Citizen groups in Bengaluru celebrate milestone years of progress and impact

These citizen groups forged collaborations with government entities and individuals to attain their goal of being changemakers in the city.

Citizen activism in Bengaluru has been an example of perseverance and driving change. There are citizen groups that serve as an inspiring example that not all development initiatives need to be government-led. Sustained citizen action can play a huge role. These groups have demonstrated that the city can advance through hyper local intervention by citizens. We profile a few of these groups that mark their milestone years of being changemakers.

Whitefield Rising: 10 years of citizen action

The question of responsibility for addressing everyday issues, like garbage and traffic, prompted Nitya Ramakrishnan, founder of Whitefield Rising, Mahadevpura constituency, to contemplate that active citizen participation can result in change. This served as an impetus to the formation of Whitefield Rising in 2013. “Today, we work with youth who are equipped with better skills to deal with the city’s concerns,” she says. 

As its website states, Whitefield Rising is a citizen’s movement for the people, by the people; a journey that began with saving a tree in 2013, to culminating today as a registered charitable trust.

Issues worked on

Women’s safety, pollution, government schools, waste segregation, greening, emergency services, water, lakes, staff welfare, stray dogs, medical care for the underprivileged, among others.

COVID-19 campaign by the Whitefield Rising
COVID-19 campaign by the Whitefield Rising. Pic Courtesy: Whitefield Rising website

Their various achievements include rejuvenating lakes, nurturing stray dogs, and working on solid waste management. They have also collaborated with the government and the police and other agencies over the years.

“But what have we learnt? Can we truly change the world? No. Can we influence the city? Maybe not. Can we impact our immediate neighbourhood? To some extent, yes. Can we bring about significant transformation? It’s uncertain, as it varies. However, we could not rest knowing that there is potential for us to bring about at least some change,” Nitya says.

Over the years, they have gleaned insights from various citizen groups, activists, and experts. “Now, we are a family of thousands across Mahadevapura and we have developed deep bonds, making it all really worthwhile.”

Read more: A comprehensive guide to addressing Bescom-related electric hazards

WoW JP Nagar: Women take the lead

Women of Wisdom (WoW Group), started as a small gathering of women from 17th B Main, JP Nagar 2nd Phase, dedicated to resident welfare and administration of civic and cultural activities. Founded in 2019, WoW Group is a recognised organisation responsible for the well-being of Ward 198 in JP Nagar. 

Initially, they organised themselves based on their social networks within their locality, and later consolidated into a single organisation. “We decided not to conduct kitty parties, but use this platform to bring some changes in our neighbourhood. We wanted to help women to work on civic issues, going beyond their daily duties of household chores,” says Shweta Urs, co-founder and secretary of WoW, JP Nagar. Today, they are a team of 18 members. 

They initially organised small festivals and established a Whatsapp group in order to get to know each other well and understand the issues of their locality. That is when they realised there are a lot of civic issues that need attention.

Solid waste management (SWM) was one of the biggest concerns. They took it upon themselves to resolve the issue. “We got our basic demographics in place and endeavoured to understand our ward, starting from scratch. Now, in 17 blocks we have 17 Whatsapp groups, so whenever a concern comes up, we put it up on the group and we connect them with the local official,” says Shweta. 

Initially, it was difficult to establish credibility since it was a new organisation and funding was a concern. “We registered WoW in the third year of our founding. Since then, the residents have been paying a certain amount to manage the funds.” Currently, they are seeking funding from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives and other potential sources. 

“One of the major challenges we faced during our five year journey is convincing and educating people about basic civic issues. Let alone our neighbours, it was difficult convincing our own family members about the goal of the association, especially when there was no remuneration,” says Shweta. Today, they say that they are like a large family, celebrating festivals together and they use these occasions to educate people. They have also installed a lane composter so that no waste leaves their street, as they take responsibility for composting it themselves. 

WoW JP Nagar members at one of their campaigns.
WoW JP Nagar members at one of their campaigns. Pic courtesy: WOW JP Nagar Instagram

Though it started out as an all women’s team, men have eventually joined to support the cause. “We have an advisory committee that comprises only men, which takes care of our meet-ups, projects and awareness programmes,” says Shweta. With the support of both men and women, people are now aware that if they need any kind of support, they can approach the organisation. They have also started to work with government projects with the support of the advisory committee. 

“We did a programme with Samarthana, to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene in government schools. This is the first project where we got paid and it worked as a great inspiration for the home-makers to earn something by contributing to society,” Shweta recalls. They are now recognised by government officials, who are open to their suggestions and recommendations. 

“If residents of every street takes ownership for their respective streets, they can make a difference. It is the citizens’ responsibility to question and get work done to bring change. We are an example of that. We also regularly organise carnivals for women entrepreneurs to market their products. When people unite, progress is assured,” says Shweta.  

Reap Benefit: Transforming youth into changemakers

In a recent UNICEF report, it was revealed that a significant 53% of Indian youth will leave school without getting skills required to get a job. “This glaring skills deficit severely limits their ability to effectively grapple with pressing concerns like climate change and civic issues,” says Pooja Pawar, Head of People and Learning, Reap Benefit.

Reap Benefit was started in 2012, completing 10 years in 2022. “We embark on a crucial mission to address a twofold challenge confronting Indian youth: The dearth of essential skills and agency, which stifles youth’s engagement in tackling local climate and civic issues,” says Pooja.

