Fifteen-year-old Srihari from Perungudi started an initiative called Water on the Dot, a youtube video series to educate people on the over-consumption of water. His interest in the subject stemmed from his participation in a water-saving campaign in 2019. The campaign was organised by ReapBenefit, a platform looking to nurture civic problem-solving.
As part of the campaign, a group of youth in Chennai addressed the problem of water shortage by reducing the overconsumption of water in their homes and community. Their investigation revealed that the overconsumption of water while washing hands was due to high flow rates.
By fixing a small device called aerators to the taps the group was collectively able to save close to nine lakh litres of water over time. A map of the locations where the aerators were installed was created to keep track of the efforts.
This exercise is proof that with appropriate guidance, the youth of Chennai can be equipped to identify and solve civic problems.
What prevents involvement of youth in civic problems in Chennai
When it comes to solving civic problems, not just in Chennai but anywhere in India, there is little interest among the youth. To bring more young people into the fold of civic activism it is important to understand the barriers that prevent them from gaining interest.
Most of the civic issues that exist in our cities have a hyper-local context. Residents affected by them are best suited to solve these issues but are rarely consulted on their ideas and opinions. Exclusion of citizens from problem-solving alienates them from future participation.
An under-staffed government with only 3.8% of the workforce constituted by public officials exists in India. Yet there has been little done to create a complimentary workforce of citizens who can act as solution providers and custodians.
Another barrier that prevents youth from participating in civic problem-solving is the lack of 21st-century skill sets that will help them apply this knowledge in the real world to arrive at solutions.
Addressing real-world issues by training Chennai’s youth
The demographic dividend that should work in India’s favour must be tapped to solve local problems. This involves skilling and supporting young people as they look to address real-world issues that have a bearing on our day-to-day life.
With this idea in mind, ReapBenefit has worked for the last four years with more than 10000 students in Chennai to create a civic problem-solving network.
Through a series of programmes, youth in Chennai were introduced to concepts that will help them engage with civic problems.
Some of the messages that were delivered as part of the programme include emphasising the importance of local stakeholders in a problem and analysing issues they found most common in their immediate surroundings.
Another concept that the youth were trained on was the need to take action, no matter how big or small. Since civic problems are time-consuming and require effort to solve, they must be emboldened to take action regardless of how long it takes to achieve the desired outcome. The role of technology as an enabler is also emphasised.
With these learnings in place, the youth of Chennai are being trained to effectively take up civic problem-solving.
Rajiv Krishna of T Nagar was able to get potholes in his road fixed based on these learnings. Rajiv worked with his neighbours to understand that bad roads were also leading to garbage accumulation in the area. He then proceeded to crowd-source details of past complaints and pictures of potholes. With this evidence, he lodged a complaint with the Greater Chennai Corporation’s 1913 helpline.
With the complaint lodged, the civic body took immediate action to fix the potholes and repair the road.
Participation in civic problem-solving can take many forms. The training emphasises this to the youth who express interest.
Rajiv’s action of reporting potholes to the authorities concerned is one form of action.
The effort of Srihari and others to fix aerators is another form of hands-on action where the youth take on the solutions themselves.
The aim of the campaigns is to should lead to action and achieve an outcome. Different strategies may be adopted based on the nature of the problem at hand.
Another avenue for engagement by the youth has been a WhatsApp chatbot developed by Reap Benefit. The chatbot has helped young people take their first problem-solving action. When Chennai saw heavy rains and flooding in 2019 we asked the young people of Chennai to help mark areas where there was waterlogging. We received around 500 data points submitted through the chatbot from more than 450 citizens.
Role of youth in shaping Chennai
In general, everyone expects the government to solve problems and feels it is their duty to do so. However, the root of many of the problems lies in the behaviour of the residents. Bringing about the realisation among young people helped them evolve a different approach to solving problems. This knowledge nurtured a desire among young people to want to be a part of the solution.
There is a high determination and willingness to solve problems at a local level. Using local data to arrive at local solutions involving the local community is the way to involve more young people in civic issues.
For a young person, motivational factors are essential to take on civic problem-solving depending on their level of aspiration and expectations. Providing them with incentives such as an increase in 21st-century skills through action taken, being part of a collective that aids in civic innovations and savings and a path to civic entrepreneurship can spur greater participation.
With the need to act now unlike ever before, the young people of Chennai have shown the ability to solve problems at the local level when the opportunity and some guidance are provided. The willingness to work along with the local government has increased, leading to a win-win situation.
Taking that first step out of the comfort zone is the challenge. But there is a young and vibrant community of problem solvers in Chennai who are willing to collaborate and work together to create an impact in the city.