Mumbai, 2nd October 2013: Dilapidated buildings along the railway tracks near Masjid Bunder and Sandhurst Road railway stations are endangering suburban railway commuters, said activist Sulaiman Bhimani (9323642081, firstname.lastname@example.org), in a complaint letter written today to various authorities including the Union minister for Railways, Chief Minister, Municipal Commissioner and others. He attached photos that indicated the precarious condition of the buildings, with several unauthorized and structures that threatened to fall down onto the railway tracks running only a few feet away.
“In particular, a cluster of buildings at and near 25B Keshavji Naik Road, has unauthorized cantilevered construction on the top floor and illegal extension and additions and alterations at ground floor level. Also, the stone wall supporting the slope on the side of Sandhurst Road station is cracked and in danger of collapse. This may result in a landslide on the tracks,” alleged Bhimani in his letter.
He appealed to the authorities to “do whatever is necessary to avoid the chaos and destruction that may be caused by building collapse or landslide on a running train during peak hours”.
One wonders why the civic and railway authorities are tolerating the continuance of dangerous buildings and passively waiting for further disasters to happen. In the context of recent building collapses of Mumbra and Dockyard Road, which are still fresh in the mind of Mumbai citizens, this seems like criminal negligence on the part of the authorities.
Bhimani, who is an interior designer by profession, has a keen eye for unauthorized alterations and dangerous structures endangering the life and safety of citizens. This is not the first time that he has pointed out dangerous structures to the civic authorities, and campaigned for their demolition.
Mumbai, September 9, 2013: Today, on this occasion called Samvatsari Pratikraman, many Jains will typically to call me and say, “Michhami dukkadam” i.e. ‘I desire your forgiveness (for any pain i might have caused you with my words or deeds)’.
They will call because that’s the done-thing today… and not because anybody remembers ever hurting me.
And to all of them, what I want to say with a smile is: Don’t say it. To hurt me, you need to be within arm’s length of me — punching distance of me. You are just a remote acquaintance; we barely know each other.
Don’t say it ritually, because I will not reciprocate.
But please look at those who are so close to you, whom you have routinely wounded with a mere gesture, or absence of a gesture. You would have wounded them throughout the year, and throughout your lifetime, with hurtful words, inconsiderate gestures and selfish acts.
I don’t want to preach to you… but I am angry. If you are even considering saying Micchami dukkadam to me, please pause, read this and contemplate.
CONSIDER THIS THOUGHT: Maybe it is your ongoing love-affair with money and status and the so-called comforts of life that leads you to wound them. You may read all the scriptures of the world, and bow to all the saints, but never once have you realized that what true comfort, true wealth or true status means. You are forever locked in externalities, and are culturally trained to never once look within.
You consider yourself more virtuous than all the rest of us – and therefore you fall from virtue. Maybe your pride in Jainism and purist vegetarianism, and an unquestioned belief in the innate superiority of your culture and religion, predisposes you to fall into a very deep pit. Maybe it makes you fall below the level of humanness, and takes you to the depth of hypocrisy. Maybe hypocrisy is second nature to you.
It is despicable when you take this beautiful sentiment of “Micchami dukkadam” and reduce it to a hollow ritual. You know what it takes to make things right with the people you have angered or wounded. They are often petty things. Your near-and-dear ones may let bygones be bygones if you reached out your hands and did those little things. Maybe they would find it in their hearts to truly forgive and forget, and wipe the slate clean.
But do you find it in your heart to rise above blind ritualism, fasting and feasting and observances, and your accursed love of money? Can you even begin to understand that true self-mortification, and has absolutely nothing to do with building up your community’s self-importance with admittedly heroic feats of fasting and adherence to vegetarianism?
Are you willing to understand that what people look for from you is nothing more than fairness in dealing? Like putting the same amount of ghee on your admirably delicate rotlis, no matter for whom it is intended?
To genuinely seek forgiveness is a great act of renunciation – possibly the greatest renunciation there is. It means truly discarding your ego, and approaching the other person with true humility, on the terms that the other person would be willing to accept. It means laying down your weapons, and approaching that person defenseless. It means cleansing your soul of the remains of yesteryears, and thereby giving the other person an opportunity to cleanse his soul also.
THAT, my friends, is seeking forgiveness. Nothing less will do.
Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised at how little the other person may want from you by way of reparation or compensation. It may be nothing.
