CM Spotlight: A hat tip to changemakers across cities

At Oorvani Foundation's India Civic Summit 2024, the Spotlight segment celebrated several citizen-driven initiatives. Here are their stories.

On Saturday, March 23rd, Oorvani Foundation hosted the first ever edition of the India Civic Summit, an annual event envisioned as a unique convening of people working in the urban civic space. The Summit provided a platform for them to come together to learn, get inspired and celebrate their journeys.

In today’s time, where our cities face such overwhelming challenges — from traffic to water scarcity, from safety issues to vanishing commons and ecosystems — the need for citizen engagement is higher than ever. And that’s one of the reasons that the efforts and stories of the initiatives being undertaken must be highlighted, so that many more are inspired to follow in their footsteps. This was the thought behind the Citizen Matters Spotlight segment at the event, where editors spoke about several groups working to bring about positive change in their cities.

In the course of our regular reporting, as well as through the narratives of our citizen journalists, we have come to know of several groups and initiatives which are working towards making their respective cities more livable, sustainable and equitable.

The groups feted at the CM Spotlight event, by no means, constitute an exhaustive list. Nor was it meant to be an award for a handful. Through this segment, the team only wished to give a huge shout out to the tenacity, spirit and the work of some citizen-driven initiatives in diverse domains. Their efforts are indicative of the work being done in these spheres, that can inform and inspire others grappling with similar concerns and challenges. 

Watch the video to see who they are:

Driving change: The stories of these groups

Vetal Tekdi Bachav Kruti Samiti (VTBKS)

In Pune, as in many other cities, saving the city commons and green spaces from the externalities of unbridled development is an ongoing struggle among citizens. The movement by VTBKS is one such — it has been striving to protect the Vetal Hill in Pune and get it notified as a natural heritage site and no-development zone. 


Read more: Pune: Destroying a hill to build a road of dubious necessity


The mindless construction proposed on Vetal hill in Pune will be devastating for biodiversity and proposed development will harm precious aquifer systems. Citizens have been resisting attempts at such development on the hill and spreading awareness through protests and rallies involving apolitical and diverse groups of citizens, events like marathons and ‘Chipko’ movements. They have gathered extensive information through RTIs and have initiated legal proceedings by filing a PIL against a link road through the hills. 

7000+ signatures have been collected & submitted to PMC Town Planning, demanding protection for tekdis and while the fight is ongoing, they have been able to stall the destructive projects proposed.

Save Banyans of Chevella

Here is another green movement that has made headlines recently because of an NGT ruling. Some of you have already heard about their journey this morning from a key team member, Asiya Khan.

activists gathered under a banyan tree
A core group of volunteers fought the legal battle to earn a legal reprieve for more than 900 banyan trees near Chevella, Telangana, scheduled to be cut down by the National Highway Authority of India. Pic: Asiya Khan

The group came into being when the government decided to cut down more than 900 heritage banyans and 9000 other trees to make way for National Highway 163. They started an online petition, got the support of 60,000+ signatories, organised events & social media campaigns. They made representations before officials and ministers, undertook geotagging & mapping of trees…and finally filed a petition at the NGT.

In a significant breakthrough, the NGT has now passed a judgement recognising the value of the trees and asking NHAI to do an Environmental Impact Assessment.


Read more: Reprieve for Chevella Banyans: What it tells others fighting for roadside trees


Calcutta Tram Users’ Association (CTUA)

Trams in Kolkata decked up for the Tramjatra Festival 2023, that coincided with 150 years of the service.
Trams in Kolkata decked up for the Tramjatra Festival 2023, that coincided with 150 years of the service. Pic: CTUA (Via Twitter)

Mobility issues and traffic congestion is a bane in most of our growing cities today. A huge negative fall out of the same is poor air quality, triggered in large part by vehicle emissions. We come across several movements and initiatives pushing for more and better public transport, a move away from private vehicles, improved conditions for pedestrians etc.

Among the many such movements across cities, the Calcutta Tram Users’ Association in Kolkata is trying to revive its dying tramways as a viable, eco-friendly mode of public transit, not just a heritage exhibit. The West Bengal government is thinking of shutting down all tram routes except one.

The CTUA organises public protests, meet ups and special events to raise awareness and convince people about the utility of trams in a highly polluted urbanscape. Recently, we saw prominent promotions involving celebrities and influencers to mark the 151st birthday of Calcutta Tramways.

