers, learning how to build relationships, build volunteer teams, and lead. The second class had 10 fellows and the next would have 50, says Doshi. “From a 16-year-old to a 50-year-old, boys, girls, uncles and aunties—we are equal. We are showing democratic principles. They have a three-day workshop, then they spend time in the field. They have a goal of creating 10 neighbourhood teams and build the next level of leaders."

There were about seven-eight fellows—all from Bandra, but they did not know each other—in the first programme in February. All had come together in reaction to the December Delhi rape case, in an attempt to make their neighbourhoods safe. They all went back to work in their neighbourhoods and today, this public safety campaign has grown to include more people and neighbourhoods.

Each fellow works on a specific campaign and commits 10-15 hours a week of fieldwork. During the three-day orientation programme on the principles of community organizing developed at the Harvard Kennedy School, the fellows determine a strategy to create change. Over the next three months, they research the issue, meet experts and continue to receive leadership training, while also recruiting citizens in their area to get involved.

One such fellow is 16-year-old Yashmi Adani, a student. She heard about Haiyya through a friend, registered for the first training session and liked it so much that she decided to continue. She worked on the voter registration campaign in Kandivali where, according to her, about 1,700 people signed up. “It was fun and I was shocked to know so many people are not registered but care about it," she says over the phone.

Adani joined the movement to improve her leadership qualities, which, she says, have improved. She is chairing some meetings next on Haiyya’s collaboration with the Rotaract club on voter registration.

“Volunteering at an NGO is one thing," says Doshi, “but we are asking people to serve your own problems and constituencies. That’s fundamentally what Haiyya believes: If we can create the collective voice, then we can change the power structures that exist in the country, leading to more transparency. Our take on governance is citizen activation."

Haiyya is encouraging the next batch of fellows to register on their website by 5 November.

For this campaign, Haiyya Fellows use a mobile app, which assists them when they go door to door—they can search for the person in the files, and if the person is already registered, then they just verify their names and address against the list on the app or help them change it.

“We are an experiment," says Doshi before she heads to her next meeting. “I don’t know if this will work. We are hitting at something the country wants. We are not pushing, people are pulling at it. There seems to be a thirst in the country to do something on their own terms, not on someone else’s."

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If you volunteer, you will

• Work with the community directly and go door-to-door.

• Organize an event.

• Host a people’s ‘sabha’—a small local group discussion.

Recent donors

• Vallabh Bhansali, co-founder, chairman of Enam Financial Consultants Pvt Ltd

To contact Haiyya, visit,