From ‘walk to school’ to hawking zones, a silent revolution in Sanjay Nagar!

Some of us visited the ‘Civic Hub’ at Sanjay Nagar and spent a few hours learning about their past, present and future work. This community meeting (Co Lab Party!) was organised by Citizen Matters as part of the Co Media Lab initative.

My kids go to a school that is less than half a kilometer from our home. Seven years ago, we looked for a place to rent that is close to school – so they can walk or bike to it as they grow.

Until this year, we did not have the courage to let them go by themselves. There is no pavement part on the way. Stray dogs are not always in a happy mood. When kids walk on the pavement, they are often confronted by motorcyclists driving on the pavement to avoid the traffic. I often accompany my kids to ensure they make it safe into the school and I see a lot of parents do the same though they live even closer to the school.

So what’s the big deal, you ask? Imagine 1500 kids walking to school in one area. What if seven different (might as well add, competing) schools come together and form an association to promote walking to school? Yes, it can happen and it did happen.

‘Schools of Sanjay Nagar’, an initiative that brings various schools together to promote ‘walk to school’ and ‘cycle to school’ is alive and kicking.

Sounds too good to be true? I can understand your skepticism. But here’s the proof: the amazing work going on in Sanjay Nagar.

This is the sort of the thing that sets CItizens for Sustainability (CiFOS) Sanjay Nagar apart from most other RWAs and citizen groups. Sustainability is the key word. They literally ‘walk the talk’ and in a short period of time, they made a remarkable difference to Sanjay Nagar, next to Bellary Road near Hebbal, by making efforts to reclaim the public spaces in partnership with the real stakeholders.

From Cycle days to ‘Walk to school’

If all started with cycle days. Team CiFOS along with Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) and ESAF – Bangalore and others, are responsible for introducing and promoting ‘Cycle Day’ in Sanjay Nagar. The Cycle Day team became quite popular in the community.

When Lalitha Mohan, one of the CiFoS members who spearheaded the cycle day drive, visits local schools, they identify her as ‘Cycle Day Madam’. The ‘Cycle Day Madam’ seized the opportunity and promptly launched ‘Safe Routes to School’, ‘Cycle to School on Saturdays’ and now ‘Walk to School’.

To reduce the traffic near the schools, CiFoS wanted the schools to ask parents to stop vehicles at a distance. Here is where the trust and respect CiFOS earned with local community came in handy. The seven schools of Sanjay Nagar came together to form ‘Schools of Sanjay Nagar’ so that they can all have similar policies and encourage more children to walk to school in safe environs.

Having seen many citizen initiatives across the city over the years, one thing that strikes me is that the group really knows how to leverage existing programs, funds, grants of various government and non governmental agencies to provide resources for them. They certainly understand how to setup win-win situations.

Cage that garbage beast!

One of the most frustrating experiences for civic activists in Bengaluru has to be garbage black spots – you can try and try but you can never really get rid of them. You mobilise people, clean up and paint the area with nice messages to boot, but when you take a little nap – take your eyes off the spot, and viola! The black spot is back again! But Subbaiah and the CiFOS team seems to have cracked this one in Sanjay Nagar.

Like every other intervention, they employed a combination of creating custom infrastructure, partnership with BBMP and finally sustainable citizen monitoring. They devised a “garbage kiosk” – a cage that protects the cleaned spot, and holds two drums for garbage disposal. The drums sits on a platform that can be tilted to empty into the garbage auto.

They made a deal with sanitation workers to stand there in the morning hours to ensure people segregate before they dump into appropriate drum and the parents walking their kids to school keep an eye on this daily so they can report if anything is out of order.

Why the cage? So that the garbage drums are not stolen! N S Ramakanth, garbage warrior of Bengaluru, who frowns upon garbage bins, appreciated this unique model that addresses issues involved with garbage bins and even recommends to others when they have similar situation.

Redesigning pavements for vendors and pedestrians

One of the most striking things about the Team CiFOS is that they are a little more than your average civic activists trying to make sense of the urban mess. Having been part of many initiatives over the years, members of Team CiFOS could qualify for Ph.D. in designing urban spaces in real world. Their past efforts helped them build the trust with stakeholders, they are now ambitious and working on “civic infrastructure design” .

This is serious business and they know what they are talking about. They understand the global standards for road design and they also know how to adopt these best practices for their local needs. For example, the street vendors – most of the urban design experts seem to ignore their very existence. At CiFOS they not only have a deep understanding of the dynamics of street vendors, they also make them stakeholders in making the decisions.

The infrastructure changes are designed in consultation with them to ensure coexistence and livelihood. I do not think any civic agency has ever called for a meeting of 70 street vendors to listen to their problems and address their concerns.

All of this cannot happen in isolation. When a committed group of individuals with passion and serious interest in resolving complex problems get together for a long period of time, things like sustainable Sanjay Nagar can happen. A visit to their office gives you a sense for how serious they are about sustaining themselves to play a long innings. A must-visit place for citizens who want to do similar things.

CiFOS is truly a role model for citizen intervention in civic administration and I wish them continued success and all the visibility to inspire other groups in the city and beyond.

– By Srinivas Alavilli, a resident of J P Nagar