India’s communities gain brains too

Marketplace Staff Sep 7, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: You might have heard of it first during the boom. Educated Indians coming to the U.S. for graduate school. Then staying. And getting jobs in I.T. or high tech. It’s been happening for decades, to tell the truth. But now, India’s economy is booming. So many of those expats are going home. Some of them are applying an American business sense to Indian board rooms. Some have more altruistic goals. Miranda Kennedy has more.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: You had to be a really dedicated citizen to sit through this neighborhood residents’ meeting in Bangalore.

[sound of meeting]

First of all, it was pouring rain. So the meeting got started an hour late. Then in the damp basement of the community hall, the power went out half a dozen times, cutting off the fans, the slide projectors, and the mics. So you had to strain to hear the officials from the Bangalore transportation authority give their long-winded speeches.

OFFICIAL:“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Respected citizens of Indranagar who have come here to participate in this discussion forum . . .

But almost two dozen residents made it through the four hours of presentations, and stuck around afterwards to give suggestions. That made it a major success, according to Indira Viswanathan. She’s the reason anyone showed up here today. She spends a lot of her time lobbying her neighbors to take an interest in things like bus routes and garbage pickup.

INDIRA VISWANATHAN: You need to be proud of – you need to start owning your city, your neighborhood. You need to think it is yours.

India’s government fails to supply steady electricity and water to its citizens. Viswanathan believes the reason is because people have never pressured city governments to improve those essentials. She says people don’t believe they can make a real, visible difference in their neighborhoods. That’s a realization that came to her during the decade that she worked as a software engineer in San Jose, Calif.

VISWANATHAN: I think one thing is, in the U.S., you have a platform for the citizens. Whether you participate or not is up to you. But there is a way by which if you want to participate, you can. Here there is nothing like that.

She says India’s government is notorious for not hearing its citizens out. At the meeting I was at, the official in charge actually asked people not to air their grievances. That sounds familiar to Srikanth Nadhamuni. He’s been struggling with government unresponsiveness since he moved from Silicon Valley back to India a few years ago.

SRIKANTH NADHAMUNI: Participation in democracy also is based on getting something back. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I’m sure people will participate. But if it seems like, well there isn’t, then you’re going to see get apathy. So this is the classic, sort of, vicious loop that Indian cities are caught in. But you got to get it turning in the other direction, into a positive cycle. So how do you do that?

Nadhamuni came up with a way, using his background in chip design. He created an Internet-based program for citizens to register complaints with city governments and to track whether anything’s being done about them. He says in his 15 years living in the states, he got used to the government simply providing basic services.

NADHAMUNI: The average citizen in the United States doesn’t go through the kinds of problems that many Indians are faced with. So in some sense we were quite happy in the United States because we hardly interacted with the government, whether its telephones or water or electricity and so on.

Now that he’s moved back to India, getting the basics to work has become one of his life goals. And it’s catching on: brain-gainers like Nadhamuni are changing the expectations of Indians around them.

In Bangalore, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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