There was a time some 20 years ago, the very mention of Koramangala, a Bangalore suburb, sounded like a place located somewhere in Timbuktu or thereabouts. Nobody wanted to come to this marshland. There were hardly any inhabitants, no roads, leave alone road lights and everyone was sure the place would be infested with all sorts of snakes and quite possibly a breeding ground for Anacondas.
Then suddenly, there was a phenomenal spurt in growth and Koramangala began to take shape as Bangalore's Most Happening Place. IT companies sprang up dime-a-dozen and, everyone who moved into Bangalore wanted to reside in the 'Best Address in Town'. Before one could say, 'Jack Robinson' or whatever, the layout was choc-a-block.
Once upon a time...
There was this wasteland in 2nd Cross of Koramangala's 4th Block. Supposedly meant to be a park, instead, it was an eye sore. Litter, garbage, mounds of anthills - you name it - it was there. Not to mention the noisy cricket games that took place inside. In comparison Eden Gardens of Calcutta seemed like a hermitage. The place wore an air of dejection despite being surrounded by some chic houses. People of the neighborhood were more or less disengaged citizenry with a not-my-problem attitude and the City Corporation authorities in whose jurisdiction this land came under, couldn't care less. And so, this piece of land was left to languish.
G.V. Rami Reddy, a structural engineer came to Koramangala after 10 years of employment in Kuwait. He had this vision of settling down to a peaceful life after returning from Kuwait. Sit back and relax, spend time with his grandson perched on his lap. That didn't quite work out, though he gave it his best shot. The likes of Rami Reddy do not actually 'retire'. A constant state of hibernation isn't exactly an art form enjoyed by the Rami Reddys of this world. Activity fuels them to chug along. He may have been 61 but his legs weren't weary. Besides, the heart was willing.
Meanwhile, two senior citizens of the locality, Mrs. Venkataraman and Mrs. Savant ran into Rami Reddy. They seemed to have read each others' thoughts and decided to take the proverbial 'bull by the horns'. They ploughed in their own money and started to give shape to the wasteland. But then, being senior citizens there was only that much they could do considering the magnitude of the responsibility. Everyone knows that chasing civic authorities is like going round and round the mulberry bush and these senior citizens weren't exactly in ship-shape to prance around nursery rhyme tunes. Besides, lots of money was needed. Where would the funds come from?
Things Take Shape...
Once the 'road map' was decided on, they formed a small association called the "Swabhimana Koramangala Initiative (Block 4). Having cleaned up the place they approached the corporation authorities and told them, "Look gentlemen, we've cleaned up this jungle of 10 years. Now, how about landscaping it?" Normally, City Mayors are too busy planning their future rather than that of the city. That's why they want to become Mayors. But the Mayor at that time saw the logic. More than that, he could read the determination writ large on their tenacious faces. Three months down the line, he relented, but with a condition. "We'll develop the park, but you must maintain it." This was agreed to and given in writing.
One year later, a swank, new park was handed over to Swabhimana for its regular maintenance. Complete with a water fountain, jogging tracks, pathways, landscaped in green, lots of trees and flowers, waste bins, park benches, sodium vapor lamps and a set of strict rules. No smoking, no plucking of flowers, no littering, no nonsense.
So Much Rubbish...
That wasn't the end of it. Another problem faced Rami Reddy and his dedicated crew. Whilst the park sparkled, the surrounding environment lacked glitter. Even though it was obligatory, the City Corporation's garbage clearing trucks wouldn't clear the rubbish frequently. And garbage bins copiously overflowed spilling over onto the streets. The area was green, but not clean and hence was a question of protecting the environment.
They struck upon the idea of Door-to-Door collection of garbage. Two push carts with garbage bins were purchased and labor employed to do the rounds street by street and collect household waste. The idea worked, but soon ran into problems. In fact, there were two problems. One was to get people involved in such a program and the second was to get them to pay a monthly fee to cover costs of the garbage collectors, which incidentally, happened to be a measly sum of Rs. 10/- per month, per house. Apparently, only 60% of the residents paid and trying to get money out of the rest was like trying to distill water from an iceberg in a blizzard. They refused and continued to dump the waste on the streets or in the nearest vacant plot of land they could find, much to the annoyance of the neighbors. And to add to the woes of Rami Reddy and his team, no one volunteered to lend a helping hand. So, Rami Reddy, Mrs. Venkatraman, Mrs. Savant and a few others were back to square one. They coughed up the difference each month just to ensure the scheme didn't die a natural death.
And it didn't. Despite the lack of co-operation of the few residents, the garbage collections went ahead unaffected and Rami Reddy always made sure he was around to supervise the waste management. Two years later, the City Corporation handed down contracts for garbage clearing and disposal across the city and from 1st January 2002, the task of garbage collection was no longer Swabhimana's responsibility. And today the push carts lie in one corner, not exactly abandoned, but more as a testimony to the dedication and commitment of a few concerned citizens of 4th Block.
Transparency is the Motto...
Swabhimana, which means 'Self Respect', isn't the run-of-the-mill residents association you come across in your neighborhood. There are a total of 10 Office Bearers of the Association, but no members. To start with, there's no membership fee and Rami Reddy insists that it will remain so. "The minute we charge a fee, people will expect all sorts of service and will in fact demand it," he says. So, the funds come through voluntary contributions and another unique feature is that people who wish can do 'direct spending'. Meaning, they can pay the workers directly or if anyone desires he/she can foot the electricity bill of the park, in full or in part. The idea is to be transparent as much as possible. Makes sense, considering the mental attitude of some people who believe that to be in Association means money for the making. It happens, but not at Swabhimana. Contributions are accepted by crossed cheques only and each contributor receives a copy of the monthly statement of accounts. The other interesting thing about Swabhimana is that since all contributions received go towards park maintenance, contributors cannot ask for any other assistance.
Swabhimana has now 3 parks under its umbrella, all in 4th Block, which are maintained by them. And in each of these parks, strict rules are in force. That's but natural. It took monumental effort to set these parks up and all it requires a handful of uncooperative citizens to make a mess of it. So, there's constant vigilance to check on such 'infiltrators'.
Mr. Citizen! How concerned are you?
Sadly, many residents still haven't gone the whole hog in their support to Swabhimana and their initiatives. The non-supportive attitude during the Door-to-Door garbage collection scheme is a standing example. Rami Reddy refuses to go with a begging bowl, because he and the others believe that their initiatives haven't evolved out of selfish motives. In fact, it's quite the reverse. Take Mrs. Venkatraman for example. She's old and frail; yet she took it upon herself to stand for hours under the hot sun and supervised work in the park. In the bargain she even had a fall. A vacant site opposite her house was the ideal garbage dumping ground. To a person who goes by the mantra 'Cleanliness is Godliness', this was unacceptable. For 10 years she spent personal funds to ensure the site was kept clean, till the property owner decided to build a house. "I like the environment to be clean," she says.
Now, all these are seldom sufficiently recognized by the mainstream citizenry, which is something central to our national culture.
Koramangala's major problems are many and not just about heavy traffic and parking. Mounds of garbage littered on the streets, choked drains, pathetic roads, total lack of road sense, stray dogs and a 'couldn't-give-a-damn' attitude of some citizens to keep the environment in tact. Sadly, the Bangalore City Corporation isn't doing enough. How can they, when they are busy fighting for their 'seat in the house'? Consequently, the delicate balance of peace and quiet seems to be falling apart.
What qualifies the likes of Rami Reddy, Mrs. Venkatraman, Mrs. Savant and a handful of others for their status as 'people of vision? Well, there's an old Chinese proverb that says, "Better to light a candle, than curse the darkness."