Padmanabha Arkalgudand and Venkatasubba Rao aged 83 years and 81 respectively, are not your usual retirees who are used to spending relaxing days at home. They are community activists who can give the armchair or social media activists a run for their money. The two have worked to save lakes, bring down the crime rate in their neighbourhood through community vigilantism and what’s more, build toilets for students in government schools.
In this conversation with The Better India, Padmanabha explains how their brand of fearless activism solves local issues and makes a real difference to the lives of people.
A morning walk leads to building toilets in schools
Padmanabha and Rao have been friends for 60 years, since their law college days. Morning walks are a daily routine for the friends. And one of such walks turned interesting.
“We were on our regular walk, when a stench made us investigate its source. It was coming from a toilet opposite the government primary school in Byasandra,” he recalls.
They could have covered their noses and walked on, but this octogenarian duo decided to do work on the problem.
“Just imagine 150 students using those toilets without even a door. If one girl went in to use the toilet, one would stand outside guarding the place. Even inside the toilet was just terrible,” he says.
The friends reached out to friends, family, acquaintances via whatsapp and emails appealing for financial help. To drive the point home they also attached a picture to the messages.
Funds started flowing in after a local daily carried an article about their crowdsourcing. “We met several contractors and finally found one who said that the project could be completed in Rs 1.76 lakhs. We also got volunteer engineers on-board to help us out.”
What’s interesting is that they managed to raise almost double the amount that was actually needed. “Once the toilet was built, one of the biggest challenges was maintenance. That was when the Inner Wheel Club stepped in and said that they would help maintain it and took over the task,” Padmanabha informs.
Upon hearing about the work the duo had done, they received two more appeals from schools facing similar situation.
“We went there for inspection and realised that we would fall short of Rs 63,000. We sent out another set of appeals and we managed to raise the money. The project at Sarakki, JP Nagar, is complete. We inaugurated it on 14 October.”
Another one at Bandepalya is in progress.
The Team’s brand of fearless activism
Padmanabha who is the Founder President of Citizens Forum, Yelahanka New Town, Bengaluru says, “I decided to start this forum to find a solution to the serious crime rate this area was plagued with. We were able to bring down the crime rate, by organised night vigilance by residents, and subsequently went on to protect three lakes in Yelahanka New Town Area, including the Yelahanka Puttenahalli lake which has now been declared as the only bird sanctuary in Bengaluru.”
The most famous of the duo’s effort being, an attempt to help revive the Byasandra lake that had been allotted to a property developer. Rao took the case all the way up to the Supreme Court and won. The lake is being restored now.
So what challenges did they face?
“The biggest takeaway from all this for us is that building the toilets is not the problem. Its use and proper maintenance is of prime concern,” says Padmanabha. When they embarked on their toilet-building mission, they faced a lot of resistance from the locals.
On most days the locals used the classrooms and toilets after school hours for various illegal activities. “Rooms were free and toilets were available so it was free access for all,” he informs.
Knowing fully well that the local slum dwellers would try and enter the toilets, they built the toilets with steel doors and also installed steel barricades at almost every entry point.
They also conducted a session for the teachers explaining them to take education beyond books and teach students about basic hygienic practices. Padmanabha says, “Education is inclusive of behaviour and given how infections could spread with the use of bad toilets, the need to change that is imperative.”
How do they handle the funds that come in? The duo say, “We follow a very transparent process – the funds get deposited in a special joint Bank SB account in our names and once the money has been utilised for a particular project, we send out a detailed note to all the donors. That way everyone involved feels a part of the process as well.”
How can you help? While this dynamic duo continues to help wherever they can, they appeal to others to come forward and volunteer their time.
Padmanabha says, “This is physically taxing for the two of us, and while we continue to do it, it would help to have youngsters come forward and do some of the running around work.”
Padmanabha retired as a Senior Vice President from ITC Ltd. and Rao retired as General Manager from the Reserve Bank of India, Bangalore. He requests his ex-colleagues who may come across this article to come forward and help in their endeavours.
Reach out to Padmanabha at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Numbers: Padmanabha—9448956783 & SVS Rao—9591987899.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)