Sutirtha Roy: Community-led City Modernization

Progress Reports

Mid-Year Public Progress Report

Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu

Sutirtha graduated from Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS). Throughout his academic career Sutirtha was involved with community service activities. As a part of the PondyCAN! team Sutirtha propels his desire for community service through an environment education program with children from local schools.

NGO & Community Background

The Pondicherry Citizens’ Action Network operates under the acronym of PondyCAN! It focuses on the formerly French colony of situated on the eastern coast of India with an overarching mandate of preserving and enhancing the city’s natural, cultural and spiritual environment through a process of integrated development. It seeks to ensure a harmonious concoction of the city’s inherent charm and its rapid economic growth. Since 2007, it has sparked a national campaign to protect India’s coastal environment and initiated various programs to harness the uncontrolled unplanned urbanization of Indian cities. As an August 2009 fellow my project scope falls under the latter, aimed at starting a movement of community participation towards development initiatives. The movement seeks to initiate a participatory approach to governance by establishing a network of neighborhood associations in the town, each overseeing urbanization activities in its own locality. It promotes an effective system of governance through increased community participation and decentralization. A process of this nature necessitates the encapsulation of diverse voices from both sorts of communities, those that make themselves audible and those that can’t. While piloting this initiative in one of the civic wards in the city, I identified that this action oriented movement requires an effective leadership and dynamism within every neighborhood. Through a need based assessment I figured that this could be achieved by (a) channeling the potential of the youth members in an area towards neighborhood issues and by inculcating a sense of ‘sewa’ within them (b) by shifting the attitudes of the next generation of Pondicherrians by developing an environmental and social consciousness. Keeping this as the focus of this fellowship year, over the last six months, I have sought to immerse with the children and the youth communities of Pondicherry.

Project Vision and Implementation Progress

I approached my project with the initial vision to create a community led participatory movement for fourteen civic wards within the Pondicherry city. The movement was to culminate into a comprehensive master plan for mobilizing infrastructure and services in these fourteen civic wards, commonly known as the Boulevard town. However at a field level, I discovered that this task of initiating a massive consensus based movement was beyond the domains of a one year calibrated fellowship. I thus decided to initiate the project by piloting it in one ward. The experiences, best practices and processes from this pilot initiative would be comprehensively documented for future scale-up of the project to the whole of Boulevard town.

To build a solid foundation for such an expansion I realized the need of a socially conscious citizenry, one which is proactive and action oriented. For this, I initiated an environment education program in schools with the goal of shifting environmental and social attitudes amongst children. A higher social consciousness in children is a milieu to communicate to a larger community of kids’ parents, families, neighbors or friends. Its aim is to create a line of young change makers through a threefold experiential process of learning, acting and inspiring.

My fellowship has been focused on creating this next generation of change initiators.

Naming this initiative as the ‘seeds for change program’ I began my pilot intervention in a residential government school called the Jawahar Navodaya Vidhyala. Using a manual for environmental audits devised by the Centre of Science and Environment, New Delhi, I targeted a class of forty, 17 year old students to scan the environmental performance of their school in the realms of land, air, water, energy, recycling and heritage. The auditing process gave these students a chance to quantitatively understand the issues of environment by using the school premises as a testing laboratory. The manual ensured that through simple uncomplicated methodologies, the students could perform a rigorous evaluation of the school’s environment. Analysis of the results of the audits, leads them to identify the problem areas of the school requiring intervention. These interventions in the form of small individual actions bring a positive spin to the school’s environment. At the Navodaya Vidhyala, students identified recycling as an area of concern and thus initiated a vermi-composting pit as the resulting action. Iassisted them in setting up a waste segregation processes which is now being effectively managed by the students themselves.

‘Seeds of change’ has since branched out of its pilot and grown beyond. Today, two new schools are involved, working at various stages of the program. I found that the total number of schools operating in Pondicherry is approximately 863. Considering a high literacy rate of 81.49%, I realized that this platform could be leveraged for a larger impact to reach out to a broader audience. Under this premise, I drafted a proposal for the Directorate of Schools Education, Government of Pondicherry, to initiate ‘seeds of change’ in the government schools through the schools’ curriculum. The government officials reacted positively and have assented to begin the audits in six urban, seri-urban and rural public schools.