“We are committed to working with adolescents and youth aged 13-23, primarily hailing from underserved urban and rural communities. Our grassroot mobilisation (through educational institutions, civil society organisations and government bodies) and our technology platform has been instrumental in directly improving the lives of these young people. Till this date we have empowered, 121,000 individuals and with the ongoing government integration we will reach 4.5 million young people,” says Pooja. 

They are dedicated to addressing these challenges head-on and fostering a new generation of proactive, skilled, and engaged citizens, referred to as “Solve Ninjas.” Their approach is deeply rooted in local action, harnessing the potential of local data, solutions, and campaigns.

As Solve Ninjas become more involved and skilled, they play a vital role in shaping community-based public goods, such as local data, solutions and policies, thereby enhancing civic participation.

To empower these dedicated Solve Ninjas, Reap Benefit employs a comprehensive set of five key levers, which are: Network of local mentors, peer community, knowledge toolkits and solutions, access to local data and consistent behaviour nudges. They have already developed a portfolio of over 550 civic and climate solutions and 40 problem-solving playbooks and toolkits. This allows for scaling best practices.

“Our efforts have resulted in the collection of over 500,000 crowdsourced data points, covering a range of civic and climate indicators. We have successfully employed a gamified approach to engage youth, yielding an impressive 30% engagement rate – a remarkable achievement compared to the 10% industry benchmark,” says Pooja.

Solve Ninja Movement by Reap Benefit.
Solve Ninja Movement by Reap Benefit. Pic courtesy: Reap Benefit Website

Many of the ninjas are entrepreneurs, and community mobilisers have also stood for local body elections. “It has been an enriching journey so far; 80% of the team is based in Bengaluru, but we also have small teams functioning in Delhi and in Punjab, with a couple of them working remotely from Chennai and Mysuru. All 30 members are full time team members and we also have volunteers, part-timers, and consultants. Majority of our funding comes from foundations, and rest of it comes from revenue, individual donors and retail.”

Solve Ninja platform

It is an innovative technology platform that has approximately 100,000 users across 21 states

The platform has a sustained 30% average engagement rate, underlining its effectiveness in driving meaningful change

Pooja highlights challenges such as how to encourage and sustain diverse youth communities, and creatively leverage incentives to drive youth involvement in community action.

“As we complete 10 years in this space, we feel proud of the work that our ninjas have accomplished on the ground, which has proved our core belief that action leads to agency. We feel quite happy about the 200 communities that are activated across 15 states and the way technology has played a role,” says Pooja. 

Aasha Infinite Foundation: Education for the underprivileged

Meera Raman’s passion for education led her to establish Aasha Infinite Foundation, which completes 10 years in 2024. Her goal is to empower underprivileged children with quality education. “When I moved to Mumbai, I started the Smart English institute. I was teaching homemakers and professionals spoken and creative writing in English, but it so happened that my maid’s daughter needed help and I started teaching her.” This would prove to be a turning point for her. “It was a joy to teach her and it made a difference in her life. She got a very good job. She was able to mentor others, and she became an example for her community. It stayed as a thought in my mind to educate children from underprivileged backgrounds.”

Meera recalls the time when she was living in a high rise apartment, but a little bit away there are slums, and she noticed how stark the differences were. “I asked the children in the slums if they would like to learn English, they expressed interest, and I started teaching them. We had four levels of learning in that class.”

Slowly, Meera’s friends started joining her. “They were all educated women, some were working who wanted to give back to society and some were housewives, who wanted to do something meaningful. Many of them are still with us.”

Meera Raman with school students
Meera Raman with her students. Pic courtesy: Aasha Infinite Foundation

However, it was when she shifted to Bengaluru that she registered the organisation. “We adopted a government school in Bommanahalli, but we initially found it difficult to find volunteers”. They eventually found some volunteers in Mysuru. “We had created our own books and modules. Each lesson had to be an independent one since it is volunteer-driven.”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Meera was undeterred, and in fact, devised a method that made them thrive. “We reworked on the material to make it suitable; classes peaked because many of the parents of the children (auto drivers, labourers and migrant workers) were at home. They too wanted to learn from the classes. We had adult literacy classes and strengthened our DRP-distant reading programme,” says Meera.

Other programmes

Aasha Kannada Programmes: One-on-one online courses for conversational or spoken Kannada as well as written Kannada.

Group Kannada appreciation workshops in online and offline modes

Kannada Appreciation Workshop-Kaun Banega Kannadiga: It is designed as an activity-based workshop, which teaches Kannada through games. A minimum of 20 participants are required. The duration of the express offline course is two hours and the elaborate online course is 6 hours.

So far, 10,000 students have been educated in Aasha Infinite Foundation. Meera stresses that passion and interest are essential to be a good teacher. Her nurturing of both the students and teachers has been the defining feature of Aasha Infinite Foundation.

Environment Support Group (ESG)

 Environment Support Group (ESG), the pioneering environmental organisation, which has been pivotal in creating awareness on environmental issues plaguing Bengaluru, completed 25 years in 2023. Watch this interview of ESG’s trustees Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi S Rao by Bhanu Sridharan of Citizen Matters.

The success of citizen groups lies in people coming together and collaborating with the local government and other stakeholders to make Bengaluru a more liveable city. As Nitya says: “We need to question ourselves, ‘Am I making the right choice?’ be it in electing our representatives, or our behaviour towards society.”

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