The group has also filed public interest litigations for revival of the trams. In response, in December 2023, the Calcutta High Court directed the state to consider modernising and restoring tram services. However, missing political intent has been primarily responsible for the current state of trams, and public opinion also remains divided. Clearly, there is a lot of work ahead but CTUA remains optimistic and dedicated.


Read more: To be or not to be: Iconic trams of Kolkata stare at an uncertain future


Aravalli Bachao Citizens’ Movement (ABCM)

Exploitation of the Aravallis, the oldest fold mountains of the world, profoundly impacts the biodiversity, micro climate, air quality and hydrological status of northwest India, spanning four states.

The Aravalli Bachao Citizens’ Movement seeks to protect this vulnerable ecosystem from mining, real estate, illegal encroachments, waste to energy plants and other destructive activities. The group has been relentlessly organising protests and awareness campaigns across the NCR, attending public hearings, and are very active even on popular social media.

Alongside its advocacy, it has been doing extensive research on and documenting illegal mining activity. They have impleaded themselves in several litigations and secured ‘forest status’ for 30,000 hectares via a Supreme Court ruling.

In response to one of the court judgments, the Haryana SPCB has set up committees at state and district levels to prepare & implement restoration of illegally mined areas in 7 districts. ABCM members are a part of state level committees to monitor progress.


Read more: Why NCR citizens are against a waste to energy plant at Bandhwari


iamgurgaon

Yet another initiative from the NCR, iamgurgaon, looks more specifically at environmental issues in the city of Gurgaon, or Gurugram, that has been ravaged by unchecked urbanisation. The group started its work in response to the unplanned growth of the city that was affecting natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Forests, water bodies, drains were rampantly misused as dumping sites.

Over the years, countless citizen volunteers have taken part in restoring stormwater drainage systems, afforestation activities, revival of water bodies, clearing encroachments and reversing degradation of forest areas. They have brought about several transformations, key among them being the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, spread across 380 acres of land that was once victim to a mining menace. Today, it is a sanctuary to more than 300 species of imperilled plants and 200 breeds of birds and wild animals.


Read more: When Gurugram citizens took charge of cleaning a stormwater drain


Since its inception in 2011, the Million Trees campaign project has successfully planted 2,74,339 trees today under four different restoration initiatives — Aravalli Biodiversity Park, Chakkarpur Wazirabad Bundh, Sikanderpur Watershed and Forest Trails, and the Badshahpur Forest Corridor.

The work of iamgurgaon has shown that eco-restoration projects not only add to natural revival but also enhance livability by creating better public spaces, improved mobility (walking, cycling) etc.

Spotlight – Mumbai

Mumbai as a city has seen such rampant and unsustainable development for such a long time, that the most common refrain amongst its citizens, is ‘jaane do,’ ab kuch nahin kar sakte. When so many people around you are exhausted, tired and disillusioned and also indifferent, it takes special dedication and commitment to push for change, to fight for Mumbai’s environment, to raise the issues of urban planning. This is done by approaching the Bombay High Court, mobilising people, organising protests, creating awareness and so on. Here are a few groups that use old and new methods to keep the good fight on.

Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST Campaign

For many years now, Mumbai’s famed public transport, the BEST bus, has been in financial trouble. Using this as an excuse the governments have been consistently reducing the fleet, number of permanent employees and handing over operations to private players.

BEST double decker bus at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) Bus station. Pic: Srikar Kashyap/Wikimedia Commons

Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST Campaign, is a collective of citizens that not only believes in restoration of BEST to its past glory, but also in providing adequate governmental support to public transport, so that congestion, traffic and vehicular pollution reduces in the city. 

The campaign has also supported the contractual workers, who were on strike, apart from flagging important safety issues wrt the buses that are run on wet-lease. Citizen activists and experts such as Vidyadhar Date, Hussain Indorewalla are part of the group and continue to push for government support to revive and support the BEST bus  service.


Read more: “Recognise their cultural significance,” says activist on the last day of the double decker bus


Walking Project 

The fact that pedestrians are not prioritised is so normalised that the idea of walking project itself is a courageous endeavour. This non-governmental organisation has a simple but rather difficult task of advocating for a “safe, convenient, and joyful walking experience.” 

The organisation engages with people, official bodies such the BMC and the state government, experts and other organisations for various initiatives. Their focus areas are community walks, mapping walkability, collecting, analysing and releasing data about footpaths, and community talks. They also showcase the roads which get repaired because of their interventions, which helps create awareness about the organisation as well as awareness of the issues.


