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Series of essays on democracy.IN EARLY JULY, after a very public disagreement on WhatsApp, the president and vice president of a Bangalore-based citizens group resigned. Manivannan Ponniah MC/MPA 2019 (above), a public official and the founder of the group, jumped into the fray, sending heated messages in an effort to spur the members to move past their disagreements. “Who is the president now?? Is CITAG headless??” Ponniah messaged. “For God’s sake, do something, guys!!”

The group, called Citizens Involved Technology Assisted Governance, or CITAG, had been convened nine months earlier with grand ambitions to reform government through citizen participation. Ponniah, a bureaucrat with two decades of experience in India’s elite civil service branch, the Indian Administrative Service, had come to the realization that most innovation in India lies outside government, among the 98 percent of the people who are privately employed. He facilitated the creation of CITAG as a daring experiment in how to make government transparent and permeable to those innovators. Improved public services and governance would follow, he reasoned.

Ponniah with municipal workers addressing Bangalore’s garbage problem.
As Manivannan Ponniah MC/MPA 2019 rose through the ranks of India’s civil service, he confronted seemingly intractable public problems mostly by sticking to a deceptively simple principle: transparency.

Bangalore needs the intervention. The city was once known as a pensioner’s paradise for its green cover and hundreds of lakes. In the early 2000s, the city became an IT hub as global companies set up back offices to take advantage of an abundant, cheap, well-educated workforce. The population doubled in two decades, to more than 11 million, and the city government was caught unprepared. Roads today are choked with traffic, groundwater has run out in some places, and the air is toxic. Almost 80 percent of the city’s fabled tree canopy has been lost over the past 40 years, and 90 percent of its lakes are fed by sewage.

Public utilities have struggled to keep up. To quench Bangalore’s unforgiving thirst, the water department brings in 388 million gallons of water daily from a distant river, at a cost of $6 million a month. Power cuts are routine. And garbage is everywhere, accumulating in so-called black spots even as it gets removed. Bangalore is ranked the 194th cleanest city out of 458 on an Indian government scorecard, a steep fall from its seventh-place finish in 2015.

For their first project, the citizens of CITAG are working with the city’s solid waste management department to address grievances. They are making innovative use of blockchain technology—a transparent and tamperproof ledger—to keep track of people’s complaints about garbage disposal, which the city can then resolve. It’s a first step, they hope, on a path toward CITAG’s greater involvement with the city government. If only they can get past the teething stage.

 

This is so simple

In early September, Ponniah sat behind a large desk in his imposing office at the state legislature complex, where he heads the labor, food, and civil services departments. Nine chairs, in three rows, were arranged in front of him. At 3:00 p.m., his daily office hours commenced, and people walked in—ordinary citizens, businesspeople, trade union representatives. A staff member served them buttermilk as they waited their turn.

An old man and a younger colleague complained that some government contractors were not getting legally mandated holidays. Ponniah dictated a strongly worded letter threatening the local commissioner with prosecution and signed it with an ink pen.

A group of health activists requested funding to educate rural women. Ponniah asked them to set up a pilot.

A young man came in to inquire about a job posting. He stayed as Ponniah, prompted by a reporter, described how he had arrived at this position.

Ponniah hails from a small village in south India and belongs to the lowest of the Hindu castes, known as Dalits, or “untouchables.” His father was an Indian Railways supervisor and valued education highly, so he ensured that his four children read books in their free time and attended university. Ponniah got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and passed India’s rigorous civil service exams in 1998, after which he was posted to Karnataka, the state of which Bangalore is the capital. (The exams are so competitive that in 2017, one million people applied to fill 980 spots.)

Ponniah knew that few citizens trusted city government, and he understood that civic engagement rarely occurs in the absence of trust.

Ponniah’s first posting was in the small city of Tumkur. It could have been a thankless task: City governments, known as municipal corporations, usually struggle with finances; corruption is rife; and citizens view officials with suspicion. People generally avoid contact with municipal offices until something breaks down—streetlights stop working, or garbage piles up.

On his first day, Ponniah found citizens wandering in the corporation’s offices, not knowing where to go with their issues. He immediately set up booths dedicated to specific services—water, electricity, taxes—and mandated that officers sit at the counters every afternoon. They were also required to resolve complaints within 10 working days. The office quickly began humming.

To Ponniah, the lesson was clear: Make government easy to navigate, and citizens will participate. “I realized, oh, my God, this is so simple!” he said.

He improved on his ideas about transparent governance at his next posting, where he set up a 24-hour help line for citizens’ complaints and assembled a skeletal nighttime staff to address emergencies. Then he began working directly with people who’d lodged a suit against illegal encroachments in the city. To their delight, he ordered the properties, owned by powerful vested interests, demolished. He was immediately transferred by the political class. But when news spread, people rioted in the streets in protest. His transfer order was canceled, and Ponniah earned the moniker Demolition King.

Next he set up neighborhood citizens committees that fundraised and worked directly with the corporation to fix ailing civic services on a voluntary basis. Taxes were already so low, Ponniah reasoned, that he was justified in asking citizens to contribute to funding city services.

Ponniah working in his office looking at a map.

In 2012, Ponniah was appointed to Bangalore’s Electricity Supply Company. In 2017, he was promoted to the state government, where he remains today. He has opened up his departments to the public, and frequently posts his WhatsApp number on his personal Twitter account so that people can keep in touch. Three surveillance cameras cover every inch of his well-lit office, and his calendar is available online—there is no room for corruption.

