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Involving citizens in governance

Janaagraha is a platform for citizens to connect with the local government and improve the quality of public governance


Good governance comes from participatory democracy and not representative democracy

Photo: K.R. Deepak

Working for a cause Sunita Nadhamuni

She believes that "good governance comes from participatory democracy and not representative democracy". Her dedication and commitment have led to a highly effective campaign of `Janaagraha' in Karnataka.

Meet Sunita Nadhamuni. A software engineer by profession, she is one of the key figures behind this successful mass campaign.

Before they moved to India, Sunita and her husband Srikanth Nadhamuni were working in the US and involved in various development issues concerning India.

The couple initially started an organisation called `Seva' in 1991 to create a platform for the NRI s to contribute to rural development in India.

Later Seva merged with another organisation called ICA (Indians for Collective Action) in 1996. Sunita was the President of ICA in 2000, an organisation that supported more than 200 projects in 16 States.

"We used to organise discussions and talks about these issues to increase the awareness among the Indian community in the US," says Sunita who was here in the city recently.

In 2002 the couple moved back to India and joined with Janaagraha, an organisation started by the NRI couple Ramesh and Swathi Ramanathan. (Janaagraha is a platform for citizens to help them connect with the local government to improve the quality of public governance).

"We elect our leaders and forget about them. But unless we engage ourselves with the local government and become a part of the decision-making process, nobody gains. It is only through community action that this goal can be achieved," says Sunita.

This is the key concept of Janaagraha. "Our mode of operation is through multiple campaigns. The campaigns mostly target the middle class communities that are most active in any civic issue."

Wish list

The first campaign of Janaagraha was called `ward works'. The motto was to stay connected and get involved in issues that concern people at the lowest level.

"We have been conducting mass media campaigns through billboards, newspaper advertisements and by involving high profile people like Nandan Nilekani (CEO of Infosys). People were trained to collect simple information about their wards and based on that we prepared a wish list. We received around 2.5 lakh citizen endorsements.

We started off with 65 wards in the city and in 32 per cent of the wards citizens actively participated. Of that 22 per cent actually got their works into the budget for that year.

Janaagraha's next campaign was `Proof' (public record of operations and finance). The main objective behind this was to bring a sort of discipline and efficiency into the social sector as in the West, and establish a high-quality programme.

"The idea was that every quarter the government would issue its financial statements and would have interaction with the citizen groups and media organisations about its performance," she recalls.

The first such discussion was held in Infosys where the department officials were present along with the citizen representatives, resident welfare associations, NGOs and slum dwellers' representatives.

"Janaagraha trains the citizen groups for understanding the intricacies of municipal budget so that they can have efficient arguments with the local government representatives."

Bala Janaagraha

Sunita has also been involved in a programme called Bala Janaagraha for school children. "We have to stir the passion in children to get them involved in the community and develop good citizenship values in them. For this we have brought out an activity-oriented book, `Me and My City', to make them understand the civic issues." The programme started off three years ago with a small group of 170 children in five schools. By the end of last year, 4,000 children from 70 schools were part of it. Around 300 trained teachers and many young students and professionals had volunteered for the programme.

"We take the students on field trips apart from conducting classroom group activities like quiz and drama, so that they can get a practical experience of the issues. Now they understand what happens when they throw a chocolate wrapper or a plastic bag carelessly!"

e-governance

While Janaagraha works on the "demand side involving citizens", e-governance foundation works on the "supply side in coordination with the government". The e-governance foundation was started by Nandan Nilekani, along with Srikanth in 2003.

This organisation has created a software platform to enable better execution of the services provided by the local government. "We have more than 400 volunteers across the world assisting us with the software."

Right now e-governance foundation is effectively working in Delhi and in about 57 cities in Karnataka. It has signed memoranda of understanding with 40 towns in West Bengal."

The concept of Janaagraha and e-governance has paid rich dividends to the citizens. "When you threaten to change an age-old power structure, there are bound to be hindrances. But any constructive change will definitely benefit society. All it needs is the active participation of the citizens," avers Sunita Nadhamuni.

NIVEDITA GANGULY

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