Read more: All that it would take to make walking in Mumbai a world-class experience


Save Aarey Conservation Group 

Aarey is a forest, home to leopards, tribal hamlets, film city, chhota kashmir and now several residential complexes as well. It will also be home to the Metro Car shed, which is being constructed after the rather shocking chopping of trees in the middle of the night.  

members of save aarey movement on its 9th anniversary
“Save Aarey” movement brought people from different walks of life together and became a unique citizens’ movement that continues to inspire. Pic: Hepzi Anthony

The images of people, activists and tribals of Aarey hugging the trees and pleading the officials to refrain from chopping trees, is the most symbolic image of what the entire group stands for. 


Read more: Nine years of ‘Save Aarey’: The unique citizens’ movement lives on in Mumbai


The group comprises activists, experts, NGOs, tribals and citizens who wish to do everything in their capacity to guard this precious green lung. So from organising regular protests, to filing petitions in the court, to meeting regularly at Aarey, the group has been trying to stay positive and committed to saving the rest of the forest, even after they lost the appeal for Metro car shed.

Govandi Citizens Welfare Forum 

Govandi, that is M-East ward, has the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest human development index amongst all other 24 wards of the city. It also gets one of the lowest fund allocation from the BMC. Informal settlements, poor sanitation, a bio-medical waste treatment plant (which has now been shut), congested and crowded neighbourhoods characterise Govandi. 

The Govandi Citizens Welfare Forum (group/collective), and the New Sangam Society (NGO) work tirelessly to bring various civic issues to the notice of the BMC and create awareness in general. Faiyaz Alam, writes regularly to highlight the problems and also to illustrate how the group wins a few battles.

The Bombay High Court order to close the biomedical waste treatment plant is a big win and so is their success in preventing the public library and ground from getting encroached for a private business (computer centre). They are active on social media and encourage volunteers to meet them or join them.


Read more: Govandi residents resolve to push for more change after positive Bombay HC order


YUVA

Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) is a 40 year old non-profit committed to enabling vulnerable groups to access their rights. YUVA encourages the formation of people’s collectives that engage in the discourse on development. 

One of their highly popular initiatives is the curated walks, which are conducted by youth of informal settlements of Lallubhai Compound in Mankhurd and Ambujwadi in Malad. Lallubhai Compound, where young leaders share their perspectives and work to enable access to education, play, reflect on children’s collective resistance, and much more. ‘Tadipar’ invokes a criminalised identity. People in Ambujwadi have struggled to discard this discrimination for decades.


Read more: Walk around Lallubhai Compound shows what authorities forget before rehabilitating families


The walks show housing and identity journeys to overcome stigma and assert people’s rights and identity in the city. So far 250 people have participated in these walks.

Chalo Chanakya and Save Navi Mumbai Environment Group

A picture of the Chalo Chanakya protests
From a Chalo Chanakya protest, where dried up and sawed mangroves can be seen on the ground. Pic courtesy: Sunil Agarwal

Chalo Chanakya is an initiative or a movement started by the Navi Mumbai Environment Group. When the residents, who are active and committed to saving the wetlands in Navi Mumbai, discovered that the mangroves near Chanakya lake were dying and were being cut, they decided to protest by coming to the lake every Sunday. Home to migratory flamingos, the wetlands are rich in biodiversity. The group has held the owner CIDCO accountable and initiated legal action as well.


Read more: In the destruction of wetlands, is CIDCO above the law?


Spotlight – Chennai

Courage is often born of necessity, and in Chennai, civic activism and participation arose from similar factors — the need to have a voice in decisions that affect the people, to build a sense of empowerment, to address a breakdown in civic infrastructure and suggest solutions, to campaign against injustice and to have a sense of community. 

The groups from Chennai that we have showcased today are representative of the larger, collaborative work going on in the city in the civic space — here we are acknowledging the diverse initiatives that we have witnessed and written about in Citizen Matters. 

Vyasai Thozhargal 

Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai in Vyasarpadi
The tuition centre in Chennai’s Vyasarpadi is aimed at fighting deep-seated stigma through education. Pic: Sakthi Vel N

The first one, Vyasai Thozhargal was started to empower children through education and address the larger issue of caste discrimination. The team’s effort to provide a safe space for children and youth from underprivileged communities through the tuition centre has helped bring down dropout rates. It has equipped them with skills through art and photography workshops, which also gives them an outlet for expression. 


