Think India Needs Cleaner Politics? This Team Trains Future Civic Leaders & Politicians

Revathy Ashok is among the millions of migrants who have made Bengaluru their home.

From a small town in Bihar, she arrived in the city during the 1970s in search of quality education. Following her master’s degree in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore, she broke multiple glass ceilings in the corporate world including a stint as a CFO of a Nasdaq-listed company and the MD of a global private equity firm.

Today, she is on the board of several listed and large public corporations and runs her boutique consulting firm helping startups and small and medium businesses scale.

Over the decades, she has seen the city rapidly transformed from a quiet ‘Garden City’ to the mecca of the Indian IT revolution and e-commerce boom, bringing with them millions of working professionals from all over the country. However, this rapid change has not been met with commensurate improvements in the delivery of civic services and infrastructure.

At the heart of this disparity, she believes, lies the lack of quality of civic governance and citizen engagement associated with it, particularly amongst the city’s middle class.

To address this, she joined the non-profit Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC) founded by corporate honchos Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (Chairperson of Biocon), Mohandas Pai (ex-Infosys CFO, Chairman of Manipal Global Education), and K Jairaj, a retired IAS officer with a distinguished service record. She joined B.PAC a few months after it was founded in 2013.

Calling itself “a non-partisan citizen’s group that aims to improve governance in Bengaluru and to enhance the quality of life of every resident”, B.PAC has grown into an ‘apolitical organisation’ seeking to address a myriad of the city’s civic problems.

“Over the last eight or nine years, we have been very consistent in our belief that we need thousands of problem solvers in the city. For far too long we have only complained about what is wrong from gaping potholes to poorly lit street lights. How about doing something to improve the city instead of complaining about it on social media? How do we create 5,000 problem solvers in the city to address these civic issues that affect us every day? With that in mind was born an incubator for civic political leadership,” says Revathy Ashok, in a conversation with The Better India.

Called the B.PAC Civic Leadership Incubator Program (B.CLIP), this is an initiative that selects, trains and supports talented individuals who wish to transform their city by either contesting municipal corporation elections or actively working with arms of local government on the ground.

Started in 2014/15, the B.CLIP program has churned out seven cohorts of approximately 50 candidates each. With the completion of the eighth cohort later this year, B.PAC will have 365 persons who have undergone the nine-month B.CLIP programme. Today, more than 100 B.CLIP graduates hold key positions across multiple political parties. There are 148 municipal wards in Bengaluru today with active B.CLIP alumni representation out of 198. “Our dream is to create a collective of 5,000 people making a difference in the everyday lives of our residents,” she adds.

Civic Leaders Bengaluru
Revathy Ashok (CEO B.PAC), Margaret Alva (Senior Politician), Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (Chairperson of Biocon) and Nitin Pai (Founder of Takshashila Institution) handing over certificates to B.CLIP leaders

Vision for Committed Civic Leaders

Executed by a small team of 10 people alongside external experts, the B.CLIP program borrows heavily from the processes and systems incorporated by successful corporations backed by an intimate knowledge of Bengaluru, its civic governance structures and the Constitutions of India.

“Most Bengaluru residents would struggle to answer questions about the ward number they reside in or their elected corporator. Our goal is to involve Bengaluru’s residents more in everyday civic politics, particularly the middle class. Additionally, we inform them about what’s happening in their city. The lack of basic knowledge about the civic politics of your city is unacceptable. After all, this is the level at which civic services affecting you and I directly, are delivered,” explains Revathy.

Unlike the MLA, it’s the job of the corporator to fix the everyday issues whether we are talking about fixing street lights, filling potholes, addressing waste collection or cleaning lakes.

“Therefore, how can citizens be more connected to local civic politics? How can we generate greater quality of candidates in corporator elections and heighten citizen interest in local civic politics? That was the genesis of B.CLIP. This is an experiment where we will expose potential candidates to all aspects of the governance of politics at the grassroots level,” she adds.

Every ward is given an annual budget of Rs 60 lakh and according to a Bangalore Mirror report last September, “ward committee members [consisting members of local community]” now have a say in the allocation of the budget “for civic works such as repairing footpaths, roads and borewells”.

Although the sum isn’t nearly enough to cover these expenses, communities now can exercise some semblance of authority to fulfil their needs, believes Revathy.

