‘Become the change you want others to be’

At a time when everyone feels Bengaluru is down in the dumps, V Ravichandar gave a stirring TEDx talk on 4 April, 2013, on how there is plenty to hope if civil society, businesses and the government can join hands.

As per the last census, Bangalore had a growth of over 48%. Across Indian cities, the growth has been rapid. It is the kind of growth that would have tested the best of political and managerial talent in an extremely empowered city – mayor kind of system that we see globally. Given that we do not have proper city governance system, no visionary leaders and lack of urban governance skills, we have a perfect storm developing across our cities.

Do we stay with business as usual?

Each of us has our own view of the problem in the city. It could be roads, or traffic or water supply. It is a finite set of problems that people are speaking about. If we have to seek change, we have to find some positive disruption models in this space. Gandhiji famously said, "Let us be the change that we wish to see."

Guess who is missing?

This is a chart of fried egg. The choice of government is purely by chance. The rest of the guys are the do-gooders who are trying to make cities better. A major stakeholder missing out here is ‘business’. You don’t find business sufficiently involved on issues of urban governance and therefore let’s try to understand what exactly business is doing in this space.

Business in Trade Union mindset

People in the government are the new Maharajas. The nature of the request the common citizen has is to fix the potholes, roads, the water supply etc. with their MPs, corporator. But if you look at the behaviour of business, they are in trade union mode in this space. Why trade union? Typically what does business tell of trade union, and what demands does trade union make? They say – look, be responsible. You have no sense of how bad the business is and how irresponsibly demands are being made.

Now shift to their behaviour in the city space. What are they demanding of the powers that be? Make this place work, fix the infrastructure, allow me to work by making that happen, without even making the effort to see whether we have the systems in place. Do we have the people in place to make cities better? They make no effort to understand the nature of problem in running a good city, but they demand to fix this place; no different from what they tell their trade unions.

We had a deal. It’s broken!

True, we have a social contract. Business was supposed to be about creating jobs, about paying taxes and maybe paying bribes. In return they expect government to take care of defence, law and order, provisioning civic services. We can complain, but the reality is that, this contract between business and government is broken.


This is a Pie of a typical balance sheet of any business. But there is a line item in this chart that you will not find in any balance sheet. That is the cost of a dysfunctional city. If a city works better, the top line of companies will be better and consequently the bottom-line will also be better. Productivity, logistics, etc will be better. All the balance sheets, profit and loss statements, which the businesses most care about, have a line item, which has every minute of their lives while they work in the city but is not reflected in the balance sheet. Point is, if actually a city worked better, businesses stand to gain monetarily. So my case here is, that business really needs to get involved for its own vested interest and not because it is a socially nice thing to do. Fixing up a city’s problems got to be another item on the CEO’s agenda because if they end up doing that properly, they make more money.

1) Advocacy Model: JNNURM

More examples as to how business can get involved in this particular space. These have actually happened on the ground.

Model 1 is an Advocacy Model. About Jawahar Lal National Urban Renewal Mission – it is a 12 billion dollar programme for 63 cities that came about in 2005. It came about because of certain sort of people outside the government who went ahead and made it a case for making it a central government program. That is what I would call the Advocacy Role.

2) Engagement Model: Bangalore Forward

Bangalore Agenda Task Force from 2000 to 2004. Here the political leadership of the day invites people from outside of government and asks, ‘Can you work with the government alongside and help make the city better? ‘ This is a model of engagement where you are empowered by the system and you are working from within to make that happen.

3) Third Model: City Connect

The civil society movement is strengthened by businesses joining it. Business is the new elite. And elites do have responsibility. They can’t shy away from it. They can bring money to projects; they can bring volunteer energy to the table. The idea of City Connect really is, can we collaborate between civil society and the government. Of course, it assumes that government gives you space to operate in this collaborative process. Can we collaborate to make better cities rather than complaining?

I will give you four examples of how this collaboration between civil society and government can actually make certain projects come alive.