Read more: How a tuition centre in Chennai’s Vyasarpadi is helping keep children in schools


The initiative, mostly self-funded by the first-generation graduates, has fostered a cycle of gratitude that helps these youth give back to the community.   

Chitlapakkam Rising

chitlapakkam lake flood-free
The deepening of the Chitlapakkam lake increased its rainwater-holding capacity. Pic: Dayanand Krishnan

Chitlapakkam Rising are a group of volunteers representing various RWAs from the Chitlapakkam area in Tambaram involved in lake restoration, solid waste management and greening initiatives. Because of their relentless monitoring of the Chitlapakkam lake restoration and follow-ups with authorities, the work is now almost complete. Their expertise has helped in stormwater management and flood mitigation during the recent floods. 


Read more: Chitlapakkam lake revival a model for collective effort


Their work goes beyond lake restoration; It has fostered a sense of ownership and community and their example shows how residents can keep authorities accountable. 

Suzhal Arivom

Suzhal Arivom is a volunteer-driven group, involved in environmental education, research and conservation efforts backed by scientific knowledge. They have been engaging with citizens to highlight environmental issues — 6,000 people in Chennai since 2020.


Read more: Pongal Bird Count: What winged friends teach us amidst the urban chaos


Their rapid assessment survey of the Ennore-Manali region following the oil spill in Dec 2023 highlighted the damage to the ecology and helped mitigation efforts. 


Read more: Oil spill in Chennai’s Manali area can cause irreparable damage to Ennore Creek wetland 


Their initiatives equip youth with data to monitor environmental threats and use their knowledge to bring attention to such issues.  

AGS Colony Residents’ Welfare Association

AGS Colony Residents’ Welfare Association in Velachery West has about 300 members. As the area is prone to inundation and is badly hit every monsoon, the residents have been persistent in their efforts to get better stormwater drainage infrastructure in their neighbourhood. They fought for a decade to get a road and because of their relentless effort, construction of the road connecting Velachery Bypass Road to AGS Colony 4th Main Road was completed in mid-2023, a major victory for the association. Their civic activism shows how even a small RWA can initiate big changes by actively engaging with authorities. 


Read more: How a Velachery RWA’s efforts helped them avert floods this year


FOMRRA

Federation of OMR Resident Associations (FOMRRA) comprises 150 RWAs that have been collectively petitioning the government for better roads, piped water supply and civic infrastructure in OMR. Their successful campaign saw the closure of an illegal toll plaza at Navalur operated by TNRDC, in October 2023. 


Read more: OMR residents write to Chief Minister calling for closure of Navalur toll plaza


To address water shortage issues, FOMRRA actively promotes rainwater harvesting – presently 30 residential buildings are saving about 40 lakh litres of water for every hour of rain. The federation works with the belief that a united front of committed citizens can change the world. 

CCAG

Chennai Climate Action Group is a youth-led, volunteer-driven collective that is part of a larger group dedicated to climate change mitigation. CCAG has been vocal against the injustice faced by marginalised communities affected by industrial pollution, especially in the Ennore region.

Their innovative methods of civic activism and protest – through music and art – bring important social issues to the forefront, showing that youth-led initiatives have the power to change the lives of marginalised communities.

Strokes of Solidarity against the Kattupalli Adani Mega Port
The art works exhibited at the ‘Strokes of Solidarity against the Kattupalli Adani Mega Port’. Pic Courtesy: CCAG

Armed with data and RTIs, this collective of young people has brought important information about polluting industries into the public domain. 


Read more: Industrial pollution in Chennai: Through the lens of the toxic tour


Spotlight – Bengaluru

Citizen awareness about civic and environmental issues has propelled many groups and RWAs in Bengaluru to take action and work on the ground to bring about change. These include groups such as I Change Indiranagar, Malleswaram Social, Whitefield Rising, among others. 

Residents are also known for their innovative approach to quickly resolving issues. For example, Yelahanka-Puttenahalli Lake and Bird Conservation Trust, a citizen group monitoring the Yelahanka-Puttenahalli Lake, decided to take the lake’s care from the BBMP and get it entrusted in the care of the Forest Department and the lake was under their custodianship for quite some time. 

Here are the groups deserving special mention:

Alli Serona

IA women’s collective, Alli Serona is  campaigning for more bus stops in less accessible, lower income areas of the city.