Are you willing to make that effort and genuinely bow your head to your near-and-dear ones? Then go and do it.
Reflect upon your past actions, and go bow where bowing is needed. Do it as it needs to be done, where it needs to be done.
My dear Jain friends and relatives, I am nothing and nobody to you. I am a distant relative of a relative, or a passing acquaintance… and I can be rude. So, please don’t call me and say Micchami dukkadam. It will not be appreciated.
Mohd Azazur Rahman, an electrical engineer from Basti district of Uttar Pradesh, was forced to come to Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital last month. It turned out that he was a great fan of Pehelwan brand of bidis all his life, smoking 2-3 packs per day. Even today, although his disfiguring oral cancer is painfully evident, he is having a hard time kicking the habit and still ends up smoking 4-5 Pehelwan bidis every day.
March 2, 2012: Today at dawn, I woke up smelling smoke. Looking out of my bedroom window, I saw an old enemy and felt a stab of fear in my heart. I saw gouts of smoke rising up from the watchmen’s cabin of the building next to ours, spoiling the fresh morning air. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction, and the watchmen extinguished the fire soon afterwards. But that brief whiff of smoke brought back unpleasant memories.
My enmity with smoke began in December 2002, after dad came home with about 12 inches of stitches from his chest to abdomen after his cardiac bypass surgery. He had a nagging cough. His breastbone and stitches hurt when he coughed; it was painful to watch. Around midnight, I awoke to the sound of dad coughing uncontrollably. I too felt irritation in the throat.
Two watchmen in a neighbouring building were burning scrap particle-board and plywood in a gamela – a shallow metal pan. Burning is a well-accepted and widespread winter habit throughout India called taapdi – and maybe worldwide — and that made my task of resisting it very difficult.
I took a bucket of water and went downstairs. I explained my father’s condition to the watchmen, visually showed them how the breeze was blowing the smoke directly to my house, and pleaded with them to extinguish the fire at once. I explained that the smoke contained resins and chemicals that were toxic and irritating to the throat. I pointed out that they sat upwind of their fire, while we were downwind, and how unfair it was that they were hurting the health of the whole neighbourhood.
The watchmen argued that the night was cold, and that as they were not my building watchmen, I had no right to tell them anything. Why I was the only one complaining? Why didn’t my other neighbours complain, they demanded. I replied that everybody else was in the habit of suffering in silence, whereas I had the bad habit of resisting. “This fresh air belongs to me, my parents and my children. It belongs to all of us in this neighbourhood. Two of you sitting here cannot take it away from all of us,” I argued. But it was no use.
After ten minutes of futile reasoning, I firmly brushed past them, poured my bucket into their ghamela and returned home as they shouted at my back.
One hour later, the smoke started coming again. I dragged myself out of bed, and went back with another bucket. Again, reasoning was fruitless. In the end, I poured water over their ghamela and walked away.
In the coming days, weeks and months, I approached many managing committee members of three building complexes. They gave me a sympathetic hearing and said they would issue instructions, and the nuisance abated for some days or weeks.
At other times, I got the number of their security agency, and called them directly to complain about the nuisance.
On some nights, I carried a couple of blankets and offered it to them for the night.
All of this sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. When it didn’t work, I wordlessly poured my bucketful on their ghamela over the four-foot-high wall. If they saw me coming, they scrambled to protect the burning ghamela by dragging it away from the wall. By doing so, they risked getting splashed when I threw the water about 15 feet across. Sometimes, after such incidents, they yelled and called me a madman.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF TOLERATING SMOKE
There were also some nights when I lay in bed, afraid to go out and fight. After such nights, my family suffered for days with coughing and sore throats – and that was completely unacceptable to me.
In the first year, it was about protecting my father. Afterwards, it became about protecting my whole family and myself. My mother had been on asthma medication all her life, and I had seen how she suffered after smoke exposure. Some years, my wife and I were more susceptible to throat infections. In other years, it was my growing son and my daughter who had a nagging cough.
I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed garbage-burning and watchman’s smoke before 2002, but I have not been able to ignore it since. Closing the windows and curtains and staying in bed may have been an option earlier, but after 2002, it stopped being an option. Whenever I took this road, I despised myself the next day, and took action the following night.
