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A DiscoverBangalore Special Feature


DiscoverBangalore is pleased to bring a special feature on Janaagraha, a Bangalore based Organization striving for citizens' involvement in democracy and democratic processes. Githa U B chats with Ramesh and Swati Ramanatha in the first part of this two-part series.

As I walked into the Janaagraha office, I discerned a vibrancy that emanates from people passionately committed to the cause espoused. It became clear why Swati Ramanathan was keen that Discover Bangalore feature the staff also, as she credited Janaagraha’s achievements to the highly motivated band of supporters with varied backgrounds, giving their best shots. With laptops and smiles they efficiently key away the day’s works. The ambience is one of easy camaraderie and togetherness that comes from shared beliefs. Cheryl Rebello, the Communications coordinator deftly steered me in completing all the interviews at one go.

Discover Bangalore proudly presents a two part series, the first featuring the founders of Janaagraha and the concluding part, the home team that made their dreams possible.

JANAAGRAHA-The Centre for Citizenship and Democracy is the brain child of Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan, who have made Bangalore their base since 2001 after a long stint in New York, Ramesh with Citibank and later MD, Corporative Derivatives and Swati with Vansummern-an architectural and design firm. A charming couple, their simplicity and commitment is very endearing and one can easily relate to them.

They strongly believe that an individual’s success is the platform that society provides. It is increased opportunities for citizen participation in urban areas and creating institutional mechanisms thereof that will account for the turn around from our present lackadaisical functioning.

Ramesh and Swati are crystal clear in their agenda of quality governance in urban India and as they unveil what Janaagraha is all about, I was swept away by their belief in the strength of an inclusive community that can transform this nation into a society of doers and winners.

For those of us who strongly believe in – one person cannot bring any change - it’s time to shed this deadly apathy and think of tackling our problems. In this New Year 2008, why not make a resolution and implement it by making our democratic process truly functional and strengthen the Janaagraha team. It’s not much of an effort. Enlist as a volunteer right away and find out how in the two part series.

She is a petite Kutch Gujarati and he, a Palghat Iyer, who have beautifully integrated their love and thoughts through two decades of togetherness. Today it translates to embarking on a journey of making successful citizen communities that creates a vibrant governing system through Janaagraha, a reality.

That’s Swati and Ramesh Ramanathan, who thought nothing of leaving successful careers in the US to come to India with their rich tapestry of experiences from that admired society and as an obligation make a difference here. As Swati puts it - we have been the palanquin bearers of the British before and now of the government. We have to be empowered to make this democracy lively.

Our middle class upbringing has inculcated strong values. There was this feeling of inadequacy, of no larger role in society other than caring for our families and commenting on political happenings. That’s how Ramesh introduces himself and unravels the vision of Janaagraha.

In the US we realized that one needs a whole social set up to bring out the individual’s best. This triggered a thought process of the role of the social structure to create opportunities. Why is it not happening in our country ? The reality of our indigenous system of settlements and communities has been replaced by a new political structure. Even in this structure the village power can be revisited by way of the gram sabha and panchayat, which makes governing easy as the people are accountable. So we made a choice of wanting to put a system in place and from the Ramanathan Foundation funds we started Janaagraha.

Ramesh echoes the Panchayati raj minister Mani Shankar Aiyer’s sentiment “My job is to translate the independence of the country to the freedom of the people. You leave it to the people things will sort out and work better”.

Ramesh further states "In our country the Panchayati raj, should be brought to the urban scenario. Why not have nagara sabhas ? This gives every registered urban voter to participate in his or her neighbourhood through the concept of area sabha (AS). Simply put it’s a Composition where every registered voter of a polling booth is a member and any problem of the area will be taken up by it. The Minister and the Secretary of the Panchayat raj who live their tenures in urban areas, do not do anything as citizens in their residential areas ? " He does not spare himself saying that Ramesh Ramanathan as founder of Janaagraha is doing something but as a citizen, he is a soonya?

A billion people but 5,000 elected representatives decide our future. In the alphabet of democracy one cannot go from E to F i.e. Elect and Forget, but our politicians have to be grounded in the letter E- of “Elect and Engage”. Engage here means the people should want to engage and secondly the system must allow to engage”.

