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Verve People
July 03, 2020

Love Thy Neighbourhood

Text by Supriya Thanawala. Photographed by Prashant Giani

As someone who has dedicated herself to improving the quality of life for her fellow Mumbaiites, Indrani Malkani’s work is never done. Verve gets the VCAN (V Citizens Action Network) head to take the afternoon off from her civic duties and talk about matters closest to her heart

Mumbai’s proactive citizens and environmentalists have been down a long, tedious path. What began in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a humble attempt in neighbourhood activism through local ALM (Advance Locality Management) groups — those that relentlessly urged the BMC and government authorities to fix their broken potholes and water woes — has turned into a much more complex political drama today. With a plethora of environmental cases over the metro and coastal road project lying undecided in courts, the citizens’ spirits have oscillated from cause to cause, protest to protest, and now as the city waits for infrastructure and development to catch up with its bursting seams, what is stuck in tandem are the progressive transport projects, the urgent civic management drives and, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, our hygiene and health. The solutions to the problems may be plenty: the construction of a coastal road, the underground tunnels, or the expedition on the work to complete the remaining phases of the metro and monorail. But the challenge ahead lies in the task of implementation. Some of those who laid that foundation towards change a few decades ago, however, are looking on with an unusual sense of calm, even as the city struggles in this period of unrest to emerge out of its anarchy.

Indrani Malkani (nee Mukherjee), one of those passionate advocates, grew up and studied in Kolkata, and then moved to Mumbai from Delhi after a successful stint in the hospitality industry following her marriage in the late ’80s. Having felt overly attached and almost “married” to her job, she decided she didn’t want any more of it. “Two marriages don’t work,” jokes Malkani, who lives with her husband and adult son in Mumbai’s elite residential neighbourhood of Malabar Hill. But only a few years after moving into the city, she ironically launched into the same work ethos, one that engulfed her, turning her into one of those change-makers who the city may never forget. Having started her work in the year 2000 with the founding of the local Little Gibbs Road ALM, named after the street she lives on, she went on to form a broader Residents’ Association for Malabar Hill in 2004 too.

Today, at 64, she’s known as one of the most influential citizen agents in Mumbai as she works hand in hand with several public authorities including the police and municipal corporation. Even a relatively short list of Malkani’s achievements would include some landmark projects that she set off: the model school bus service in the city that is now part of the state government’s policy for safe transportation of school children, her routine collaboration with the traffic police to ensure road safety, the turning around of the messy Girgaum Chowpatty beach in South Mumbai into a cleaner open space — and the creation of the V Citizens Action Network (VCAN) public trust and its interactive web portal, which she set up to facilitate the common person’s communication with local government officials.

And yet, she refuses to call herself an activist, a word she dislikes. “My strength has always been in people management and coordination,” she reflects, something that has been a common thread to all of her work. “But I don’t like to call myself an activist. Activism today has taken on a very negative connotation, because, invariably, it is a question of shouting and fighting, which is something I don’t believe in.”

Well-travelled, a graduate in Education and a recipient of the international Ashoka fellowship for social entrepreneurship, Malkani’s approach to resolving problems is direct – she doesn’t shy away from confrontation. What’s particularly intriguing is how she spread her wings across multiple civic management drives — in a city that, even as an ‘outsider’, she was quick to make her own. And like any Indian woman today — young or old, rural or urban — Malkani can hardly be described in simplistic terms. Her philosophy: women don’t need to change themselves in order to undertake a social cause.

Excerpts from an exclusive chat with Verve, where Malkani reminisces about her journey and the force that drives her to be who she is…

How has the experience been for you as a woman in this line of work?
When we talk of any social issues — if we are primarily looking at women, but also men for that matter — then what is the common picture? Unkempt hair, no make-up, wearing the sturdiest of clothes and, of course, the traditional jhola. And frankly speaking, I can’t understand that. Every woman is very attractive in her own way, and each of us must believe in that. I would certainly hate to look unattractive to myself. I am who I am. When we talk about social work, we are talking about serving humanity. So why do we have to change ourselves for that?

All the work I’ve done so far has been geared towards environmental preservation. But today, the word “environment” has become synonymous with only preserving trees, mangroves, or wetlands. “Mother Nature” has actually got many more hands all over the place besides that. So, I am all for environmental preservation, but instead of going overboard, I believe there must be a balance maintained with regards to development.

I also fully believe in working in the spirit of partnership. That does not mean that you cannot have disagreements. But there’s absolutely no reason to be uncivil towards anyone, whether you’re a man or a woman. That, in my books, is non-negotiable.

I can tell you that in quite a few committees, I am the only woman member and that, in others, I am the only non-bureaucrat woman member. People do have a preconceived notion of a “social worker”, and I don’t fit that bill.

Tell me how your journey started.
When you ask me about my journey, I would say that I’m a gypsy. I was born, educated and brought up in Kolkata. I first worked in Delhi. And then I made my home in Mumbai — or I should say Bombay then, later Mumbai. Each of these metropolitan cities is different in character, and I’ve often been asked about this difference. The city where you grow up is the one with which you have an emotional connect. For the city you move to because of work, there is no particular attachment, and where I would hold no emotions whatsoever. However, the city that you make your home and raise your child is, again, a place where you connect emotionally.

