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Social Media Predicted Elphinstone, This Tech Solution Could Have Prevented It

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On September 29, 2017, 23 people died and more than 35 got injured in a stampede at the Elphinstone Road station. Even though a committee was later formed to look into the reasons behind the horrific incident, a report unearthed at least 100 Mumbaikars having earlier reported the dismal state of the foot-over bridge through a popular social networking site. Some had posted photographs of the place, some had predicted an impending “stampede” as far back as in 2013.

What the government’s role and response was in relation to the incident will be seen as the investigation progresses, but the activity on social media raises a few pertinent doubts: Are social media handles equipped to deal with such real-world issues pertaining to governance and decision making? If not, where does the common man go to post queries and complaints? In this age of the internet, are we still expecting people to physically visit the concerned officials’ workplaces to complain? How do citizens keep track of issues which have been reported and the action being taken regarding them? Should we always expect a social media handle run by a third party to respond to our genuine queries? How do we trust them to actually forward our complaints to the right department? Won’t our voices be lost in the deluge of the thousands of other posts and opinions that fill our timelines?

The questions are many, the answers all lead to one solution: an upgraded democracy with a dedicated network that lets the common man voice concerns remotely, one where concerned officials have an easy-to-use interface that directly shows them complaints needing urgent attention, ongoing issues, and public opinion about stuff that matters. In short, civic tech.

What Tech?

Civic tech is a broad term that encompasses any technology that “enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good”. It can be a website that disseminates important information about the government’s performance, lets users share their opinions about civic issues, provides analytics support to the government, or simply bridges the gap between citizens and their elected representatives.

Civic tech is also is a new term for us Indians, one that we’re not very used to hearing. We know about social media, we know about online shopping sites, and we know about entertainment websites. But the use of the internet to solve real-world problems and to foster connectivity between citizens and elected leaders is a novel concept. We are accustomed to an offline democratic system, one that functions on paper, with files. So how can democracy turn digital? How can internet be used as a tool to support the local democratic system?

This is where lies our biggest challenge as well as our biggest opportunity.

Our Mindset

One of the most important challenges with the voters in India is that they don’t know their power because they’ve never had the chance to fully exercise it. Years of apathy and ignorance has led our nation to a state where people, especially the youth, are completely aloof of the working of governments and local bodies. Even the most aware of citizens believe that their power is only limited to voting in the elections, which is also sadly influenced by personal political allegiance instead of informed opinions.

The lack of information also stems from overlapping local agencies. In Delhi, for example, there is a perpetual conflict between the elected government and the Lieutenant Governor appointed by the Centre. The various local bodies such as PWD, MCD, DJB, etc often lack coordination and seem to indulge in blame-games about issues. There are multiple government websites. Some of them are regularly updated while some aren’t. Some websites have the features to contact the authorities, which works at times and at times doesn’t. Some websites simply don’t provide that option. All these problems further propel the public away from getting involved and taking action because they simply don’t know whom to approach and how.

So the primary concern is to educate people about policies, roles and responsibilities, governance models, and offer them knowledge that keeps them informed and interested in civic affairs. Then, as the next step, we need to make them realise that they are also part of this system, and that demanding transparency and holding the authorities answerable is their right as well as their duty. After all, in an ideal democracy, the ultimate power rests with the citizens.

Scalability And Reach

The overall internet penetration in India is around 31%, with a stark difference in the figure for urban and rural areas (60% and 17% respectively). Moreover, the patterns of usage also differ, with urban population using the internet for social media, emails and similar services and rural India using it primarily for watching video and audio content. Therefore, any sort of online civic networking platform will face a huge bottleneck when it plans to expand its user base.

Small term solutions to this challenge exist in the form of offering offline options such as SMS-based participation, using phone-calls to access online records, or community-level engagement through assigned representatives. Long-term investments include laying stress on digital literacy and state-sponsored internet availability, which the current Central Government is also pushing through its Digital India initiative.

Organisational Challenges

Any organisation that plans to step into civic tech in India will face its own set of challenges. First and foremost, the sheer size of the democracy – the huge number of people, the huge number of representatives, their officials, their departments, etc – makes the task seem daunting. You have to contact multiple agencies and convince them to get involved. And you have to convince the people that you are indeed offering them a working solution because they’ve come to believe that they will not get any response from the authorities even if they make an effort.

You cannot function as a for-profit firm. You cannot judge your ROI (Return on Investment) in terms of sales or service-packages sold or sign-ups. You need to bear the brunt, because some people will believe that you work for the government, and you will hear the brickbats intended for government reps. Your advertising has to be on-point and very different from traditional advertising campaigns, and you have to think of innovative ways to engage people in a country where politics is looked down upon.

As an organisation, the tasks seem mostly uphill because your impact is long-term and you don’t see immediate results. In fact, more often than not, you are greeted with apprehensions and doubts about your sustainability.

So Many Challenges! Then Why Civic Tech?

Because the future is digital, even for the Indian democracy. And the results are promising and beneficial for all:

  1. The citizens are informed and empowered, and can collectively work towards constructive outcomes.

  2. The leaders can gauge voter sentiments, make advertisements that actually connect with their people, focus on what matters, and resolve pressing issues.

  3. Prominent issues that got lost in the sea of comments now get real, tangible results.

  4. Finding meaningful insights gets easier, which were otherwise spread across status updates, comments, and other media formats.

  5. The size and width of our nation seems manageable and accessible when we use online solutions. Ours is a huge and mostly disconnected democracy, but the beauty of the internet is that it is one of the easiest ways to connect people and integrate systems, no matter how numerous.

Citizens complain a lot about how the government doesn’t do enough, how local issues are not resolved, etc. Civic tech gives such citizens the driver’s seat and empowers them to be the agents of change themselves. Instead of giving them local solutions, it offers them a tool they can use to get to the solutions, a tool with immense potential to transform the democracy for the better.

A version of this post was originally published on Say2Gov.

 

Featured image source: Facebook
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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