Marking the end of my experience at Navodaya School recently, I discovered the essence of ‘seeds for change’, going well beyond environment education. I’ve found that during the period of auditing, the students strived hard to achieve a better version of themselves, a state where they were confident of their abilities, knowledge and thinking, and where no problem seemed too big to them. This was achieved by constant assistance aimed at developing capacities, building confidence and initiating critical thinking processes. I chose this as a platform to cultivate certain skills such as effective public speaking, sharp presentation of ideas, working collaboratively in a team etc. I thoroughly enjoyed this responsibility of transitioning from being the ‘environmental guy’ to becoming a mentor for these students.

In parallel to the ‘seeds for change’ I have been successful in striking a good personal relationship with a youth organization within Pondicherry. I’ve tried to leverage this association for inculcating a civic and social responsibility within the youth experimenting with various methods – reflection sessions, informal meetings over ‘chai’ and cricket, to organically generate these responsibilities from within the young members. With a view to increase my community immersion, I have recently started volunteering for a mobile library project to teach homeless city kids.

Future Plans

1. Community led participatory process. Piloting this initiative through:

(i) creating a localized core team of youth interested in addressing their neighborhood


(ii) empowering this team to create a pool of citizens ready to manage local issues

(iii) inculcate a sense of service through introspection and reflection

(iv) engage the team to chalk out a community resource map

(v) train the team on tools for empowerment such as right to information, Rights and

duties, networking strategies etc

(vi) devise strategies to obtain great participation from the communities

2. Environment Education: ‘Seeds for change’

(i) continuing the program in the two schools

(ii) develop a teacher’s training program for the 6 government schools

(iii) scale up the program through the government channels

(iv) equitably invest in each school for the personal development of every student

(v) assist all the schools in their individual initiatives

3. Continue volunteering for homeless city kids on the mobile library initiative

Personal Growth

I have physically immersed myself in my community and I am elated. I’m spatially as close to my community as I can get and it could not have been any better for me. So, what has changed overtime? I’ve realized the answer to be – my perceptions.

I have stayed in India for all the twenty three years of my life. Coming into this fellowship class, with the poise of a ‘proud, seasoned Indian’, I was confident that I had seen it all – the splendor, the indigence, its mores and the coexisting bohemia. ‘India as a diverse country’ was all well known to me. But once inside the Indicorps’ space it took just three weeks for all of that buoyancy to come crashing down. Three weeks of orientation, rightly called the microcosm of the fellowship year, evinced what it really means to live in a diverse India. Reflection sessions conducted during orientations, which I later continued back at my site, made me dig deeper into this dynamism by reanalyzing my every pre-conceived notion about diversity and unity, happiness and poverty, ‘development’, et all; all the while embracing these ‘changed’ notions and consciously living with them. A ‘seasoned Indian’ was supposed to glide into this shifting thought process, though I found myself at a great unease. This dilemmna was caricatured when I was asked to paint a picture of my relationship with India. I drew a bullock cart, me being the bullock, slogging under the weight of my responsibilities towards my country.

Over the last six months I have experienced many troughs of failure and the crests of success in between, while endeavoring to bring a change around me while accepting the changes and the fickleness within. If the participatory movement looked too insurmountable I strived to find newer venues; when Tamil as a language became a challenge, a mixture of English, Hindi and lots of sign language saved the day; when dosas elevated to the saturation limit, I shifted to simple street side noodles .What I realize is that all these options to find a solution to a problem exists because of the overflowing omnipresent variety present all around me. This diversity and variety, though intimidating, ensures that there is something for everyone in all situations. It offers innumerable alternatives rendering one a chance to make the most of any situation, in any way one desires, which I believe is the hallmark of a great nation. When I started this fellowship year, I perceived my service towards my country as an onus. Half-way through the fellowship year, I see it as an opportunity with so much to do all around me. This palette of multiple colors where each one chooses his own shade, I realize, is what really makes me proud as an Indian.

At this point I have also come to terms that I truly enjoy my time around children. I’ve discovered that the contagious enthusiasm of children has a fabulous effect on my spirit. It gives me the strength to stay elated during long periods of lull. I am fortunate to have discovered this trait within and hope to continue to stay connected to kids.

Sutirtha Roy, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow

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