From helping the disadvantaged access government schemes to waste management, reviving lakes and improving the green cover of the city, there are many B.CLIP alumni making a positive difference in the lives of ordinary Bengaluru residents, she claims.

“If B.CLIP alumni are seen to be solving such problems, we hope that it generates greater trust among citizens. We hope that some of this trust propels our alumni to contest and win elections. Of course, politics isn’t this simple, given voters have other considerations, but we are working towards changing that narrative. Instead of catering to individual political parties, we want to put out a cadre of civic leaders committed to resolving everyday civic issues,” she says.

Besides those contesting corporator elections, B.CLIP has also nurtured strong community leaders like C Sampath, an auto-rickshaw driver who today runs the 14,000-strong Adarsha Auto Union and brought about the implementation of displaying Driver’s License in autos to deter any form of harassment while travelling.

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sampath distributed rations and food to the migrant workforce and to his fellow auto drivers along with other B.PAC volunteers. “A total of 11 volunteers from BPAC, including me, collect 5 kg rice, 1 kg dal, 1 kg sugar, oil, turmeric powder, sambar powder, tea powder and biscuit packets every day. We deliver the supplies to the homes of daily wage labourers living in SK Garden and Pulakeshinagar,” said Sampath.

Other examples include Dr Sunilkumar Hebbi who operated a mobile hospital in his car during the pandemic and Dr Syed Moinuddun Shabbir whose two-wheeler drove around the narrow lanes of Shivaji Nagar delivering urgent care.

Awarding civic leaders
Former Primer Minister HD Deve Gowda handing out a certificate to a B.CLIP graduate

What’s the B.CLIP program all about?

The process of selecting candidates for this program is reasonably rigid. After all, the candidates selected will largely undergo this program free of cost with most of the money raised by B.PAC. However, it’s important to note that B.PAC charges Rs 5,000 as a ‘caution deposit’ which will be returned to the candidate after completion of the project.

Candidates have to fill out an application form, present their statement of purpose and produce a signed list of 100 voters from their ward backing them for acceptance into the program. Those signing will have to write down their names, contact numbers and voter ID numbers.

Eligibility requirements also state that the candidate should be able to vote for the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) corporator elections in their respective wards, besides demonstrating “a passion for civic activities and a track record of public service, preferably in the same ward”. There has to be some track record of civic and political activity on the ground or they should have demonstrated some capability of mobilising people in the past. In addition, the candidate should not have any pending criminal cases against him/her and/or should not have been convicted in the court of law for serious offences.

Raghavendra HS, the B.CLIP program coordinator, explains the finer details. “We connect with different political parties and conduct a press meet, following which we ask them to send candidates to apply for this year’s B.CLIP batch. In addition, we also circulate our invitation to other Bengaluru residents to apply through our social media platforms and conventional media like newspapers. Most candidates who apply are from political parties with recommendations sent by respective senior party leaders. Every year, we receive about 200-odd applications per batch from different political parties or civic leaders working on the ground,” he explains.

After receiving applications, they conduct the first round of screening, going through their applications with a fine-tooth comb.

“Following this screening process, we call them for a written test with questions about the basics of civic governance in Bengaluru like the BBMP Budget, issues in their given ward, name of local MLA, etc. Then they are called for an interview in front of three-panel members which includes a member of B.PAC, a B.CLIP alumni, and an external invigilator like a professor of political science, political party leader, etc,” he says.

The panel will ask a set of questions gauging the candidate’s leadership qualities, awareness of political and economic issues and any demonstrable work they’ve done in their ward, etc. Certain candidates with a political background who haven’t done any work on the ground are not selected.

Civic Leaders Field Visit
Left: B.CLIP class conducted by Suresh Kumar; Right: B.CLIP field visit to Adhamya Chethan

“Out of more than 200 candidates, we select about 65 for the batch and take them through our nine-month program. Given the intense nature of the course, which involves classroom sessions and field visits on weekends for the first three months, a few eventually drop out. Our objective is to ensure that about 50 candidates eventually complete the program and graduate,” he adds.

During the first three months, candidates are taught the history of Bengaluru, the Constitution of India and public speaking and oration, etc. Going further, guest speakers who have an intimate knowledge of the city and subject matter are invited to conduct sessions on the local judiciary, how to file public interest litigations and Right to Information (RTI) applications, wastewater management, the city’s water usage dynamics, city planning, urban reforms, speech writing, handling the media and breaking down the BBMP budget, among other subjects.