Agreed both the rural and urban decentralisation are broken but for two opposite reasons. In rural, the people have an opportunity to participate through the gram sabha but no capacity due to poverty, illiteracy, caste equations and in the urban scenario there is the capacity but no opportunity. Both have to be corrected.

There are two components of how good is the idea and how practically can it be implemented? Simply put, if you have a better idea, (current situation is not the alternative) tell us. Bangalore has only 100 problems that are repeated one million times and taken to Jairaj’s office for a solution. Decentralisation and empowering the people are the only solutions. The three tiered village administrative structure (of gram, taluk and Zilla) can be replicated, in view of today’s village becoming tomorrow’s town. The transition then will be smooth.

If this reform is not implemented by the municipality, then it’s for the state government, (Zero stake) as it needs an external catalyst i.e., Central government. We went there and explained the issue, though we are not the only people. The people’s involvement alone can answer the area specific problems.

We advocated two amendments in the municipality Act And the nagara raj bill was included as a reform condition under the JN-NURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Reforms mission) - the largest urban initiative in the history of the country. This is a 50,000 crores Union government support with matching stake from the States with a list of guidelines and checks. This covers only 63 cities in the country. 19 states have already agreed to participate in this mission when it was announced in December 2005 and funds to the extent of 7,000 crores have already been released. Karnataka is yet to wake up to this golden opportunity.

SWATI, (Mount Carmel College) who had a passion for city planning did her textile designing at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. Here she was exposed to the inequalities of urban planning and living.

How important is city planning?

She opines that the government does not relate to the planners if any in the first place on housing and environment issues. Planning is just not land use and zoning. The residents have to experience the place. That’s why we like Barcelona and not Bangalore. The city is ugly, with not many spaces for its citizens; it’s not a porous city.

Where do you see Bangalore in the next 5 years?

I have tremendous hope for this city. The human spirit is amazing. If each person does his bit, real change is possible. Our youth are dynamic and I love their confidence. They need to be politically empowered as citizens and find their own space.

In the context of RTI (Right to information) how is the initiative of Janaagraha going to jell or supplement it.

RTI is a necessary participatory condition, but not a sufficient condition as transparency and accountability are needed, but to invoke RTI every time is cumbersome. . RTI is viewed only as an instrument of adversary. A mindset that still suspects every move of the government does not allow for involvement in the political process. We, in India have to be comfortable with our government. Today if Gandhi was alive his strategy would be different. We are also the investors in the government as tax payers.

Since the inception of Janaagraha-Then to now- do you feel you have achieved at least some of the goals?

Yes. JN-NURM. It’s a large project i.e. giving the citizens a legitimate platform for participation like in the villages and not making one feel helpless. If I do not have ownership over public spaces the system is making me selfish and I compromise on values. Then subverting the system or patronage comes into play. It’s this sort of moral corruption or the choices that a citizen makes that spills into our personal sphere also. Ownership, the core value alone can galvanize to action.

What aspect has brought immense satisfaction?

The concept of Area Sabha and FBACS (Fund based accounting system) that’s a pre requisite for RTI. Activist Aruna Roy’s hamara paisa hamara hisaab does not have a punch- as the officer on the other side did not have the hisaab, so how was he going to give it to her? Reality is our city’s systems are broken and in a mess. NO double entry accounting when the budget is in crores. No accrual system. In Bangalore through the BATF with Ramesh’s financial background, we put a state of the art financial system in place in BMP that took 2 years to fructify. And today, the Commissioner, BMP has the previous day’s accounts of his Corporation at the click of the mouse. Part of NURM’s reforms is to do with the government’s account reforms so that an audited system is in place.

Secondly as advisors to the Rajasthan government we are doing something fantastic. We are revamping the age old Rippon’s Municipal Acts in toto. We have a fondness for that State but also that the government pursued us.

Read the concluding part here

To learn more about Janaagraha and how you can get involved in their activities or register as a Volunteer please visit http://www.janaagraha.org
or visit their Office at
4th Floor, UNI Building, Thimmaiah Road,
Vasanth Nagar,
Bangalore - 560052
Phone numbers: (91) (080) 41277102,41277103, 22370092

Please E-mail your comments/feedback about the above write-up.




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