From high tech to citizen activism - The story of Whitefield Rising

I was born in New Delhi, but lived and worked in high tech around the world- Africa, Australia and the US. I returned to India about 9 years ago. My education is in finance, early experience in IT and latter experience in Project Management for large innovations. But I always knew that there was more to life and to real education than what I was doing.

I, like countless others, was frustrated that I could do nothing to make a real change to what I found to be incomprehensible around me. How appalling that it was well known that a tree that is hundreds of years old could be cut even officially by easily acquiring a tree cutting permit for the price of a movie ticket. What does it say of us as humans when we let one amongst us suffer a disease or life event for want of money or other support.

Having spent many years in America and other countries, I had seen first hand what united communities did. Community Service is a well known term there. They take on causes of every type including lobbying the government for changes in laws as well as coming together to fix what may be broken. I also knew that we were just like the people in those countries who wanted to help and make a difference but were disillusioned by a system that could not be trusted. And so it was that after attempting to solve a problem via an influential person first and realizing that it was not remotely scaleable or fair, I brought together a group of those that were just as frustrated as me but willing to come together to solve the various problems plaguing us. It was this first group’s success as well as subsequent champions who automatically found us, joined us and did more than we could have imagined, that we have come to this juncture. They are the real founders of this movement that is now just over three years old. I may have initiated Whitefield Rising but am truly no more valuable to the group than any of the others.

Nobody is going to pat them on the back for a job well done and nor is anyone going to blame them for lack of success. In fact, there is also a fair chance of nothing significant resulting from the effort. The opportunity is simply to do and not to expect results.

Amongst the volunteers we have diversity and we find that we didn’t even “think about” diversity etc. When folks come in, often it’s instant chemistry and eventually we learn more about the family, background etc! Often many months later. That’s how non-relevant a person’s age, religion, economic status, state/country of origin truly is!

I quit 3 years go to work full time on Whitefield Rising. At that time, that full on energy was needed or the movement would dissipate. It was the right time to seed the culture and make some significant impact. However, in the last 6 months, we have been arriving at a structure that keeps the essence of Whitefield Rising (freedom) and yet brings some necessary processes. So we now have a formal trust with office bearers and governance. But we still don’t take any money. We remain a zero overhead organization.

Most people will talk about the visible changes and that we have many of. We have a full fledged body of people tackling rejuvenation of lakes, managing daily traffic, fixing spots, planting trees, installing toilets, helping people get treatment, getting waste management going and much much more. However, the biggest change is the awareness people in Whitefield and elsewhere too are getting because of the movement. They are learning slowly about their part in the problem (individually or in a collective such as the company they work for or the community they live in or the business they run), the real issues within the government and most importantly the potential for change. However the biggest awareness is yet to dawn! That we are not at all leveraging the privilege of democracy. Either we don’t vote/we vote for the party that has “bought” our vote/we don’t engage and participate as candidates that can bring change. This and this alone can bring true change other than of course a revolution — which we must avoid at all costs.

How Whitefield Rising works:

We work in groups that take on problems they feel called to solve either because it is their pet peeve, or their skill is leveraged or is is their area of passion. There is a non-authoritative facilitator who usually emerges who then leads the group forward. Our Varthur Lake group is one great visible example at this time.

A key to our success is our core culture and values we stick with. It stresses heavily on people needing to come forward only to contribute, expecting neither success nor credit even if there is success. So not exactly a job description any HR department would approve of, but that is exactly the profile we want. Another key culture is our expectation that all the work we do passes the “tea test”. This means that when we do anything we should ultimately get the approval of the person most affected. Eg, you remove an encroachment. The expectation is that the encroacher buys you tea! This is really where the work is. Winning people over and getting them to be part of the solution even at a loss to themselves is really the waking up of humanity where the bigger purpose is more important than individual greed. This idea was borrowed from The Ugly Indian group, who brought us our first much needed success.

We are lucky because during this time of social media boom, we are able to amass a large following that is keenly watching and is very quickly aware of the genuineness of the platform and the integrity of the people working due to our complete transparency.

The model is extraordinary in that it brings together an ideal combination of a problem that is identified at the grassroot level by the resident champion(s) who want to solve it backed by organizations that support it either via money or know how or such. This triple combination of people committed to a cause enough to see it through to completion, backed by organizations who believe in them and a community that applauds the work is the secret to our success to date

We leverage every type of volunteer while keeping a flat structure respecting that everyone is actually a leader of themselves.

One important fact to note — We take no money. We only even created a trust because we got an award and a lakh to deposit! We are yet to use it one year later. We have done over 7 crores of work and influenced a whole lot more by simply and genuinely channelling CSR projects to the right causes where we simply act as volunteer champions who work overtime to ensure a project is successful. It is a huge learning that no paid job can parallel the performance of our champs..

Major Challenges

  1. People working with people. Inevitably the ego rises and the original purpose slips to the back seat. Credit is sought for big achievements and work is channelled towards where personal benefit may be greater. Eg: My street rather than the main road. My lake rather than the more polluted lake. But these are human behaviours and a healthy frequency of reminders helps us keep a check on this.
  2. The Government system is quite messed up. The bureaucrats are at the mercy of politicians. Anyone attempting to bring transparency and efficiency is quickly moved out or otherwise affected. The municipality has the various departments functioning as isolated agencies. So one department digs up a road right after another department has laid it.
  3. Citizens yet to wake up. They are but the awakening is slow. The realization is yet to dawn that they are paying a steep price for non participation in governance either via refusing to engage in the sub-optimal bribing world or via non voting or by their votes being purchased. They can now file RTIs, get together, demand for contracts signed and expect service as is their due.

We, at Whitefield Rising, want every individual, community , company, business in the area to realize that they have a role to play if they want change to come. We want to give them a “How do I” kit. This will let them choose the extent of engagement they want to make an impact. This will be key in bringing about some serious change in the region.

Nitya Ramakrishnan, 
Whitefield Rising

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