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Vinay Somani, founder of the NGO platform www.karmayog.org, spoke on the role we can play in bringing about a change, on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien
On the occasion of the first Sahakarya Kranti Diwas, I would like to talk about what the process of change involves and the bottlenecks in this process—bottlenecks that all of us here have experienced. I am sharing today some of our learnings through eight years of Karmayog where we have been working to bring about change in large and small ways. Bringing about change in society is both an internal as well as an external process.
A) Internal Processes:
A.1. People say, “But, what can we do to make things better?”
Our life's journey is about ourselves, and we must constantly look at ourselves to start improving things, instead of looking outside and to others for change.
We want other people to change, the system to change, the country to change... None of these will happen unless we start by changing ourselves first.
A. 2. Take corruption
The first thing that we must decide is that we must ourselves be honest. I have to reach a meeting, say today’s event at Moneylife Foundation and I am late, and someone calls me up and asks where I am, and I reply that I have passed Mahim, though actually I am still at Bandra. If we decide that we will be honest in everything that we say and do, then we start realizing how dishonest we actually are.
As we start walking the path of being completely honest, the world changes completely and unless we begin this journey, we have no idea about the impacts of such change.
A. 3. Take cleanliness
We are not interested in keeping our surroundings clean. As long as our own home or work area is clean, we are rarely bothered about the corridor outside. We are not willing to take the extra effort or pay the extra money to keep that corridor clean.
There is a scheme in Mumbai called the Saaf Aangan scheme where citizens can adopt the pavement and road in front of their house or office, and keep that area clean, free of encroachers, etc. Hardly anyone in Mumbai has come forward to take part in the Saaf Aangan scheme. Why? It’s the BMCs job. But, if we were really neat and clean persons, then we would be unable to tolerate the dirt around us anywhere.
A. 4. Developing spine
How do we develop spine in ourselves? In our daily lives, we have to say things that people may not like hearing, both to people that we like and to people that we don’t like. Usually, we don’t do this; instead we maintain a quid pro quo, where no one says anything to anyone.
We are unable to be tough with our own family and friends, but we expect the CAG to be tough, we expect the RBI governor to tackle inflation, despite pressure from mighty corporates, and we expect our municipal commissioner to take on the builder lobby. How can they be tough, at jobs and decisions 10,000 times tougher than our daily decisions, when we are unable to take a firm stand on the daily everyday things in our lives?
Most of us can hardly be effective in our country, in our city, in our lane, in our building and even in our home, but still we expect that someone else will have this effectiveness for the whole country to improve, and that too without our support.
A.5. Moving towards a balanced state
We need to have a conscious desire to move our activities from a tamasic (passive & ignorant) state to a rajasic (aware & excitable) state and eventually to a sattvic (balanced & serene) state. Your entire world changes into a more serene and balanced place, and if more people do this, gradually we will see that the world will change into a serene and balanced place.
It may sound too basic and simple or inconsequential to be true, but we have no idea how tough this is to achieve even for one person.
These above examples all show that the focus for any change must first be inwards.
What are some of the external processes that can lead to change?
B) External Process:
B. 1. Write if you have a problem
If we have a problem about garbage or traffic or corruption that troubles us, then we must write a letter or lodge a proper complaint. We have to convey the details of the problem that we face to the persons or authority in charge, if we have even the smallest real desire to get that problem solved. Writing a complaint letter is the first step, irrespective of whether someone may or may not take action on our complaint. If we just keep talking about all the problems that we face without ever writing a complaint about it, then we should seriously reflect on whether we actually have a desire to get that problem resolved.
If we do not do the small things, then the big things will never change.
B. 2. Define the problem from the angle of all stakeholders involved, including opposing ones.
When there are competing claims of different stakeholders, we must take into account whatever is feasible. When we work keeping in mind the views and needs of all stakeholders, then the solution that emerges will be the correct one.
The issue of hawkers or street vendors in Mumbai is one such issue that has largely remained unresolved because no solution has met the needs of all stakeholders. And who are the stakeholders in this case:
- the citizen as a pedestrian, who needs empty footpaths to walk on
- the citizen as a consumer, who wants cheap & conveniently located goods and services
- Citizens Groups and Resident Welfare Associations, who want to improve their localities
- Hawkers, who want to earn a livelihood
- BMC, which regulates the use of pavements, roads, public spaces, selling of goods, etc.
- Police, who enforce laws and prevent encroachment.
So solutions that have been tried in the past have either ignored the needs of pedestrians, or ignored the needs of residents, or ignored the needs of the hawkers, or ignored the capacity of the police to implement the law, etc.
B. 3. Cause Vs Symptom
When we start working on any issue, we may start by tackling one or more of the symptoms of the problem. But if we are interested in reaching a lasting solution, then we have to tackle the root cause. If we do not tackle the root cause of the problem, we may sometimes cause even more harm and problems, than when we started with. If we tackle only the symptoms, the results will be limited, and we will have to constantly enforce compliance, as the root cause will continue to generate new symptoms.
