Civic Warriors

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Are Mumbai’s middle-class citizens’ groups really making a difference? 

Gitanjali

Middle-class citizens’ activism is not new to Mumbai but its pace has certainly picked up over the last decade. Forming associations and groups at the neighbourhood level, networking across the city with other like-minded organisations, pamphleteering, rallying, petitioning the government and other citizens, and running awareness campaigns online are just some of the measures being undertaken by citizens’ groups in the city. Some focus on the state of footpaths and local schools, others scream for open space and the removal of hawkers. Some innovatively use the law and the Right To Information act, others pursue their local corporators demanding accountability, still others prefer harnessing the energy of the internet and social media.

H-West Federation, representing Mumbai’s H-West ward, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is a body that deals with the civic issues of the city. Its members are mainly from Bandra, Khar and Santa Cruz. Though the focus is on issues of these three suburbs, they also take up causes that may impact the entire city. H-West Citizens’ Trust was formed to collect funds for the issues they work for. Vidya Vaidya, one of its eight trustees, says, “We take up civic issues that bother the citizens. We fight for open spaces, property taxes and other issues. We draft petitions and challenge new rules. It is advocacy. Our trust was formed to support the citizens’ movement.” Anandini Thakoor, Chairperson of H-West Residents Federation, points out other issues that they are working on currently – removal of hoardings, prohibiting hawkers from non-hawking zones and supervising municipal schools in their area.

Nithin Wadhwani is a volunteer who has been involved with a municipal project for primary schools spanning across six wards, for the last five years. This project is a part of H-West Citizens’ Association for Child Rights. As a part of this project, Wadhwani and other volunteers work to enable the 27 necessary items that the children are supposed to receive from the government, such as uniforms, bags, mid-day meals, milk etc. They also make sure that the teachers who are assigned take regular classes. They also make sure that the budget allocated for these schools by the BMC is spent well by fixing leaky rooms and building cleaner toilets for children. According to Wadhwani, the budget was Rs 800 crores five years ago and now it is Rs 2,400 crores. The volunteers go about this project by observing several schools across these six wards and submit their observations to municipal authorities.

When asked about how he arrived at this methodology, Wadhwani says, “I started talking to the urban privileged. We have a voice which we can use to spread awareness and that is what we want to do. We thought if we took these observations and tell BMC what they should work on then we can make sure they are spending the money right.” Despite their efforts, the number of students attending Marathi-medium BMC schools has come down to four lakh. This is a reduction of almost one lakh students from the previous record, which was taken five years ago. This is attributed to poor parents wanting their children to study in an English-medium school.

Another citizens group that is working in the city for better environment and governance is Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI). AGNI was started 15 years ago and continues to work on various issues such as voter registration in colleges, conducting debates for the municipal election candidates before the polls and encouraging voter turnout on election days. They also take an interest in implementing the railway budget in Mumbai and resolving property tax issues.

Citispace, true to its name, is an organisation that rallies for open spaces in Mumbai. Started in 1998, Citispace does not work on the field but empowers citizens with information and tools to enable citizen activism. They believe that where individuals fail, larger numbers accomplish. When a citizen brings an issue to their attention they encourage them to form a group with other people who are affected by the same issue and encourage them to pursue it together. So far, they have helped form more than 100 such citizen-driven associations.

When asked what these organisations are working for and what their vision for Mumbai is, Vidya Vaidya and Anandini Thakoor, on behalf of H-West Citizens’ Association and Trust, say that they want a clean and green Mumbai. Shyama Kulkarni, trustee of AGNI says, “A better Mumbai. Mumbai that has a good municipal corporation that meets regularly, good water and other facilities and more municipal markets. Basically, a Mumbai with good governance.” Nayana Kathpalia is the co-founder and convenor of Citispace. She had a major hand in restoring Oval Maidan and maintaining it and later took on Cross Maidan as a member of the Oval-Cooperage Residents Association. On her vision of Mumbai she says, “A Mumbai with lots of open spaces. Open spaces where children can play and senior citizens can relax. In a city like Mumbai where three generations live together, there is a lot of tension. People need a place to relax. We need to protect the open spaces that we already have and make more spaces common to all. These spaces should be available to all citizens no matter where they live. They could live in big buildings or the slums and these places would be available for them to walk, play, rest, exercise or whatever is that they want to do.”

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During our conversations, one topic that was unavoidable was the issue of hawkers and street vendors. Advance Locality Management groups or ALMs are organised by the BMC. These resident groups have been fighting to keep the hawkers off the streets, to work towards cleaner and green roads and creation of public parks. One of their main demands is pavements for pedestrians to walk on and not for use by vendors. They all believe hawkers should be moved to markets legalised by the government. Shyama Kulkarni says, “Important hawkers like vegetable sellers should be moved in to the municipal markets. For that, the BMC should revive these markets. Cooking on the streets should simply not be allowed. Hawkers who sell chappals and bags on Bandra have to be moved too. They are not to be blamed entirely. They supply to meet the demand of the people.”

It seems as if the vision of these middle-class associations doesn’t take into account the needs of the other class of people that needs the streets for its livelihood. Nayana Kathpalia says, “We need to legalise them and give them space in the municipal markets. This will save them from the hawker lords. But studies show that so much money is exchanged in this illegal hawker practice that neither the BMC nor the police would want to do anything.”

When asked if they subscribe to the term ‘middle-class citizens movement’ the answers were varied. Vidya Vaidya says, “I have to agree, it is a middle-class citizens movement. We have not gotten to the next level. We have not been able to work on slums.” Nayana Kathpalia calls it a “misguided term”. She says that she is fighting so that everyone can claim what she wins.

Middle-class or not, this is the class that takes their issues to the local governments and municipal authorities, writes letters, holds meetings and reasons with them to work towards their vision of Mumbai. Which brings us to the question: Is middle-class activism silencing the working class? Journalist and writer Dilip D’Souza says, “We don’t have to worry about it. Government authorities know who vote when the time comes. They know where exactly their bread and butter come from. They know that people from these big buildings don’t come and vote during the elections, it’s the people who live in bastis who vote for them. They might sit in those citizen meetings and listen as much as they want but at the end of the day like any politician they wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise their vote bank.”

Photos & Design: Sandeep Vishwanath & Milanth Gautham

 

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