Shifting from the slick, tree-lined Vasanthnagar to the mud and gravel of HRBR in East Bengaluru did it. Building a dream house in a nightmare colony with no roads or facilities dealt quite a shock to D.S. Rajshekhar ten years ago. It was then that he felt that unless he stepped forward and joined like-minded citizens to show some fighting spirit, he would continue to live in a perpetually ‘under-construction’ colony.
His Residents’ Welfare Association referred him to Citizens’ Action Forum (CAF), which was a simple association of rather indignant residents. It was an idea that was seeded in 2007. It had just begun its now-ten-year-old journey, soon to grow into a full-fledged forum at the helm of taking up citizens’ issues. “What excited me was that it was a pan-city programme, not specific to a particular place,” said Rajshekhar.
N.S. Mukunda was the founder and president from 2008 to 2014. That electrical engineer graduate, who became an electrical contractor in the late 1960s, was the pioneer who brought together many RWA ideas and gathered them on one platform.
Calling it “vibrant, aggressive and active,” Rajshekhar got most excited when the forum got together on the Voters’ List Correction. Another major movement was around Property Tax evaluation, which saw the replacement of the BBMP’s Self Assessment Scheme with the Capital Value System (CVS), as demanded by the Forum.
“It was a major event, with a huge gathering in Ravindra Kalakshetra,” Rajshekhar remembers. It was an issue that touched every citizen. Meeting the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) and filing a series of RTIs seeking information became the focus for a while.
N.S. Mukunda considers a seminar held at Ravindra Kalakshetra in 2010 a significant feat in CAF’s activist journey. The then minister, R. Ashoka, was coerced through popular demand to promise at the seminar that the government wouldn’t hike property taxes.
Other major movements include the ones over the steel flyover that the Metropolitan Planning Committee wanted in place, clearing of footpath encroachments and locating details of various locations in the south and east of Bengaluru. The CAF has also been active in pushing for pedestrian-friendly roads, seeking budget presentations and conducting transparent and open audits. Mukunda also filed a petition and got a stay order from the National Green Tribunal opposing the allotment of Bellandur wetlands for an SEZ. A fine of Rs 142 crore was slapped on the developers.
The power of numbers
Calling themselves “inspiring”, D. S. Rajshekhar, the CAF President, said that they really need more young people to get involved in their activities. A broad approach is the need of the moment, as well as the awareness that “this society belongs to me.” A 100 RWAs are in the CAF fold currently,and yet, one of their drawbacks is that they haven’t grown bigger than they have, said Rajshekhar.
Is that really necessary, though? Why does the CAF need so many members? After all, the petitions and fights are taken up only by a few, so is it necessary then to fight the big fight with so many people?
“Only agitations and petitions are of no use,” said Rajshekhar “We have to approach the courts and take up things in a big way. So it is very important that the maximum number of people get involved. If there are only four of us and we file a petition, we are not able to deliver a big-enough jolt to the politicians and governmental departments. They belong to the old school of thought. If only a small team approaches them, they say that the issue does not seem to affect too many people, so why are you creating so much galaata?” In a city of 12 crore, numbers can really go a long way.
“Citizens should be consistent, persistent and committed,” he affirmed. The mantras are “transparency and accountability”. Participatory democracy and citizens’ freedom are important.
However, N.S. Mukunda, the founder-President who calls CAF the “fifth estate”, is angry about the political erosion of local citizens’ groups. According to him, pressure groups, instead of remaining apolitical, are leaning towards some affiliations, making the movement weak from inside. This has eroded its “position of great strength and poise six years ago.” However, there are efforts to strengthen the movement again.
The CAF team
What it lacks in numbers, the CAF team makes up in vibrancy, experience and persistence. “Our core team of 12 works round the clock,” says a proud Rajshekhar, who has been the President for the past five years. He is also quick to point out that “At 50 plus, I am the youngest in my team. All the members are old, educated and are retired from various professions, some having an NGO background”. They meet every second Tuesday in Century Club.
“Age and experience matter. Those who are old are rich in knowledge and know the rules and regulations by rote. Most of the members are 70 plus, but the kind of enthusiasm they have is amazing. The founding president, N.S. Mukunda, is the oldest member. There are only two women in the team, one of them being the secretary, Mahalakshmi Parthasarathy.
The team has decided to stick to a low budget. “Yet, for everything we need funds. If you seek legal benefits, in order to take advantage of even pro bono cases, statutory fees are needed. Our people’s committee here has passion but no money.” Still, they are rich in views that are picked up through their ear on the ground. Thus, they come up with not just valid criticism, but also meaningful suggestions and solutions. For example, they have submitted a white paper on funding water supply for the city.
A big success of CAF has been the challenge that it raised with a legal petition against the Akrama Sakrama scheme. This saw the implementation of the scheme being suspended, though the case is still in the courts. N.S. Mukunda argued that the “Akrama Sakrama, in essence, discriminates against a law-abiding citizen while favouring violators.”
Secondly, in a public consultation meeting called by the BDA to discuss the CDP-2031, CAF argued that the BDA should “desist” from carrying out the CDP – 2031.
The active group has filed six PILs so far – against the BDA Master Plan 2015, Akrama Sakrama, seeking protection of wetlands around the lakes, protecting the ad hoc setting up of vision groups, opposing the proposed Common Zoning Rules and the 74th amendment with the Municipal Planning Committee. Through these PILs, filed on behalf of the citizens, CAF has started a small, powerful movement.
What is the status of those PILs today and how far has the Forum been successful in achieving their end? Watch this space as we bring you a series capturing that, shortly.