Alli Serona art bus stand
The Alli Serona mobile bus stop at its first destination in CV Raman Nagar. Pic: Bhanu S

They have used a mobile art installation to campaign for better bus connectivity and draw the attention of BMTC and BBMP to issues related to bus connectivity in the city. They have successfully got a new route sanctioned. It connects Seegehalli/Priyanka Nagar in KR Puram to Shivajinagar bus station.


Read more: Alli Serona: How a women’s collective used art to campaign for better bus connectivity


Bembala

Bembala was launched in 2018 by the citizen’s group Whitefield Rising, which works on civic issues. However, one recurrent conversation that came up was about the importance of offering support to women and child survivors of abuse. So, a group of volunteers decided to do something about this. The Bembala Foundation was thus formed in 2019.


Read more: Oorja for Whitefield Rising’s Bembala: Extending support to survivors of violence


They offer free and confidential support to women and children who have faced abuse. They also help these victims find assistance in medical/legal aid, safe shelter, police intervention etc. They have set up a space at Ob-Gyn OPD Vydehi Hospital, Whitefield as well as a pan-India helpline.

Bembala is comprised of trained volunteers and experienced professionals who assist survivors, find options for protection and empowerment through a strong referral network.  

Brookefield Layout Residents Association

In 2021, this federation of apartment associations created the design for a walkway to accommodate pedestrians. They also crowdfunded and installed a citizen-friendly duct culvert. It enables easy entrance of maintenance workers, one that drains rainwater away before it floods the locality. They have lit dim streets, transplanted trees to widen roads, planted new trees, filled potholes, among other initiatives. They believe in self governance.


Read more: What fixing our own roads taught us about local democracy


Canine Squads

This is a locality-based group of community volunteers who work to ensure both animals and humans are cared for and safe in their neighbourhoods. The squads focus on vaccinations, feeding, rescuing and assisting with Animal Birth Control (ABC) programmes. They are committed to creating a ‘pawsitive’ co-existence.

Canine squad member Vikas Bafna
“The most important advantage of canine squads is that we don’t have to run around asking for help at other shelters or groups,” says Vikash A Bafna, member, Cunningham Canine Squad and Animal Rescuer. Pic courtesy Vikash A Bafna

Today, there are about 38 neighbourhood canine groups and counting. Also, BBMP Street Dog Census 2023 showed a 10% decline in dog population thanks largely due to the ABC and ARV initiatives. Canine Squads is volunteer-driven, democratic, decentralised and hyper local. There is heterogeneity, but they all work for one cause and address a community in totality. 


Read more: Bengaluru’s Canine Squads ensure well-being of street dogs and the local community


Changemakers of Kanakapura Road

It is a consortium of around 100 RWAs.. Their endeavour is to make their locality a better place to live in. They are well-known for their clean-a-thon and Save Turahalli campaign. In 2023-24, they helped install a CCTV command centre at Thalaghattapura police station. 105 CCTV cameras, with speakers, were installed.


Read more: A citizen’s group in Kanakapura Road is trying to solve commuters’ woes


They are engaged in addressing various aspects of community development, including security, traffic management, environmental sustainability and infrastructure enhancement. Their collaborative efforts and innovative approaches are likely contributing to a better place. They have received a grant from The Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) and Karnataka Non-Motorized Transport Agency (KNMTA) to promote sustainable mobility.

HSR Community Action Task Force

This is a community driven initiative that has worked on various issues, including footpath cleanup, Sundaravana (urban forestry)- tree plantation drive.  To promote sustainable mobility, every fourth Sunday of the month, in collaboration with DULT’s Pedal shale program, they host a Cycle Day. They have successfully campaigned for HSR Feeder bus service. Through active engagement with citizens and pertinent local authorities, they have addressed various issues and achieved tangible results.

Let’s Be The Change

Let’s Be The Change is working to build a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable society by working in synergy with the citizens and the Government. They have worked on solid waste management in urban poor settlements, they strive to beautify Bengaluru with a multi-faceted approach and upskill pourakarmikas. They have found unique and easily implementable solutions to waste management.


Read more: Bengaluru: Mestri Palya’s journey to successful waste management


Members of the team interacting with community
Door-to-door interactions and awareness sessions being carried out by ‘Let’s Be The Change’ team members on waste management. Pic courtesy: Team Let’s Be The Change

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