CREATING ALTERNATIVES, BUILDING BRIDGES & MAKING FRIENDS
Over the years, I gave woolen shawls to some watchmen who said they needed the fire to stay warm. To others, I gave tubes of Odomos mosquito repellant. In some years, this meant an expenditure of Rs 500-800 every winter, but I felt OK with that. But it didn’t always work; some guys took the blanket and mosquito repellant, and still tried to light a fire at 3 a.m. when they thought I was too fast asleep to notice.
In later years, I started taking my dad with me if he was still awake. That was an option around midnight. His gentle presence prevented things from getting overheated. All of this has worked reasonably well.
I phoned the police a couple of times. I even went to the police station once after a member of the next building came down to the street and sided with the watchmen. The cops promised, but never really did anything; burning is such a widespread and unchallenged practice that it seems like a legitimate right.
In the end, effectiveness always boiled down to my willingness to take a bucket of water and solve the problem.
Occasionally during the day, nearby cottage industry-wallahs or slum-dwellers set fire to rubber tyres and plastic wastes. I went to the spot, requested a bucket and a rope from a nearby hutment and draw water from an open well. As I walked back and forth between the well and the burning heap, pouring water, I would explain in a friendly and (hopefully) non-preachy way about how burning rubber, plastic wrappers, thermocol etc. releases toxic chemicals into this air that is our main wealth. “Our every breath of polluted air becomes a lottery-ticket of cancer,” I said in a casual tone. “When you burn this stuff, all of us in the buildings will get one or two tickets in this lottery of cancer. Since you all are the ones closest to the fire, your wives and children, and you yourself may get 10 tickets each. Agar hamari lottery lag gayee, we and our families may spend the remaining months of our lives visiting Tata Memorial Hospital.”
Quite often, a few slum boys joined me in carrying buckets and extinguishing the last smoking remnants, and we shook hands and parted as friends.
Over the years, I have become convinced that the most frequent cause of our chronic nose and throat ailments is smoke from our own building watchmen or those of the neighbouring compound. Doctors rarely ask whether we are sleeping downwind of a watchman’s taapdi. We all automatically attribute coughs and colds to viruses or generally polluted air. “What to do, doctor, there is so much polluted air nowadays. It can’t be avoided,” we say. We routinely ignore the fact the watchmen may be burning plywood, cardboard, plastic and rubber directly under our bedroom windows.
MY INNER CONFLICT: Seeing the smoke this morning filled me with anxiety and inner conflict. I am now wondering what to do. As the wind is not carrying the smoke towards my house, I am planning to ignore it. Yes, it hurts a lot of other people – people who are like my own family. But if someone among them does not rise to the defense of their family, what can I do?
What right do I have to argue for the rights of others, who may not even believe that it is their right?
The Padma awards or state-level awards will always be politically motivated. Media publicity also generally goes to those of us who have a kind of celebrity status. So, how can we put the limelight on the hundreds and thousands of unsung heroes who are daily carrying on the battle for good administration in the government offices? How can we boost the confidence and power of the DARIDRA-NARAYAN AMONG ACTIVISTS, who wears chappals and frayed shirts, and travels by crowded trains, buses and foot to meet various public authorities and appellate authorities?
For the past three years or so, I have dreamt of a magazine, website, video-documentary and book series on Contemporary Heroes of India – men and women struggling for good governance. They are not glamourous. They may be eccentrics. They may be boring because they obsessively talk about problems or public authorities. A few of them may feature in the local media from time to time, but the majority are ignored by society. In fact, their families laugh at them and dismisses them. Their contribution to system reforms is massive, but they suffer from a chronic sense of defeat. They don’t know their own value to society, and therefore they have an inferiority complex.
I have been dreaming about a project to feature such people at various scales of bigness i.e. (i) covering Mumbai activists only, OR (ii) activists in Maharashtra OR (iii) activists spread all over the country – either only metros, or also rural areas. From time to time, I have tried to get funding and project-management assistance. So far, I have made no progress.
I am now putting this idea out into public domain, because I feel that this should not remain a private idea. I will be happy to write further details to flesh out this idea if anybody wants to use it. Also, I would be happy to patiently explain everything to any person or group who wants to do this project, either with or without my involvement in any capacity.
