Monday, 30 March 2015

Unsung Contemporary Heroes of India: Periodical, Website, Video-documentary & Coffee-table book

Dear fellow citizens,

The Padma awards or state-level awards will always be politically motivated. Media publicity also generally goes to those of us who have a kind of celebrity status. So, how can we put the limelight on the hundreds and thousands of unsung heroes who are daily carrying on the battle for good administration in the government offices? How can we boost the confidence and power of the DARIDRA-NARAYAN AMONG ACTIVISTS, who wears chappals and frayed shirts, and travels by crowded trains, buses and foot to meet various public authorities and appellate authorities?

For the past three years or so, I have dreamt of a magazine, website, video-documentary and book series on Contemporary Heroes of India – men and women struggling for good governance. They are not glamourous. They may be eccentrics. They may be boring because they obsessively talk about problems or public authorities. A few of them may feature in the local media from time to time, but the majority are ignored by society. In fact, their families laugh at them and dismisses them. Their contribution to system reforms is massive, but they suffer from a chronic sense of defeat. They don’t know their own value to society, and therefore they have an inferiority complex.

I have been dreaming about a project to feature such people at various scales of bigness i.e. (i) covering Mumbai activists only, OR (ii) activists in Maharashtra OR (iii) activists spread all over the country – either only metros, or also rural areas. From time to time, I have tried to get funding and project-management assistance. So far, I have made no progress.

I am now putting this idea out into public domain, because I feel that this should not remain a private idea.  I will be happy to write further details to flesh out this idea if anybody wants to use it. Also, I would be happy to patiently explain everything to any person or group who wants to do this project, either with or without my involvement in any capacity. 


A. THE OPPORTUNITY THAT EXISTS: Thanks to the RTI (and anti-corruption) movement and its inherent emphasis on the written word, an abundance of written documentation currently exists for the following: (a) SUCCESS STORIES OF CHANGE (b) EXPOSURE OF SYSTEMIC FLAWS AND ONGOING VIOLATION OF LEGAL NORMS (c) ONGOING MOVEMENTS, INSIGHTFUL & USEFUL METHODOLOGIES BEING USED FOR CREATING CHANGE THROUGH CITIZEN INTERVENTIONS (d) EMERGING CITIZEN-LEADERS AND GROUPS OF LEADERS. But these are known only to insiders, or at best, locally known. The data lies mostly in private files. There is scope to energize the RTI movement by bringing these local stories and documents into national focus, causing cross-pollination of insights, methodologies and leadership styles. This would fulfill a felt need, giving the grassroot-level RTI movement the legitimacy that it deserves by documenting the gains made in the past five years. 

B. WHAT IS PROPOSED: A small team of researchers and documenters (could include myself but not necessarily) will travel to a different centre or metropolis for 3-4 days every month, and conduct 10-12 INTERVIEW & PHOTO SESSIONS. (The people to be interviewed would have been identified and contacted weeks or months in advance.) After return to head office in Mumbai (or any other city), these interviews will be transcribed, edited, interpreted, subtitled and published in the following forms:
1) Half-hour video bulletin or documentary
2) Website content, rich in photos & content
3) Monthly Magazine (about 7,000 copies of a 48-page magazine) featuring 5-7 different activists in one metro or one district
4) Annually bring out coffee-table book (about 300 pages) on the big picture that emerges. In this book, we will draw conclusions, represent reader views, featuring officials’ responses to questions etc. 
Without sacrificing reader-friendliness, these publications would be an ongoing social-audit report – a mirror to the face of the nation. An ongoing exercise of this sort will act as a tonic to the RTI movement, and force the government to sit up and take notice. This will deliver measurable results in the seriousness with which government responds to civil-society concerns.

C. METHODOLOGY: We could interview (singly and in groups) many RTI activists in a single region every fortnight, and document along the four lines i.e. (i) Success stories (ii) chronic corruption (iii) movements & methodologies (iv) emerging citizen leaders and RTI heroes.  These interviews will be videotaped and photographed simultaneously, meticulous notes and recordings made, and copies of significant RTI documents and other findings will be collected. These will be published every month as detailed above.
Some activities should be possible without much funding, using local volunteers to coordinate. Boarding, lodging, local transport etc. can be on a shoestring budget or at the hospitality of the local activists and organizations – making them partners in this exercise, and creating bonds of friendship and trust.

FIRSTLY, thousands of activists in urban and rural contexts are isolated in their own battles, and are suffering from tunnel-vision. They can’t see the larger context, and are unaware of being part of a larger national movement. Their struggle, filled with the weekly indignity of repeatedly visiting various authorities for information and justice, causes a sense of defeat. Their hard-won successes appear meager and inadequate to themselves, and to their cynical colleagues. Even in cases where the administration yields and makes the changes that they demand, the change-makers never get due credit. This causes a high drop-out rate and loss of faith in RTI. In a nutshell — At an all-India level, the accumulated experience of the past five years needs to be assimilated by citizenry and the body-politic. This needs to be done to enable further progress.
SECONDLY, Information Commissioners in all states have no objective and consistent source of information on what the RTI appellants appearing before them are experiencing. Also, they are not getting information on what other Information Commissioners are doing. Nodal government departments such as General Administration Department are also operating in a vacuum. Through our publication and documentary, we would establish connection with Information commissioners and the various state government organizations, by engaging them in a discussion about RTI implementation. 
THIRDLY, there is a felt need for regular objective feedback to Information Commissioners and State Government departments charged with RTI implementation. As a lot of decision-making is happening in the absence of information, civil society needs a means of consistent engagement with the government about RTI implementation. (Newspapers and TV channels do not adequately fulfill this role, because they get distracted by various scandals, and cannot stay focused on RTI and governance issues.)

