In Bangalore, citizens' constructive participation in local governance has grown tremendously, thanks to the efforts of Janaagraha, the citizens' platform for participatory democracy. In the two years since its inception, Janaagraha has directed community energy towards its three principal campaigns of Ward Vision, Ward Works, and PROOF. At the same time, the volunteer energy at its office has conceptualized and detailed a framework of activities and processes that enable participation. A fusion of these two energies has culminated into a new chapter called the Janaagraha Community Resource Committee (JCRC).

The idea behind JCRC is simple. It has active, informed citizens who, along with their communities, have engaged on issues of local governance. The mission for the JCRC is to widen the scope of citizen effort outside its own neighborhood and strengthen participatory processes across the wards of Bangalore. Swati Ramanathan, co-founder, of Janaagraha, had this to say in a recent issue of the organization's newsletter. She writes, "There are two critical reasons for JCRC. First, given the fact that Janaagraha is a participatory platform, it is very important that decisions are taken in an open and democratic manner. A key challenge is to ensure that there is a process for this, without mere lip service to the idea of an inclusive platform. The idea of a Community Resource Committee is therefore to serve as a two-way conduit for citizens to engage with all the decisions and activities of Janaagraha.

Information about what is happening in the wards rightfully belongs with every citizen, and for its part, Janaagraha has taken steps to ensure that information about its activities is made freely available to all.
"Second, the ultimate affirmation of being a Janaagrahi is to be an active resident engaged with local government. The authority that comes from the experience of democracy cannot be replaced by academic presumptions. Therefore, local community champions around the city must logically lead Janaagraha's activities."

The primary role of JCRC as envisaged by its creators includes the following functions:

  • Helping strengthen processes of community participation such as the Monthly Review Meetings (MRMs) and Federation formation / functioning

  • Innovating approaches that include all community groups within a ward, in the dialogue of local governance (middle class, poor, commercial and opinion leaders)

  • Engaging with various Government Service Agency Heads (BMP, BWSSB, BESCOM, Police, Horticulture, BMTC, BDA, F&CS, etc.) to establish a process of constructive engagement between their ward-level engineers and the local communities. This broadens the scope of the MRM to include a range of issues of local concern

  • Anchoring a weekly Janaagraha Community meeting at the office to network and share the experiences of communities across wards

  • Updating communities on events and activities at Janaagraha

  • Presenting Janaagraha to communities interested in the activities of Janaagraha

  • Helping identify and encourage active participation in the JCRC from each Ward.

In this exercise of community participation, the 'right to know' is a crucial component. Information about all that is happening in the wards rightfully belongs with every citizen, and for its part, Janaagraha has taken steps to ensure that information about its activities is made freely available to all.

This has led to a new inclusion in the working methods of Janaagraha - a software called "Corazio", donated by Bangalore-based Zensutra, that allows users to post information about their ward (like maps, Ward Vision documents, voter rolls, MRM minutes) online, share documents, and express their ideas on message boards. Web-savvy citizens who can't attend every Ward meeting or who are unfamiliar with public works and other activity happening in their neighborhood will now have a way of getting involved - virtually.

Corazio is accessible from any computer with Internet access. This document management and business application derives its name from the Italian word "collaborazioné," or "collaboration." The Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore is hosting the software - the first of its kind in India - free of charge on their new Blade server.

At Janaagraha, it is intended to be used in a variety of ways:

  • Dissemination of information about meetings and events
  • Posting minutes of MRMs and other meetings
  • Email and messaging for all Janaagrahis
  • Project Management - giving tasks to volunteers
  • Document collaboration and review

There is yet another aspect to Janaagraha's work in Bangalore that deserves mention. Along with urging citizens to get involved in local government, Janaagraha has also stepped in to assist the government in enhancing the reach of its existing programs. The Swarna Jayanthi Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) is one such project. SJSRY is an urban poverty alleviation program launched by the central government in 1997. Its goal is to improve the economic condition of the urban poor. Herein, banks were to give loans to individuals chosen by their neighborhood groups. As the groups were not formed properly, the banks were unwilling to give loans.

Until March 31, 2003, in BMP, out of 102,749 identified BPL families, 1340 families had been assisted through bank loans. For more effective implementation of the scheme, a pilot project was envisaged with the Alliance for Networked Kinship with Underprivileged Residents (ANKUR) platform initiated by Janaagraha. It brought together the four stakeholders of SJSRY viz: Government, Banks, NGOs and the Urban Poor on the same platform.

In the past six-months of the pilot project, the government and NGOs in the 100 wards have initiated self-help groups. In the pilot project, 250 TCGs (Thrift and Credit Groups) were targeted and it was achieved. For micro enterprise components, 450 loans were targeted and 415 loans have been granted so far and banks have released 196 loans already. Each beneficiary of the micro enterprise has undergone an Entrepreneurial Development Program (EDP) training before receiving the loan to start his or her own business.

Picture: Janaagraha's initiatives have bridged a number of gaps between government programs and their intended beneficiaries. (Pic Credit: Janaagraha)

In order to evaluate the efficacy of the loan process at this juncture, Janaagraha selected 40 beneficiaries and conducted case studies. Some of these have been instructive. Take the case of Varalakshamma. She and her husband had been working in the garments business. However, their combined income was insufficient to maintain their family of two children. Therefore, Varalakshmamma rented a sewing machine and started a tailoring business at home. She realized that her business would improve considerably if she bought her own sewing machine. However she could not do that due to paucity of funds. On being introduced to the pilot project under SJSRY, she was able to obtain a loan of Rs.15,000/- with the support of Canara Bank, Okalipuram. She brought a new sewing machine with the money and has been able to provide a fillip to her business. She earns up to Rs.100 a day now.

Then there's Kasuma, who was unemployed as her education had been discontinued after the ninth class. With the encouragement of her aunt, Kusuma successfully sought a loan of Rs. 30,000 under the SJSRY pilot project. She used this money to set up a candle-making business and benefited greatly from the EDP training. Her net income is now Rs. 2,500 per month.

Increased self-employment with the help of training and loans is a step towards sustainable economic betterment, believes Janaagraha, and its assistance to the SJSRY project puts this belief into practice.

In addition to these initiatives, Janaagraha's routine activities are ongoing as well. In February, the Bala Janaagraha program for the year 2003-2004 came to a close. Six hundred children from 24 schools took an oath at the convocation ceremony to work with others in order to make their ward a better place to live in. In the same month, the first meeting of the executive committee of the Abhaya Federation was conducted. The 54 wards, as demarcated on Eicher maps brought out by Janaagraha, were assigned to members for follow-up action.

The two-pronged approach - to sustain ongoing activities, and also introduce new ventures - has ensured that Janaagraha keeps citizens' interest and involvement in the civic issues of Bangalore alive. Every new initiatve also cements the relationship of the people to the institutions of governance they live with, making Janaagraha even better prepared for what's next.