Almost two decades ago, there was a call for a “Zero Garbage Malabar Hill” project during a meeting held at Kamala Nehru Park — where I met a lot of my neighbours and first got involved in this journey of social work. I’m by nature chatty, and having always been in public life, I like to interact with people. Soon after that meeting, some of us got together and formed the ALM of Little Gibbs Road. That’s another story altogether with many interesting experiences during its formative stage.

So, what was that experience like?
When we formed the ALM, I was the secretary, and the chairperson was Chella Chidambaram. She and I had many similar ideas. There were other ladies involved too, but, in a roundabout way, it was just the two of us. When we used to go out together, we made a very startling pair. She’s a lovely person and so genuine. As we got to know each other, we found we were completely different, personality-wise, yet, when it came to the work, we thought in absolutely the same way. We were able to do many, many, many things that were unheard and unthought of, only because of our collaboration.

And, how did we succeed? We managed to get the people, the stakeholders, the hawkers all working with us. This was completely unheard of: I often find it more difficult to make my peers understand what is at stake than the people on the street. With the latter, there is a certain emotion, a certain warmth — they always understand when there is a genuine sense of give and take. Because ultimately, none of us can do any work by ourselves alone. Working on any project and finding an implementable solution is possible only when there is a system in place and when the creator of the solution is no longer required. Only then can it be sustainable and successful. After all, none of us are permanent in this world.

You said being a mother had an impact on your work. How did this happen?
When I had my child, the role of the mother became very significant. It is a very awesome responsibility. It is very joyful, very exhausting, as you are shaping another human being. You have no business not doing the best you can. And I’m quite the perfectionist in some ways, I’m quite finicky. If I take up something, I must succeed in it. Being a mother also meant that any work I undertake would have me address issues of safety and security.

Just one building away from me is the Cathedral & John Connon Infant School. My son used to study there. When he went to school, walking, this place would be a cacophony of sounds. Cars. When he grew up, he went to the Cathedral School at Fort [by the bus service run internally by the school], which is also another area that is in a [traffic] mess. So primarily, the idea emerged from wanting to de-congest the roads of Mumbai, particularly the approach roads to schools located in congested areas. That’s when I strongly felt there was a need to secure an orderly, safe, efficient [and common] mode of transport for school children [across the entire city]. Even the police, along with the principal of Cathedral & John Connon School, were up for it and worked with me in setting it up. This is how I conceptualised the Model School Bus Service in 2002 (which was later implemented by the state government through its school bus transportation policy), and I am still associated with this project. Bussing school children across the city reduces the number of cars on the road, which in turn reduces emissions and the level of air pollution. It also teaches a hell of a lot to children about how to use public transport. And that’s what you need to equip your children with: the ability to look after their own safety. And the friendships that they form on the bus are very strong.

Why is it that there is such little active community participation around us?
From an outsider’s point of view (even though I’ve lived here for over 30 years), South Bombay, as well as many other parts of Mumbai, do seem a little more [socially] insulated compared to other places. It’s also probably because many people are moving out, particularly to places where you get better accommodation within the new gated communities that are all coming up. On the other hand, there is a greater sense of community in many of the city’s older middle-class areas, something that is not the case within these elite parts of Mumbai.

There’s very little migration coming into South Bombay, what with the real estate prices that never diminish here or go down. And many of the new generations are moving away or have gone abroad. I’ve seen that when Indian citizens travel abroad, they follow each and everything there. Funny thing is that it is our own things that we are not proud of; it has to come packaged from the West for us to feel proud of something. This is something I cannot understand because I’m proud of everything that we stand for — our culture, our social etiquette. During the ’70s, for instance, when I was in college at Loreto in Calcutta, every outfit was in trend including the bell bottoms. But there were four of us friends who decided that we would wear saris to college instead. Every day. That was a pact we made. When we went to college, we wore our saris, but when we came out, we were back to wearing shorts, or anything else we wanted. Yet, it was a statement that we made.

What would you say to someone who wants to start their own ALM or neighbourhood group? And how do you help urban citizens take action?
Not everyone has to do things the same way. There are different causes. But if something bothers you, then you must find the root cause behind it, and that’s when the process of change begins — it starts with yourself. Identify like-minded persons in your area and decide upon your action plan. Today, starting an ALM is very simple because there is a manual available, and the process is easy. So, just start your journey.

I feel energised when I am able to solve something. For example, take the case of a visit to the ward office. I noticed that there is a common preconceived idea that the BMC staff is totally unhelpful. So, for instance, when someone once asked me to resolve a problem they were facing, I asked them to visit the ward office, which would be the way forward. The person insisted that I help and get it resolved for them. But I refused, saying I would only guide them, and that I wanted them to experience the process themselves. I told them to meet so and so and then tell me what the experience was like, and that if there was any issue then they could come and tell me, and I’d tell them the next step. And I can tell you quite honestly that whoever I sent came back a completely different person. “They [the officers] were very helpful; they told me how to do this…” they would say. So, I said, then, why do you go with preconceived ideas in the first place? I’m not saying that everyone who you approach at the BMC or any other office may be helpful, but at least try it out. The question, however, is, where is your own ingenuity? You may have differences everywhere — at home, at work, and so on. But there is no need to always make the differences public. Many differences can be sorted out with understanding and discussion.

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