PROJECT OUTLINE & BUDGETS:
A.THE OPPORTUNITY THAT EXISTS: Thanks to the RTI (and anti-corruption) movement and its inherent emphasis on the written word, an abundance of written documentation currently exists for the following: (a) SUCCESS STORIES OF CHANGE (b) EXPOSURE OF SYSTEMIC FLAWS AND ONGOING VIOLATION OF LEGAL NORMS (c) ONGOING MOVEMENTS, INSIGHTFUL & USEFUL METHODOLOGIES BEING USED FOR CREATING CHANGE THROUGH CITIZEN INTERVENTIONS (d) EMERGING CITIZEN-LEADERS AND GROUPS OF LEADERS. But these are known only to insiders, or at best, locally known. The data lies mostly in private files. There is scope to energize the RTI movement by bringing these local stories and documents into national focus, causing cross-pollination of insights, methodologies and leadership styles. This would fulfill a felt need, giving the grassroot-level RTI movement the legitimacy that it deserves by documenting the gains made in the past five years.
B.WHAT IS PROPOSED: A small team of researchers and documenters (could include myself but not necessarily) will travel to a different centre or metropolis for 3-4 days every month, and conduct 10-12 INTERVIEW & PHOTO SESSIONS. (The people to be interviewed would have been identified and contacted weeks or months in advance.) After return to head office in Mumbai (or any other city), these interviews will be transcribed, edited, interpreted, subtitled and published in the following forms:
1)Half-hour video bulletin or documentary
2)Website content, rich in photos & content
3)Monthly Magazine (about 7,000 copies of a 48-page magazine) featuring 5-7 different activists in one metro or one district
4)Annually bring out coffee-table book (about 300 pages) on the big picture that emerges. In this book, we will draw conclusions, represent reader views, featuring officials’ responses to questions etc.
Without sacrificing reader-friendliness, these publications would be an ongoing social-audit report – a mirror to the face of the nation. An ongoing exercise of this sort will act as a tonic to the RTI movement, and force the government to sit up and take notice. This will deliver measurable results in the seriousness with which government responds to civil-society concerns.
C.METHODOLOGY: We could interview (singly and in groups) many RTI activists in a single region every fortnight, and document along the four lines i.e. (i) Success stories (ii) chronic corruption (iii) movements & methodologies (iv) emerging citizen leaders and RTI heroes. These interviews will be videotaped and photographed simultaneously, meticulous notes and recordings made, and copies of significant RTI documents and other findings will be collected. These will be published every month as detailed above.
Some activities should be possible without much funding, using local volunteers to coordinate. Boarding, lodging, local transport etc. can be on a shoestring budget or at the hospitality of the local activists and organizations – making them partners in this exercise, and creating bonds of friendship and trust.
D.THE SPECIFIC PROBLEMS ADDRESSED THROUGH THIS MULTI-MEDIA PUBLISHING PROJECT:
FIRSTLY, thousands of activists in urban and rural contexts are isolated in their own battles, and are suffering from tunnel-vision. They can’t see the larger context, and are unaware of being part of a larger national movement. Their struggle, filled with the weekly indignity of repeatedly visiting various authorities for information and justice, causes a sense of defeat. Their hard-won successes appear meager and inadequate to themselves, and to their cynical colleagues. Even in cases where the administration yields and makes the changes that they demand, the change-makers never get due credit. This causes a high drop-out rate and loss of faith in RTI. In a nutshell — At an all-India level, the accumulated experience of the past five years needs to be assimilated by citizenry and the body-politic. This needs to be done to enable further progress.
SECONDLY, Information Commissioners in all states have no objective and consistent source of information on what the RTI appellants appearing before them are experiencing. Also, they are not getting information on what other Information Commissioners are doing. Nodal government departments such as General Administration Department are also operating in a vacuum. Through our publication and documentary, we would establish connection with Information commissioners and the various state government organizations, by engaging them in a discussion about RTI implementation.
THIRDLY, there is a felt need for regular objective feedback to Information Commissioners and State Government departments charged with RTI implementation. As a lot of decision-making is happening in the absence of information, civil society needs a means of consistent engagement with the government about RTI implementation. (Newspapers and TV channels do not adequately fulfill this role, because they get distracted by various scandals, and cannot stay focused on RTI and governance issues.)
E.PARAMETERS OF PROJECT SUCCESS: Project success will be measurable in terms of the following
•Increased media profile of local or provincial RTI activists
•Increased participation in national-level discourse on reforms of hitherto unknown activists
•Before we start, we could have a nationwide survey about the awareness of RTI activists from other states, issues of administration in other states, optimism/pessimism about the possibility of better governance etc. This survey can be repeated after six months to measure how RTI activists’ awareness of non-local issues and citizen leaders rises, and how optimism improves. The survey can also measure the sense of legitimacy and self-worth of RTI activists and whistleblowers. These ratings can also be published to establish a positive feedback-loop.