In 2018, Ponniah took a sabbatical to attend the Kennedy School, where he quickly gravitated toward the social innovation community, becoming an Adrian Cheng Fellow and finding support within the Social Innovation + Change Initiative. He learned about experiments in participatory governance in other parts of the world. In Chicago, for example, residents, rather than politicians or bureaucrats, are allowed to decide how to spend a portion of the municipal funds. That resembled his efforts with neighborhood committees. As his ideas matured, Ponniah decided to use his fellowship funds to seed a citizens group in Bangalore to improve governance.

He posted a call to action on Twitter: “Are you a concerned citizen who wants to work with the govt for making the society better, but not doing so? What are the top 5 things the govt should do to make you invest your time & energy on the govt on a pro-bono basis? Can you list them? Let’s give govt a chance!”

Ponniah knew that few citizens trusted city government (an informal poll he conducted found that almost three-quarters of Twitter respondents had less than 25 percent trust in Bangalore’s municipal corporation), and he understood that civic engagement rarely occurs in the absence of trust. Furthermore, very few Indians participate in governance, and government has shrunk even as the population has increased over the past half century. In 2011, only about 2 percent of citizens were employed in government service—compared, for example, with about 6.5 percent in the United States—serving the interests of a billion-strong population. Knowledge and innovation exist mostly outside the government. That is a recipe for governance failure, Ponniah believes. He wants people to get directly involved in the government and share their knowledge—but that can happen only if bureaucrats promote transparency, value participation, and empower citizens.

As dusk settled in, the awestruck young job applicant took his leave and headed out with a reporter. Bangaloreans admire Ponniah for getting things done and for being transparent and not corrupt, he said. “He’s like a movie hero.”

Some 66 Bangaloreans responded to Ponniah’s Twitter call. A few were attracted by his charismatic persona; others joined because of the mission; and some saw a business opportunity to work with the government. Ponniah’s tweet became a thread that led to the formation of CITAG.

CITAG differs from other citizens groups in that it is apolitical and non-activist. It is registered as a society rather than a nonprofit, which means the government can have a role in its management. An elected managing committee is responsible for daily functioning. And it aims to also provide the government with a technology solution—an app.

Pictured with colleagues at the municipal offices.
Working from within the state’s labor, food, and services department, and using the insights he learned at HKS, Ponniah used social media to enroll citizens to help clean up Bangalore’s garbage crisis. “Let’s give govt a chance!” he tweeted.

Shobha Anand, a consultant with the Indian Institute of Human Settlement, an educational body, has been involved with CITAG from the start. She has worked with citizens groups and knows the power of participatory governance. “If citizens take a proactive role and work with government, it is possible for us to achieve good governance,” she says.

Given Bangalore’s traffic congestion, CITAG members do not meet in person; they coordinate almost entirely on WhatsApp and in Zoom meetings. In her office, which was completely devoid of personal items, Anand scrolled to a WhatsApp conversation in which Ponniah first suggested that CITAG take on Bangalore’s garbage problem.

The city generates 3,500 metric tons of garbage a day, which is hauled away piecemeal to landfills by an army of contractors. Often trash remains uncollected in waste piles around the city. Citizens can lodge complaints on an app called Sahaya, but their cases are often closed without action. Sometimes municipal workers delete records to avoid having to address problems.

Randeep D (who, as is common in India, does not use a last name), the commissioner heading the city’s solid waste management department, is trying to resolve Bangalore’s entrenched garbage issues. He accepted CITAG’s intervention to fix the Sahaya app. “Fixing the public grievance redressal system and having more transparency will help us engage with citizens better, and the credibility of the organization also goes up in the eyes of the people,” Randeep said.

CITAG wants to incorporate blockchain in the back end of the complaints-logging database to make the record keeping tamperproof. A decentralized distributed ledger system would mean that each record entered into the database would be linked to the following record. Altering one record would disrupt the entire ledger, so changes would be transparent. In addition, multiple copies of the ledger would be created, increasing the accountability of all workers involved in responding to citizen complaints. Ponniah thinks a similar system could be applied to other government record keeping as well. “Security is very important in government, because most of the corruption is happening because data can be compromised,” he said.

CITAG faced turmoil in July. The managing committee had not established clear-cut processes, and members disagreed about the blockchain vendor. The president and vice president resigned without notice. The city began dragging its feet on providing app data to CITAG. Work on the project stalled.

Ponniah meeting with citizens at Bangalore’s Electricity Supply Company.

That is when Ponniah, exasperated, fired off the WhatsApp messages asking CITAG members to step up. He appointed an interim president and vice president and called for elections. Anand became secretary, and nine executive members were elected. The committee is now setting up processes to ensure that tasks are completed in an organized manner. “The work should not stop just because someone is not available,” Anand said. “Someone else should come and pick up that work and continue to do it.”

Progress is indeed now being made. Randeep D is spearheading the project from the municipal side. A blockchain vendor has been identified and is working to develop a final product.

Anand is focused on ensuring that the group will continue beyond the current project. The group is considering working with Ponniah’s labor department to implement a blockchain-based ledger of labor department funds. In early November, Ponniah withdrew from CITAG to avoid any conflict of interest. Once CITAG has had a few successes, he said, it will be able to drive governance reform.

Anand said that more people are interested in joining CITAG, and the group is evolving. She pointed at a Google document that lists suggestions from members for future projects. One is that CITAG should be a platform where citizens can meet their local civic authorities. Another member wants it to work on rainwater harvesting. A third suggests replicating the blockchain project in other cities.

“If there’s a determination, even if you’re alone, you can try and drive the whole thing,” Anand said. “I’m sure CITAG will only become bigger.”

Gayathri Vaidyanathan is an Indian-Canadian journalist based in Bangalore, India. She writes about the environment, science, and society.