E. PARAMETERS OF PROJECT SUCCESS: Project success will be measurable in terms of the following 
Increased media profile of local or provincial RTI activists 
Increased participation in national-level discourse on reforms of hitherto unknown activists
Before we start, we could have a nationwide survey about the awareness of RTI activists from other states, issues of administration in other states, optimism/pessimism about the possibility of better governance etc. This survey can be repeated after six months to measure how RTI activists’ awareness of non-local issues and citizen leaders rises, and how optimism improves. The survey can also measure the sense of legitimacy and self-worth of RTI activists and whistleblowers. These ratings can also be published to establish a positive feedback-loop.
Another sort of survey could be conducted among employees of local self-governance organizations, to measure their perceptions about RTI activists on a positive/negative scale.
Surveys can be conducted by using local volunteer rewarded with a fairly substantial honorarium.

F. BUDGET ESTIMATE: These are ballpark figures based on my professional experience of 20 years and knowledge of the markets today.
Salaries of five persons Rs 3.5 lakh per month 
Inter-city travelling costs: Rs 50,000 p.m.
Local travel costs, boarding-lodging, honorariums to volunteers, miscellaneous – 
Rs 50,000 (Can be supplemented through donations and community participation) 
Computers, video-cameras, still cameras & other equipment – Rs 50,000 per month assuming that we rent rather than own the equipment.
Office cost – Rs 75,000. (Office rent can be minimized by locating in the outskirts of the city. Tele-commuting and informal arrangements to be used, or office space in more central location for occasional use can be borrowed from friends. Maximise community participation in this.)
Website costs – Rs 15,000 p.m.
Printing, publication and distribution cost of monthly bulletin (about 7000 copies) 
– Rs 2.5 lakh p.m. 
Printing, publication and distribution cost of 5000 copies of hardbound coffee table book to be brought out at the end of the year – Rs 1 lakh p.m. (apportioned over 12 months)
TOTAL – About Rs 8.5 lakhs per month.
(Please note: 
This is NOT A SHOESTRING BUDGET, which is normally expected of an activist. In fact, this is a budget where all the PARTICIPANTS WILL BE WELL REWARDED FINANCIALLY, AND ENJOY GOOD FACILITIES. 
Yes, it may be possible to execute this budget on a smaller, tighter scale with funding support of Rs 4 lakh per month, or even less. But if we try to do it with much less, I foresee a continuous struggle to balance our group and individual finances. It is difficult to keep competent people motivated on shoestring budgets – possible, but difficult. I would not want to do that.
The typical NGO style of functioning — motivating employees to accept daal-roti salaries and virtually take an oath of poverty — requires personal charisma, manipulative capabilities and leadership qualities that I don’t possess. So, after several revisions, I have scaled up the projections to a comfortable level.)

G. REVENUE STREAMS: The above costs will be partially offset by (i) bulk sales of copies – minimum batches of 20 — to local activist groups featured in the magazines (ii) subscription sales (iii) Stand sales (iv) Soliciting donations (v) Ad support from NGOs (vi) Corporate ad support (vii) support from CSR budgets of numerous companies.

H. REASONABLE PROJECTION FROM A SPONSOR’S POINT OF VIEW: Monthly expenditures in initial months may be on the higher side. However, if we create good value perception in the first 3-6 months, net outgoes may fall in later months as community participation and various revenue streams get started. Projected annual outgo in the first year even after including ad revenues & stand sales: Rs 80 lakh 

I. WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Suppose a sponsor gives us a bulk amount of, say, Rs 60 lakhs; he tells us to do or die within this budget. Suppose we exhaust this budget in, say, 5-6 months and fail to find another sponsor. And suppose we fail to mobilize enough revenues. Even if we close down the project after 6 months (i.e. publishing six issues of the magazine, video-bulletin etc.) huge value for society and measurable results would have been created in terms of documentation. It would cause an increase in national-level consciousness and elevate a fresh cadre of anti-corruption leadership from the local and regional level to the national stage. 

J. BEST CASE SCENARIO: The best that we can hope for is that this documentation exercise attracts support and participation from citizens, private foundations and maybe even government agencies that start seeing the benefits and want to partner us. Also, substantial revenue streams such as advertisements and CSR support starts flowing in. This gives us the means to grow the size and scope of this exercise, and make it a permanent project. The anti-corruption movement would gain new vigour and strength, feeding off the new consciousness. 

My feeling is that consistent feedback given to Information Commissioners, Central and state governments can create attitude changes and self-correction in implementation of Right to Information and anti-corruption measures at various levels. Also, the self-confidence levels of civil society will be a lot higher after 50-100 citizen heroes are brought into well-deserved limelight over the span of some months. Therefore it is worth doing.

But you tell me: Are the projections realistic? Is the project doable? Think about it and let us discuss.

Warm Regards,
98215 88114

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