E.g. Tackling the stray dogs issue in Mumbai, does not involve catching all the dogs and releasing them somewhere else, or keeping them locked up, or even killing them all. It also doesn't stop at sterilizing and vaccinating the stray dogs against rabies, though this is a huge step. Stray dogs thrive in cities because of open garbage bins and piles of waste—and unless this root cause is tackled, the stray dog problem will continue.
B.4. How to tackle resistance to our work and ideas?
When we first realise that we are not happy with things around us and decide to do something about it, there are two broad ways that we could go about it.
One way is to put pressure on government and other agencies to do their job and believe that the government can indeed achieve what is needed, as “where there is a will there is a way”. If this is the path that you prefer, more power to you. This is a path that several individuals and civil society groups have taken with many successes too.
There is another way, when a citizen has thought about and realised a solution to some problem that affects him or her. Let’s say that this solution is implementable, cost-effective and suitable and yet when you take this solution to the public agencies which could adopt and implement it, there is little positive response from them.
There are two possible reasons for this resistance:
One being that there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo—for the moment I am not addressing this today. The second is that the government agency is not able to implement the solution due to some reason that they are not able to tell us. Instead of just assuming that in general, government is lethargic and disinterested, in such a situation, we must try and find out their viewpoint and objections, and incorporate and factor this into our solution. Once we know what the objection is to the proposal or suggestion, we can take appropriate steps to overcome this.
So, how can we overcome the resistance to our proposal?
One of the ways is to organize a public forum or meeting where both you and a representative from the concerned government department are speaking on that issue.
This is exactly what MoneyLife Foundation has been doing through some of their public events. We have seen at Karmayog that this method can have immense success in resolving differences in viewpoints, and this approach has enabled us in the past to work with MCGM to frame two new Rules for Mumbai.
B.5. Forming a group /team
Irrespective of whether we decide to work as a pressure group for public agencies, or as collaborators with government, one of the essential steps that we must take is to form a core group of people for the cause. Such a group, be it even five or six people, is needed for logistical support, to prevent burn-out, to sustain the momentum of actions, and even to keep open avenues of dialogue with people, who may have closed them with some group members.
The group should have people from various backgrounds, with a common commitment to resolve the problem. The challenge of the leader of the group is how to keep the group together despite some members feeling that their objectives may have been diluted, or that the means are not exactly how they wish them to be, or that there are some differences on principles, etc. The appropriate leader, in many cases, may not even be the person who started the process, but needs to be the person who can hold the group together.
B. 6. Define milestones
We must define several achievable milestones for our work, and take the steps to achieve these. Even if we do not achieve the absolute end objective, by defining a series of milestones and reaching these, we will get a sense of achievement and satisfaction from our work, be motivated to continue, and not get bogged down by others' unrealistic or ambitious expectations of us.
B. 7. The cause is greater than us
While engaging in initiatives to bring about social change, we should always remember the cause, and the fact that the cause is greater than us. Therefore we must try and involve everyone engaged in that issue, whether they agree with us or not, and whether or not they are competitors.
B.8. Crossing the plateau
We have seen through our work at Karmayog that in all such efforts to bring about change, there comes a point when we reach a plateau. Some of the points mentioned above, specifically
- incorporating the viewpoints of those resisting you
- forming a group to sustain your initiative
- realizing that the cause is greater than us, individually
- constantly improving ourselves as human beings
are the means to cross that plateau and move ahead.
B. 9. Support each other
Finally, we need to all support each other. This may sound obvious, but we usually don’t implement it, though we may mentally commit our support. Therefore, if something is being done by some individual or group that you agree with, do show your support to them. How? By writing a cheque to them, even of Rs1,000, by attending their events, by talking about their work to your friends, by creating awareness about them through email and social media, and by writing to the media about them.
Closing: One letter every week: 52 letters in a year
We have seen, through the last 8 years of work at Karmayog, that paper moves government, and that a letter from a citizen has greater power and impact than we commonly think. Remember that while your troublesome email can be deleted, your letter cannot be simply thrown into the dustbin.
Let’s resolve that each one of us will write and send one letter every week regarding something that troubles us. That would be 52 letters in a year. The letter can be to the Traffic Police, to the BMC, to the chief minister of Maharashtra, to our daily newspaper for having a full page ad instead of news everyday on the front page, to prominent companies whose products you use, for misleading claims about their products, to our local MP, MLA or corporator with suggestions for our area, to the managing committee of our housing society about ideas for improvement, to our favourite actor or actress about a cause that they can endorse and raise awareness on, to the political party that we have been voting for...
[In case you have trouble with the contact details of anyone that you would like to write to, we would be happy to try and help you out with that.]
Send us a copy of your letter. Karmayog goes out to over 64,000 people everyday—someone will read and be moved to respond and take some action triggered by your letter. Send us the responses that you receive too, both good and bad.
I am confident that a movement can be born from this.