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Urban reformer - Ramesh Ramanathan

Like much of Bangalore, Kadugondanahalli is in transition, moving from an anonymous location on a once small town’s periphery into a rapidly mushrooming suburb suffering the range of problems associated with rapid, unplanned development.

Rahul Sachitanand | Print Edition: January 13, 2008

Ramesh Ramanathan, Co-Founder, Janaagraha
Ramesh Ramanathan
Kadugondanahalli is a scruffy suburb on Bangalore’s northern periphery and the main road cutting through it is dominated by petty shops and small-scale industries. As the city corporation’s 94th ward, it is some way down in the list of priorities in a city where civic prominence is often given to the ever-complaining IT industry and inevitably the rich and powerful. So, Kadugondanahalli continues to suffer from an apparent lack of amenities, with a stagnant drain cutting across its centre, the main road rutted almost beyond repair and a fine layer of dust covering everything within a few feet of the street.

Like much of Bangalore, Kadugondanahalli is in transition, moving from an anonymous location on a once small town’s periphery into a rapidly mushrooming suburb suffering the range of problems associated with rapid, unplanned development. On an unusually cloudy and windy winter day in early December, I enter Kadugondanahalli after turning right off the busy Outer Ring Road.

In theory, the main road should be a crucial link between Bangalore’s northern extremities and the heart of the city, but thanks to haphazard planning, it’s only recently that the administrators have even begun starting relaying this road. I am spending the morning with Ramesh Ramanathan, a co-founder of Janaagraha, a city-based not-for-profit urban reform venture, and the poster boy for urban reform in India.

We’ve just wrapped up a photo shoot with the man on a flyover some three kilometres to the north (where traffic piles up all the way, despite the structure) and we’re now headed to his outfit’s office in the centre of Bangalore. Rather than retrace our steps, Ramanathan, dressed in a brick-coloured checked shirt and khakis and brown shoes (with no socks), directs us further down the ring road (and through some deft use of service lanes) to Kadugondanahalli.

This is familiar territory for the 44-year-old Ramanathan, who grew up in Bangalore and attended the local St. Germain’s School, before heading off to BITS Pilani and then the US for his MBA. A bibliophile, Ramanathan grew up around these parts, with his parents owning a once sprawling mansion on Borebank Road, in what was once cantonment Bangalore.

Strike at roots: We need to empower local administration, says Ramanathan, but adds that emasculated cities are great to build political careers on.
Ramanathan wants to empower local administration
His move first to the US and life there (where his wife Swati earned extra money waiting tables) and then his eightyear career as a high-flying Citibanker is well documented and the man is clearly getting tired of repeating himself. “You know my life story,” he complains gently, “let’s focus on this city and of course Janaagraha.” The “life story” involved giving up a lucrative (and promising) career with Citibank and deciding to move back with his wife and Janaagraha cofounder Swati and two young children, daughter Shunori and son Rishab, to India.

When the Ramanathans returned to India’s IT capital, the once quiet city was in the throes of a techled explosion and Bangalore’s inadequate infrastructure was buckling under the strain.

In November 1999, the Congress came to power in the state and a lawyer-turned-politician, Somanahalli Malliah Krishna came to power and immediately set to work to try and resuscitate a dying city.

His first order of business was to set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) headed by Nandan Nilekani of Infosys to try and generate some fresh ideas to manage this break-neck growth. The BATF’s agenda was to work with local bodies and conjure up a report on how things could be overhauled.

Ramanathan even convinced Nilekani to recommend the implementation of a fund-based accounting system, which was put in place by April 2001. While this move made available specific expenditure on projects, it didn’t allow citizens to decide on what to spend funds.

This prompted the establishment of Janaagraha, with a Rs 2.5-crore fund injection from the Ramanathan Foundation and soon got 22 corporators to agree to their suggestions on how their funds could be used optimally. Ramanathan even set up Public Record of Operations Finance (PROOF), a right to information campaign to support this purpose.

Future plans 

  • Expand the reach and scope of Janaagraha from just Bangalore to other metros that are going through similar growth pangs
  • Grow the 20-strong team at Janaagraha and push others (besides the Ramanathans) to the forefront of this growth
  • Make Janaagraha’s initiatives measureable and repeatable across localities and eventually cities
  • With 600 million people expected to live in urban India by 2030, hasten the pace of urban reform to meet the expected rush 
Since those early super-charged days, several changes have taken place both on the ground in the city’s administration and state politics. An apparent lack of political will has left the once-promising BATF moribund and compelled Ramanathan to re-examine his plans. Ramanathan has tried to move Janaagraha onto the next stage of evolution, focussing in his words now on building “the how” of urban administration. “We need to empower local administration; city municipalities are today disempowered and emasculated cities are great to build political careers,” says Ramanathan.

He may have a point; spending by city agencies account for barely 2 per cent of public expenditure in the country, compared to around 40 per cent in China; property tax collection here is just over 30 per cent, so in a city like Bangalore, with around 12 lakh properties, around 4 lakh pay their dues.