In addition, candidates are taken on-site visits to Smart City infrastructure-related works like the Namma Metro rail project and field trips to entities working on innovative waste management or lake cleaning practices, etc. Following these sessions, B.PAC conducts a ward mapping exercise with the candidates, asking them to collect information about their respective wards including its history, the number of routes and street lights, road length, etc.

“The idea here is to familiarise candidates and train them for politics at the grassroots level. If they wish to become elected corporators, we need to see whether they even understand their ward. We want to ensure that these candidates are looking at the ward as an entity that has a current state but needs to arrive at the desired state. With the given permissions, we get them to participate in ward committee meetings. Even if they are not becoming corporators, they can become active participants in civic politics. We mix up theory with a good amount of practical knowledge of what it takes to get done on the grassroots,” says Revathy.

Sometimes these sessions go on for four months as well to cover certain other topics as well. The next five to six months they have to work on a project, for which they are given funding worth Rs 25,000. Once they complete the classroom/practical learning sessions, candidates will identify a particular problem in their ward and work on it for the next six months.

Take Santosh K Bhat, a candidate from the sixth B.CLIP cohort, from Ward No. 169 in the Byrasandra area of the city. His project objective is to set up a common service centre (CSC) office which would deliver central and state government schemes and services to citizens within the ward.

Santosh went on to open a CSC office in the ward to deliver these services. The Rs 25,000 funding provided wasn’t enough to fulfil all his expenses but B.PAC did offer him other kinds of logistical support as well regarding permissions from local authorities to set up an office, etc.

Elected civic leader
Example of B.CLIP alumni contesting and winning elections: Samapath Ramanujan, B.CLIP alumni and elected representative of Seegehalli Gram Panchayat

“Sometimes candidates are so committed that they spend money from their own pockets not to build infrastructure but other expenses to build their own political capital. It’s a small project but creates a real impact on the ground for citizens,” says Raghavendra.

Given the limited funding, candidates usually take up small-scale civic projects which they can complete within the span of five to six months and demonstrate some action on the ground. After all, the objective of these projects is to improve the lives of citizens at some level. Once the project is completed successfully, B.PAC conducts a thorough evaluation of the project.

Funding for this nine-month course comes from B.PAC’s long-term supporters like Azim Premji Foundation, Infosys Foundation, Manipal Foundation and Biocon Foundation. For other BPAC works, they receive funding from the CSR arms of other corporations as well.

Classroom sessions
B.CLIP session conducted by Bhaskar Rao, Commissioner of Police, Bengaluru

Real Impact?

Elected civic authorities in India don’t possess the requisite legislative and administrative powers like their counterparts in the United States. The civic governance structure in large Indian cities is not autonomous of the State or Union government.

In this context, what sort of impact are programmes like B.CLIP looking to achieve? For this programme to be more effective, won’t a complete overhaul of our system of civic governance be required so that corporators and ward members are in a position to effect significant change?

Revathy admits that this is a problem. “Bengaluru is the second richest city in India with more than 60% of the revenues of the state coming from the city. The State Government is not going to cede control in the short term. However, in the medium and long term, we are working extensively at a policy level advocating greater autonomy for civic governance.”

She adds, “Having said that, a lot of work can be done within the existing system. For example, are citizens following how the Rs 60 lakh allocated to each ward from the BBMP Budget is being spent?”

The narrative of greater autonomy for civic governance needs to start building up. With increasing urbanisation, creating a multiplicity of issues, the requirements of civic governance particularly in bigger cities are very different and have to be handled accordingly.

Civic leaders visit
B.CLIP field visit to BBMP Council

“When you bring out a cadre of B.CLIP leaders who currently hold party positions, they have a deeper understanding of civic governance issues than your conventional politicians. Once they graduate, their work starts. We are building a community of leaders who are divided by political parties and household income, but united by BPAC,” says Revathy.

B.CLIP graduates, when they reach a position of influence like MLA Sowmya Reddy from the Jayanagar constituency or become a Member of Parliament (MP), can hopefully create an overhaul in our system of civic governance our cities so desperately need.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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Author: Aaron Ryan