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The power of an individual

Baadal Nanjundaswamy is an ordinary citizen like any of us. But what makes him unique is his attitude. While not all of us are inclined to take ownership of public roads and streets, the civic activist highlights the poor condition of infrastructure in the Indian cities of Bangalore and Mysore, through his artwork. Popular for its ingenuity and timely execution, his art captures the attention of civic authorities and prompts them to take immediate action.

While Baadal–through his creativity–instigates the government authorities to better the society, a Bangalore-based initiative called The Ugly Indian (TUI) urges citizens to take responsibility for their neighbourhood and engage in direct action. Run anonymously, this initiative brings together like-minded people who clean up the city streets. Instead of providing temporary quick-fix solutions, the initiative strives to create responsible citizens who would maintain the cleanliness of their society.

This initiative is a success. “What began as a simple project in Bangalore Church Street four years ago, quickly spread. There are literally 20-30 teams operational across the city,” an ‘anonymous citizen’ said on a TEDx talk Why is India so filthy. Today, the idea of TUI has flourished across 30-40 cities in India. The best part, these citizens remain anonymous. “The focus is not on who does what. The focus is on the results instead,” TUI maintains.

“You can change your future by changing your attitude,” is a well-known maxim. Unfortunately, it is often our attitude that lacks a sense of public responsibility. Almost always, we tend to differentiate between what is ‘ours’ and ‘not ours’. We then carefully take care of what is ‘ours’ and neglect (and sometimes cause damage to) what is ‘not ours’.

For instance, all of us manage (or at least try to manage) our homes efficiently. We do not deliberately dirty it or vandalise it. We readily follow implicit rules laid down by ourselves or our family members. While we certainly take ownership of our homes, we seldom get the inclination to adhere to the rules of our own residential association. Radhakrishnan T, an exasperated association president of an apartment in Chennai, says, “Residents crib about pollution and water scarcity. But it is hard to get the same residents to not waste water. Some don’t even separate biodegradable waste from non-biodegradable waste. So, we have to impose fines.”  

It seems we tend to believe that in a democracy, our duty ends as soon as we cast our votes and elect our officials. We carry on with our regular lives, unaware of what work elected leaders are implementing.


It seems we tend to believe that in a democracy, our duty ends as soon as we cast our votes and elect our officials. We carry on with our regular lives, unaware of what work elected leaders are implementing. Sporadically, we wake up and raise our voice against persistent civic issues–roads laden with potholes, littered streets, blocked/ leaking drain pipes, and so on. Then, of course, we promptly blame the system and our elected officials for unkempt maintenance.

Needless to say, blame games only result in lose-lose situations. Perhaps, we should indeed try and ‘be the change we want to see’ in society. It is with this core idea that Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based NGO was set up. Sapna Karim, a coordinator of Civic Participation at the NGO explains how every citizen–including a child–can become an ‘active citizen’. For instance, by partnering with public and private schools, Janaagraha teaches children about local governance. Children are required to take up civic issues as their project, interact with the local government officials and come up with sustainable solutions. “This gives children the confidence that they too can influence a positive change in their neighbourhood. Over the years, we have witnessed several such kids grow into responsible adults who actively work for the betterment of society,” Sapna observes.

Several such non-profit initiatives strive to instil in individuals a sense of public responsibility. But this is no easy task. Often, most people doubt the influence one individual can possibly have on a society.  But what if world’s leaders, like Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, for example, had let that thought bog them down?

Decades ago, an ordinary individual, Yew had decided to do something about the filthy and rodent-ridden Singapore. He envisioned his country well-developed and clean. With that thought, he founded the People Actions Party. Over the years, he managed to cleanse not just the city streets, but also made sure every Singaporean took ownership of the city and maintained it to high standards. His able governance and his positive influence on the people propelled a third-world country to become a first-world nation in a relatively short span of time. Perhaps Yew’s inclusive attitude–considering Singapore and its people his own–helped him work relentlessly for the country’s betterment. It also set off a chain reaction wherein people began to think like him and work towards betterment of their country.

True, an individual is but a drop in the ocean. But little drops of rain do make a mighty ocean. Be it Lee Kuan Yew, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela, it has always been an individual who has changed the course of societies. Of course, they did not have it easy. But they persisted and succeeded because they believed that the world was theirs to build and shape. Perhaps, it is this sense of ownership that is needed to awaken the public responsibility within each one of us.

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