The expertise of working with the local governance of perhaps India’s most poorly managed city has come in handy for Ramanathan. He has become a widely-respected figure in urban reform, being wooed by states across the country (and hired by the Rajasthan Government) as well as being handpicked to help run the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) as its National Technical Advisor. “We were called by the CM of Rajasthan to overhaul the existing system and put in place an effective urban reform system in the state,” says Ramanathan.

He prefers to use the collective when he refers to his rise to pre-eminence in the urban reform space, usually mentioning his wife Swati in the same breath when speaking of himself and even linking the rest of the Janaagraha team to most conversations. “Swati and I just head one of the 14 programmes (advocacy) at Janaagraha; our growth is testament to the team,” he says self-effacingly.

Despite his modesty, Ramanathan has effected significant changes in the way the Rajasthan Government handles its urban areas. As the Principal Advisor for SURAJ (State Urban Agenda for Rajasthan) engineered by his team, city administrations will undertake no more than 10 civic initiatives at a time to keep project management manageable and also work on resolving deeper systemic issues in the state. “We are working on more complex technical issues related to setting up spatial data centres or GIS maps. These will take time,” says Ramanathan.

 The Janaagraha vision

Janaagraha is a not-for-profit venture started six years ago by Ramanathan and his wife Swati and supported by an initial corpus of Rs 2.5 crore from the couple. This model combines the roles of a think-tank, capacity-building organisation and a grassroots movement, which in most cities are split into separate organisations that struggle to coordinate efforts. For this reason, Janaagraha can consistently deliver practical proposals and results, drawing on the best of urban practice around the world and adapting it to uniquely local challenges. The urban development field is burdened by dominant logics, lingering ideologies, competing strategies and professional biases. Janaagraha aims to generate fresh solutions through a truly inter-disciplinary and multi-sectoral approach, and it promotes its solutions boldly with a spirit of entrepreneurship.
Like his early days with Janaagraha in Bangalore, where the movement did manage to garner public support, but also created a stir in the state administration, he admits that his early work faced expected resistance, which only eased over the last few months. “It took time for them to warm to what we planned to achieve. There will always be critics; you can’t satisfy everyone all the time,” Ramanathan admits.

His verve and enthusiasm for what many consider a dead-end cause has won him several loyal (and high-profile) admirers. “He is brilliant, articulate and passionate about his work. It is truly creditable that he has given up a lucrative and promising career in the private sector to contribute to public good and public policy in urban reforms,” says Nandan Nilekani, Co-Chairman of Infosys.

Other corporates, too, are no less effusive with praise. Biotech baroness Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw calls him an “urban reform pioneer” and credits him with entering an area few people would dare to tread. “Few people have the courage to work in these areas given the sheer lethargy of state administration, so you must admire him for willing to get his hands dirty,” Mazumdar-Shaw says.

JNNURM, and the strict norms that govern the disbursal of its funds, is critical in the continued success of Ramanathan’s urban reform movement, along with key constitutional amendments, such as the 74th empowering city municipalities. At the same time, Ramanathan is also central to the revision of the Municipalities Act, to try and provide a simpler, and more relevant legislation for urban bodies. “All these legislations are at least 50 or 60 years old and are legacy of British India.

They are cumbersome and need to be updated for the current reality,” he says. While he was central to writing the draft legislation for JNNURM, it was specific points in this mission that have put its funds almost beyond reach.

For example, property taxes need to exceed 85 per cent of all units in a city (compared to just around a third in reality) and there has been little evidence to show this will improve anytime soon.

From starting a movement to make the Bangalore Municipality more accountable to its citizens, Janaagraha now wants to become a well-rounded national agency, focussing on providing a systemic and institutionalised voice for the citizens of India’s IT city. Ramanathan speaks of setting up urban self-governance units called area sabhas to try and make local governance more effective.

Then, Janaagraha has piloted a Parisara Mitra (friend of the environment) to more effectively manage solid waste. “The initial romantic notion of participation has given way to a more realistic notion of what our mission is about. We have moved from the why of participation to the how of participation and having rejected any autocratic structure, we have to make the democratic structure work for us,” says Ramanathan, who is also the Chairman of a microfinance NGO called Janalakshmi.

Until now Ramanathan has run Janaagraha with his own funds, but of late he has managed to snag external corporate sponsorship for his expansion into Chennai. The benefactor is Gopal Srinivasan of TVS, who is trying to ignite an urban reform movement of his own in Tamil Nadu.

From being an organisation known for just its two founders, Ramanathan is trying to build Janaagraha into a self-sustaining outfit, but knows he has his task cut out. “Building Janaagraha is our No. 1 priority; we have invested in the organisation for the last five or six years, but let me tell you it’s much harder to build a viable not-for-profit enterprise than a for-profit venture. We have made some progress, but our set-up is far from ideal,” he explains. Adds Infosys’ Nilekani: “I believe the urban movement has turned the corner and the momentum to improve our cities is now unstoppable. It may take many years, but it is clearly an idea whose time has come.” Ramanathan is keeping his fingers crossed.

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