New Delhi: Decentralized governance has been the soul of India’s flourishing democracy, but now a movement is seeking to bring the citizens at the forefront of policymaking for better governance, better public services, and to shape local budgetary decisions.
Bengaluru-based non-profit Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy is making efforts to improve the quality of life in urban areas by catalysing a systemic change through participatory forms of governance. Founded in 2001 by Ramesh Ramanathan and Swati Ramanathan, the NGO (non-governmental organization) started as a movement to enable citizen involvement in governance for ensuring greater public interest, accountability of policymakers and improved implementation of programmes and, thereby, enhanced living standards in the cities.
Janaagraha was the winner of the SM4E awards in the “Crowdsourcing, Crowd Economy and Crowd Funding" category, organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2017.
The non-profit’s Web platform IChangeMyCity (ICMYC), which seeks to promote social change, enables residents to report problems, from streets in need of repair to trash pickups, and further helps the public to determine if and when something has been done to address the problem. It helps build networks of communities and local civic bodies, provide data on urban issues, civic awareness and training—all of this at a local neighbourhood level. It has more than 400,000 registered users in Bengaluru and over 700,000 users in Mumbai, and has been cited among 23 civic tech platforms of the world in the World Bank’s report Civic Tech in the Global South.
ICMYC runs the Citizen app and is building the Engineer and Elected Representative apps to complete the circle of civic connectivity between the citizen, councillors and civic agency officials at the local level. It also powers the Public Eye app for the Bengaluru Traffic Police for citizens to report traffic violations, and has 64,904 users who have posted 83,838 complaints with a 67% resolution rate. It runs the annual participatory budgeting campaign in Bengaluru. The campaign runs on three tracks—community workshops in neighbourhoods, a Budget Bus that travels around the city collecting budget inputs and reaching out to digital citizens through ICMYC.
“Systemic changes are inherently difficult to implement, given the scale and nature of improvements we seek to bring in urban planning, municipal finance, transparency, accountability and citizen participation," says Sapna Karim, coordinator (civic participation) at Janaagraha.
Janaagraha runs the MyCityMyBudget initiative, which seeks citizen participation in the city budget, and makes participatory-budgeting a mandatory requirement in Karnataka by 2020. The programme seeks to improve civic participation in budgets and works at a neighbourhood level for all citizens in a city to have access to a basic minimum quality of life. It aims to create structured platforms for civic participation to facilitate active citizenship and to build channels of communication between communities and governments.
The NGO began with the philosophy of including the citizen’s voice in local decision-making to deepen democracy, and started with a campaign on participatory budgeting called Ward Works in 2001. “It is our belief that citizens have a right and a duty to engage at the local level on civic matters, on community building initiatives to foster ownership of the city and to ensure right spends of limited municipal budgets," says Karim.
At the centre of Janaagraha’s belief, Karim says, is the fact that the scale of the problems faced by people in the cities today cannot be solved by governments alone and requires the engagement of citizens too. “That engagement however needs to be organized and specific to ensure optimal outcomes," she notes.
To garner maximum public response and engagement, the NGO significantly utilizes technology and social media for both expanding its programme and outreach. Right from its inception, Karim says, it was realized that technology for communication with citizens and for assimilating and analysing data was of extreme importance in making decisions and creating platforms for citizens to engage. “The participatory budgeting campaigns in 2001 and 2003 both used technology and maps to engage citizens in prioritizing local infrastructure works in their neighbourhoods," she adds.
All social media channels are utilized to reach out to citizens—Facebook and Twitter posts, social media advertisements, mailer and posts. The NGO also partnered with the city and state governments to enable greater reach and achieve scale. “Our partnership with the MoHUA (ministry of housing and urban affairs) on the Swacchata suite of products, with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike on complaint systems integration, publishing of city dashboards has greatly aided the scale of ichangemycity," highlights Karim.
Janaagraha now seeks to digitally engage with 10 million citizens across 20 cities by 2020 with MyCityMyBudget proposed to enable 10% of the city budget to be decided through citizen engagement in Bengaluru. “We look forward to facilitating 50 ward sabhas (data driven, structured ward level review meetings with citizens, councillors and civic agency officials run by citizen volunteers) in Bengaluru by 2020," says Karim, adding that ICMYC has been launched in Mumbai and the NGO is working on taking our on-ground citizenship activities to Mumbai.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.