The first one deals with the whole issue of outcomes. Everything that we really care for is outcome as we go about our lives. If you take the transport case, we wish to move faster with fewer casualties. So that is the kind of outcome that you seek. But everything about the government is "silos". Silos designed to withstand a nuclear attack and silos that do not co-operate with each other to give you the outcome that you want. If you take the space that you want to fix, say transport, you have about 8 to 10 bodies – Corporation, Police, Transport Authority. If you talk to the Public Transport guy, his key matrix, his success determinant, he says, is that he added 1500 buses last year. Is that an outcome? The concept of outcome doesn’t exist in the government. It’s all about mega crore spending and project announcements.

1) A city accountability platform

One thing that happened during the Bangalore Agenda Task Force is we created a platform called the BATF Summit. The way this worked is, every six months, you bring all the stakeholders i.e, City Corporation, City Development Authorities, the Transport Authorities, etc, on a platform where the CEO gives a report in terms of what his agency has done and what his agency plans to do over the next six months. Six months later, they or their successors come and report on the outcome in a publicly transparent manner. This does two things – it improves the trust quotient with the citizens and inter-related projects can be integrated for better outcomes.

2) Bangalore Property Tax

Back in 2000, there was a kind of property tax where the Revenue Officer decided what property tax you needed to pay. By moving to a system, you removed the discretion of officers and created a uniform, transparent self assessment schemes. I would rather trust the citizen to tell the truth than to expect a revenue officer to uncover a lie. The results are there for you to see. The property tax collection in Bangalore has gone up 12 times in 12 years with less than 20% accounted by new constructions. This is where people outside the government have worked with government to make something like this happen.

3) Roads

We all offer lip sympathy to pedestrians but we go out and widen the roads for motorists. What we do on the streets is the opposite of what we ought to be doing. There is now this work in progress initiative which says, can we design roads where the pedestrian is truly at the heart of the planning process? They will have wider footpaths, they will cross a grade. Vehicles can go over grade or under grade, followed by cyclists, followed by public transport , followed by motorised vehicles which will get uniform lanes; a hierarchy of road users of which you build this whole premise. This is a very interesting experiment, we still have to wait and see over the next 1.5 years how it pays out . But civil society under the City Connect Platform, which went out and spent money on designs, on ideation, gave it to the government. The government has agreed to spend tax payers’ money to make those roads a reality. The jury is out and we may mess up with the implementation but if things
go according to plan, about 30 kms of roads in the city centre will be designer kind of roads.

4) Waste

The last of the examples deals with waste. A Nobel laureate once said, "At the end of the stone age, stones did not disappear. At the end of Bronze Age, bronze did not disappear. So garbage is not going to disappear." We are going to live with it and the problem is going to get increasingly acute in the years to come. Right now civil society has been engaged over this idea. We now realise that landfill as a model might work in the West, but in India it is non-sustainable. You need to find decentralised solutions, segregation of waste at source. Civil society is working together with the government on a road map where we are collectively saying that we will work towards this. And the heart of the idea is that ‘not in my backyard’ needs to be giving way to ‘yes, in my backyard’ – NIMBY to YIMBY.

North by North-east?

The point that I am making is, businesses and civil societies only have two options. Either we can crib or can collectively make something about it. If you don’t do something about it collaboratively, a better tomorrow is not going to happen in our cities. We will go to our collective graves, with things getting worse. It’s not going to get better. And therefore there is actually merit in finding alternate models of collaboration between civil societies and the government to make life a lot more liveable for all of us. This will involve aspects of co-creation, whole lot of value of cross-pollination; there are areas where the government is strong, there are areas where private sector is strong and that cross-pollination could lead for better cities.

A sign for our times?

I started by saying what Gandhiji said, "Be the change you want to see." Amartya Sen said, "We are the argumentative Indian". I think, more than argumentative, we are the ‘Opinionated Indian.’ All of us have an opinion on what others should do. Change rarely begins with us. And therefore a sign for our times is to become the change that you want others to be. If each of us followed that, chances are that changes will happen much faster.

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