Fighting for the citizen's 'right to breathe'
Not just another day in the life of a journalist!
"I was not born yesterday," I said, raising my voice, when a local politician did not see reason. I had come to invite him for a protest against a polluting plant in his backyard.
Why was he against the idea of residents picking up the baton? Because whenever he had called for a public demonstration, not a single resident turned up. So he had to pack garment factory workers in buses for manufacturing dissent.
But now, he was seeing one resident activist and one local journalist joining hands for a public outcry that could overshadow all his previous outings and dent his fabricated image. This was his constituency, and only he can take all the credit.
"You cannot call the AAP party," roared the member of legislative assembly (MLA), sitting in his posh bungalow in south Bengaluru.
"But we already have," I conceded. "We have called every other political party representative in the area as it is an apolitical citizen protest."
After more than an hour of arguments and counter arguments, we reached a compromise.
"I don't mind you calling the others, but not AAP as they will take all the credit," the MLA confessed.
Honesty has always been my best policy. So I informed the AAP representative that the MLA didn't want him on stage, but no one would stop him if he sat in the audience.
Citizen's 'Right to Protest'
This video encapsulates the entire issue in 10 minutes
The protest was planned three weeks later, and we had only just begun. We had sought permission from the local cops to stage the protest on the lakebed that was being contaminated by the effluents from the composting plant. When the local inspector didn't reciprocate, we gave a letter to his superior, the Deputy Commissioner of Police. Eventually, the permission was given, and the police inspector of the area called me for a recce of the protest site.
"As the organiser, you will have to promise that nothing untoward happens on the day," the inspector said, clearly under the influence of the city minister who was party to it.
"We will of course try our best, but that's why you are there, if things go off-script as the residents cannot predict what the MLA does," I said, matter-of-factly.
"But that's also your responsibility," the inspector boomed.
I was taken aback, but immediately recovered. "That's true, but we can't vouch for the MLA's conduct," I told him.
It's a Civic War
Even after a fortnight, the city corporation had not given us permission to protest on the lakebed.
A day before the protest, the joint commissioner's personal assistant called up.
"We request your presence for a meeting to discuss the issue."
"There's nothing to discuss. We will protest without the permission." I hung up, and he didn't call back.
"We have a right to breathe, and we should protest," said one person in a WhatsApp group. "The composting plant is taking more than it should, and polluting the groundwater and the atmosphere. We can't even eat our food in peace." When the sentiment was echoed by many more people over the course of a month, I decided to catalyse the process.
I met Anis Padela, the principal activist behind the movement at a coffee shop to draft the strategy. He wanted to shut down the plant, but I said, we should be more constructive and ask the authorities to either 'behave or shutdown'. He agreed. The original composting capacity of the plant was 60 tonnes per day, not the existing 500 tonnes.
"Let your magazine lead the protest," Anis said, referring to the hyperlocal monthly print magazine I brought out for the neighbourhood.
I disagreed and offered a better alternative. My magazine would power the protest by spreading awareness and anchoring the public demonstration, while the chief organiser of the event will be the local resident welfare association.
Tell, Not Become
The resident activist agreed because the reasoning was simple. The principal job of journalism is to 'tell' the story, not 'become' the story. This would also ensure that the community would feel empowered and take the protest forward rather than rely on the media at every step.
After a series of posts in the WhatsApp group, it was decided that we would protest three weeks from now. Rallying people with inspirational and informative messages about why it's time to take to the streets became the focus of my messaging. The most affected people were living in neighbouring apartments and inhaling the foul smell 24/7. Some suffered throat infections and throat pain, while others bought air conditioners to overcome some of the stink. A few people had rented out the house and stayed elsewhere as the stench was too much to bear.
The social media campaign was quite draining. From a journalist, I had become a citizen activist. This was definitely not a day in the life of a media person. I spent the better part of the day for three weeks not only galvanising public opinion on social media and answering their various queries, but also helping the residents with on-ground support, such as procuring the relevant permissions from the authorities, drafting press releases, and approving every communication material.
The Day of the Protest
On cue, the AAP representative sat in the front row. While the MLA was customarily late to the event, a member of parliament (MP) who was senior to the MLA invited the AAP politician on stage. As the anchor of the show, I obliged to the senior politician's request, and immediately informed the MLA when he took the stage later that it was the MP's handiwork. Looking at the thousands of residents who had turned up, the MLA changed his tune, and asked the AAP person to sit next to him, and put his arm around him. Importantly, the MLA was intent on walking a 100 yards from the protest venue to the KCDC to hand over a memorandum. Previously, whenever he indulged in a walkathon, there was collateral damage, such as stone-throwing and damaging public property. As the citizens had come in large numbers, with children in tow, this was my biggest concern. The cops were waiting in two buses just in case the situation turned violent.
"Would you still go to the KCDC office to hand over your memorandum?" I whispered into the MLA's ear.
After thinking for just a while, he sputtered: "You tell me."
"The KCDC chief should be in the crowd, so you could hand over the letter right here."
And that's what happened. Things went off peacefully. I also took the opportunity to lash out at the city corporation for not giving the permission to protest by reminding them that they are public servants after all.
More than 1000 residents signed a written petition that proclaimed ‘Shutdown or behave KCDC’. KCDC was the composting plant, and more than 3000 people turned up for the three-hour protest that was unlike any public outcry the neighbourhood had ever seen. Before the maiden citizen protest, the corporation was processing 500 tonnes of waste every day, and was planning to scale it up to 1000 tonnes per day. After the protest, it was gradually brought down to 150 tonnes. The residents continue to stress on shutting down the plant as the odour-control tech is not functional despite several assurances from the authorities.
A 2021 fact check by the residents on the plant's status so far
Self-Reliance is the Key
After the KCDC protest, the residents have gone on to protest many more times, without my active involvement. But I am glad that I was able to catalyse the process and make them confident of doing it themselves. The demonstration also encouraged the other residents across Bengaluru who raised their voice against bad roads, clogged drains, encroachments, and senseless commercialisation of residential areas, among other things. One event can change the graph of the city as the KCDC protest showed. The event, though powered by a hyperlocal monthly magazine, was live telecast on national TV channels besides being covered in the mainstream dailies. Residents Watch went on to become an influential voice of the neighbourhood; it has become an online news portal now. We have had several impacts on the ground since then. After we highlighted the issue, a terrible stretch of a main thoroughfare was tarred overnight. Basement eateries were shut after we wrote that they were a fire disaster waiting to happen. The decibel levels at places of worship were brought down after we received complaints from the residents.
Our efforts didn't go unrewarded. In 2018, I was shortlisted for the 'Media Person of the Year' award by a local non-governmental organisation dedicated to city improvement. Our diligent hyperlocal reportage of eight years also won the attention of Google who funded us last year as part of their journalism emergency relief fund.
Meaning of Life
I have always asked God why he created me. What was the purpose of my life? It took me 38 years before I realised my life's mission with the launch of Residents Watch. Hyperlocal journalism brought me face to face with grassroots reality. The problems that residents face, the trials and travails of civic activists, the politicking in resident welfare associations, the business behind building places of religious worship, the ploy of encroaching parks for building commercial and religious establishments, the idea of launching public projects detrimental to the local ecosystem, and the negligence and absolute lack of common sense in executing developmental activities for more moolah, among others.
Sometimes, it takes decades to find the true purpose of our lives.
I've found mine, have you?
Pics courtesy: Shutdown KCDC Facebook Group