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Petition power

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VOX POP: The platform makes authorities seem answerable to a lot of people. A petition delivery meeting in Bangalore

Whether it's getting Dalit families their PDS quota or Jharkhand teachers their pay cheques, online petitions are emerging as an influential channel for activism in the country.

For months, Sunita Kasera had been trying to meet the local pollution control board officials. She had a simple demand - seal the illegal and polluting asbestos factories in district Karauli, Rajasthan. She had tried the usual ways. She used the Right to Information Act and found that five factories were operating without mandatory permits. Last January, she made a video of one of the polluting factories for Video Volunteers, an organisation that focuses on reporting from local journalists from rural/underdeveloped areas.

In August, Kasera started a petition on www. change. org, the world's largest online petition platform. Over a month, the petition gathered about 3, 600 signatures and in 45 days, 39-year-old Kasera got her meeting with the official concerned and the board shut down the five factories. "People made calls to the board from everywhere. I wouldn't have given up but without the petition it would have taken much longer, " says Kasera. Her most satisfying moment was when the official called her to inform her that the factories had been shut down.

This is the same online platform on which the anti-Honey Singh petition was started. It went on to force a hotel in Gurgaon to cancel the rap singer's show on New Year's Eve in protest against the alleged use of lyrics denigrating women. Over the past year, change. org has helped provide clean water supply to a village in Gujarat, get government school teachers paid after four years in Jharkhand and abolish untouchability in a village in Rajasthan. Among the thousands of petitions on the portal are pleas to save indie cinema, end manual scavenging, amend section 66A (a controversial section of the Information Technology Act vis-?-vis freedom of speech) and set up fast track courts for rape cases.

Surendran Balachandran, a campaigner with change. org, says, "The objective is to narrow the gap between the people who want a change and the decisionmaker, to prioritise the issue, mobilise people and keep it on the top of the mind consistently. "

In a country where an ordinary citizen has to negotiate layers of red tape to reach the decision-maker who can finally effect a change on an issue, the website helps citizens home in on the right officials with the right petition.

Each time a petition gets a signature, the appeal is sent to the point person as a new email with the person's signature. So, say, if a petition gets 7, 000 signatures, the official will receiver 7, 000 emails. The constant flood of emails (sometimes phone calls) could be a termed a nuisance by some but it also helps keep the issue on top of the mind. Preethi Herman, campaigns director (India) with change. org, recalls a recently successful petition because of which about 42 Dalit families in Madhya Pradesh got their PDS quota after two years. "They got it within one week. Sure, the collector was a bit annoyed at the barrage but it is a way of engaging, " says Herman.

The website is relatively new to India. Change. org, which started in US in 2007 (in India in July 2011) has 25 million users globally while in India it has 450, 000. The platform sees about 15, 000 petitions a month while Indian users start about 200-300 a week. "The website in India is still in a very nascent stage but it is being recognized more and more, " says Herman.

To ensure that the platform doesn't remain urban-armchair in a country with 15 per cent internet penetration, change. org collaborates with various grassroots-level networks such as CGNet-Swara and Video Volunteers to get to the rural stories. It is also in talks with Gramvaani, a successful community radio organisation, to further strengthen its network.

The popularity of the platform lies in its ability to quickly mobilize (through signatures) people on an issue which can help an aggrieved person catch the eye of an official. Tania Devaiah, impacts manager, Video Volunteers, says, "We use it more when other interventions are not working and we need a larger number of people and a public platform of support. It makes the authority seem answerable to a larger number of people. " Recently, one correspondent from VV used a petition to get the attention of the Central Railways. Vangani is a small town less than 100 kms from Mumbai and falls on the Mumbai Suburban Railway line. Like lakhs of daily commuters who take the train to the metropolis every day for work, people from Vangani do too. The town also has a settlement of about 300 families of visually-impaired people for whom the daily transit is a veritable deathtrap because of the lack of a bridge over the rail tracks and other disabled-friendly features at the station. "The petition got 5, 000 signatures very quickly and we were very surprised. Soon we got a one-to-one interaction with a high-level team of railway officials. The AGM said he would budget the bridge in the next quarter. A petition is an important tool, " says Devaiah.