•Another sort of survey could be conducted among employees of local self-governance organizations, to measure their perceptions about RTI activists on a positive/negative scale.
•Surveys can be conducted by using local volunteer rewarded with a fairly substantial honorarium.
F.BUDGET ESTIMATE: These are ballpark figures based on my professional experience of 20 years and knowledge of the markets today.
•Salaries of five persons Rs 3.5 lakh per month
•Inter-city travelling costs: Rs 50,000 p.m.
•Local travel costs, boarding-lodging, honorariums to volunteers, miscellaneous –
Rs 50,000 (Can be supplemented through donations and community participation)
•Computers, video-cameras, still cameras & other equipment – Rs 50,000 per month assuming that we rent rather than own the equipment.
•Office cost – Rs 75,000. (Office rent can be minimized by locating in the outskirts of the city. Tele-commuting and informal arrangements to be used, or office space in more central location for occasional use can be borrowed from friends. Maximise community participation in this.)
•Website costs – Rs 15,000 p.m.
•Printing, publication and distribution cost of monthly bulletin (about 7000 copies)
– Rs 2.5 lakh p.m.
•Printing, publication and distribution cost of 5000 copies of hardbound coffee table book to be brought out at the end of the year – Rs 1 lakh p.m. (apportioned over 12 months)
TOTAL – About Rs 8.5 lakhs per month.
This is NOT A SHOESTRING BUDGET, which is normally expected of an activist. In fact, this is a budget where all the PARTICIPANTS WILL BE WELL REWARDED FINANCIALLY, AND ENJOY GOOD FACILITIES.
Yes, it may be possible to execute this budget on a smaller, tighter scale with funding support of Rs 4 lakh per month, or even less. But if we try to do it with much less, I foresee a continuous struggle to balance our group and individual finances. It is difficult to keep competent people motivated on shoestring budgets – possible, but difficult. I would not want to do that.
The typical NGO style of functioning — motivating employees to accept daal-roti salaries and virtually take an oath of poverty — requires personal charisma, manipulative capabilities and leadership qualities that I don’t possess. So, after several revisions, I have scaled up the projections to a comfortable level.)
G.REVENUE STREAMS: The above costs will be partially offset by (i) bulk sales of copies – minimum batches of 20 — to local activist groups featured in the magazines (ii) subscription sales (iii) Stand sales (iv) Soliciting donations (v) Ad support from NGOs (vi) Corporate ad support (vii) support from CSR budgets of numerous companies.
H.REASONABLE PROJECTION FROM A SPONSOR’S POINT OF VIEW: Monthly expenditures in initial months may be on the higher side. However, if we create good value perception in the first 3-6 months, net outgoes may fall in later months as community participation and various revenue streams get started. Projected annual outgo in the first year even after including ad revenues & stand sales: Rs 80 lakh
I.WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Suppose a sponsor gives us a bulk amount of, say, Rs 60 lakhs; he tells us to do or die within this budget. Suppose we exhaust this budget in, say, 5-6 months and fail to find another sponsor. And suppose we fail to mobilize enough revenues. Even if we close down the project after 6 months (i.e. publishing six issues of the magazine, video-bulletin etc.) huge value for society and measurable results would have been created in terms of documentation. It would cause an increase in national-level consciousness and elevate a fresh cadre of anti-corruption leadership from the local and regional level to the national stage.
J.BEST CASE SCENARIO: The best that we can hope for is that this documentation exercise attracts support and participation from citizens, private foundations and maybe even government agencies that start seeing the benefits and want to partner us. Also, substantial revenue streams such as advertisements and CSR support starts flowing in. This gives us the means to grow the size and scope of this exercise, and make it a permanent project. The anti-corruption movement would gain new vigour and strength, feeding off the new consciousness.
My feeling is that consistent feedback given to Information Commissioners, Central and state governments can create attitude changes and self-correction in implementation of Right to Information and anti-corruption measures at various levels. Also, the self-confidence levels of civil society will be a lot higher after 50-100 citizen heroes are brought into well-deserved limelight over the span of some months. Therefore it is worth doing.
But you tell me: Are the projections realistic? Is the project doable? Think about it and let us discuss.