The Indian campaign team is small - just five members - and they choose which campaigns they want to handhold through the process depending on the "large impact they make on the society". On average, the team works on 12 campaigns a week by helping citizens frame the right petitions, getting the word out and training them on how to engage with the media or the decision-makers. In the last three weeks, since the barbaric December 16 Delhi gang rape case, however, the activity on change. org has spiked massively with petitions ranging from citizen inputs to the Justice Verma committee to asking the home minister to stop the two-finger rape test.

The campaign with the highest number of signatures ever in India has been a recent one to the President of India on how to stop sexual violence against women - it has received almost 4 lakh signatures. Because of the current protests and the obvious outrage on this issue, the change. org team has been working on this campaign only for a couple of weeks.

The motto of the website is to empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see. But which change exactly can be counted as a "victory" just on the basis of an online petition that people signed from their computers or phones? What about the efforts of other activists around an issue, the media and other campaigns?

Herman and Balachandran say this is why they are very careful about terming some change as their victory. Balachandran quotes the case of a Gurgaon citizen, who, without any other mobilisation, got the sanitation department to publish all information in the public domain. "This we call a victory because it worked on only the online petition, " says Balachandran.

Herman doesn't consider the Honey Singh petition as solely their success although it started online. The public outrage against Singh's lyrics started on December 30 and by the evening, there were two petitions online. By 31st morning the petition had gone viral and was trending on Twitter and then the media picked it up. "And that right there is the aim of the platform. A petition is just the first step of engagement, " says Herman.

However, in spite of the ability to garner online support pretty quickly, this sort of "click and support" petition form of activism faces a lot of criticism - it is often called slacktivism or clicktivism. Critics of this form of activism believe that the online signature can keep a person from protesting offline or taking any other substantial step he/she might taken in absence of the online petition. Some also point out that online petitions only cater to the population that is already interested in the cause. Herman and Balachandran visibly groan at the questions and say that they hear that all the time.

"There is a tendency to look at online mobilisation of people around a cause negatively. But the world has changed. If there are 25 people on ground, we can get 1, 00, 000. It is not the same as 'liking' a page on Facebook and it is unfair to say that these people are not doing anything. These help people get together on an issue without the problems of geography and focus the energy in one place. The 'this versus that' kind of activism is unfair. Would there be so many petitions if nothing worked, " asks Herman. She adds that the rapid mobilization of people on ground protests is also a hat tip to the power of the web. "The constant talk about the case and women inspired many other people to come out. It made people engage, go beyond talking and go out, " she adds. The website in India plans on moving campaigns out of and beyond just the computer screen - from getting the media to take notice of it, taking the petition offline and to the official-incharge personally to empowering the aggrieved to get other forms of support.

Some countries officially recognise online petitions. In the US, for instance, the White House has an official petitioning system under which any plea over 25, 000 signatures has to be acknowledged by the government. India, however, is different when it comes to the intersection of governance and internet and also the use of internet. "All MPs have email IDs but many don't use it. That's a challenge, " says Balachandran.

The challenge of the internet is also of access. In India, the phone screen is the first screen many Indians will see and increasing internet access will be through the phone. Change. org, therefore, says that it will be working on using the mobile phone more for petitions and not just computers. The "missed-call " system, for instance, is used by CGNET Swara for news reporting and broadcasting and the Anna Hazare movement had also used it for garnering support against corruption. Balachandran says of the internet, "This is not about one single person but about collectively amplifying one voice in which case the possibilities can be endless".

POPULAR APPEAL

Globally, there are numerous petition sites that citizens use to get to their elected representatives. Some governments and parliaments (White House, Scottish Parliament, and UK government) have to take cognizance of e-petitions after they gather a certain number of signatures. A few internationally popular petition sites:
www. PetitionOnline. com
www. ThePetitionSite. com
www. iPetitions. com
www. GoPetition. com
www. PetitionThem. com
www. PetitionSpot. com
www. Twitition. com

FRIVOLOUS REQUESTS

Alongside the urgent, necessary and worthy pleas for change, there are also those that pander to trivial desires and annoyances. . . Bring back the BBC channel, Cbeebies Ban yoyos and honey (a dig at singer Yo Yo Honey Singh) Appeal to Tendulkar to play one last ODI Stop dog poop in Bandra West Beef at McDonald's Cast Barun Sobti and Sanaya Irani back on a Star Plus show.

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