Friday, January 15, 2010

Here is Part II of How to Start a Protest (by Venita Coelho)

The Accidental Activist –

How to Start A Protest II

There are only two things that politicians take heed of. One is bad press, the other are crowds. When you have an issue that needs action you need to work out two strategies simultaneously. One to get lots of press attention. The other to build critical mass. It is not enough to have one press conference – you need to network with the press, make them see your point of view, co-ordinate so that a series of follow up articles keeps the matter alive. If you can manage to get into the national press then you will really get our netas to sit up and take notice. Dedicate one person who is articulate and persistent to be your press liason. Her number will have to be on day and night. Get the simple things correct – press releases in both English and Konkani, always sent out to the right contact person, before 4:00 p.m. if you want them carried the next day. Make a special effort to get coverage from the non English dailies. These are what the majority of Goa reads.

To keep the issue on the boil you need a series of ‘breaks’. It is well worth holding back dynamic information and releasing it in bits so that the story stays alive. Get known faces to speak up on your behalf. Any celebrities from your area? Get them to pitch in and do their bit. All is fair when you are fighting for column space.

As your issue begins to get press coverage, start planning how to mobilize more support. First look for support near to home – associations in the nearby villages, other action committees and consumer groups. Make sure you network with other activists and Goa wide groups. You will get the benefit of both numbers and their experience.

An important weapon is a public rally. But NEVER decide to call a morcha unless you are sure of the numbers. And numbers in Goa are extremely difficult to get. If you call a public protest and end up with a couple of hundred people, that is the end of officialdom taking you seriously. If you manage to gather a couple of thousand they will sit up. And if, like a recent protest, you manage to get five thousand people on the road and shut down all of Panjim, you can be sure your demands will be met. But this will not happen unless you network with other NGO’s in the field, have a dedicated bank of volunteers drumming up support, and provide money for buses to truck people in from elsewhere. Launching a public protest can be a huge logistic exercise. Far better to innovate and come up with methods of protest that leverage minimum effort with maximum mileage. Who says you can’t get creative with protesting? The Protest by Picnic organized by GBA on Vainguinim beach was one of the most delightful ways to protest thought up in a long time. The Cidade had been treating the beach as private property for far too long. To reclaim it as public space, GBA threw a picnic and everyone was invited!

Forget the tried and tested route of flexing muscles at large rallies. Go in for something crazier- that the establishment will also have no idea how to tackle, and which will grab you lots of press.

Meanwhile the real slog will go on. Make sure you have a dedicated band that is following up on RTI applications and other government permissions. I always thought that speaking directly to those responsible for handing out permissions was a waste of time. But I was proved wrong. Visit the Chief Town Planner often enough, and with press in tow, and he will eventually have to take action of some sort. Support will come from unexpected places within the government. In one case the Forest department chose to take umbrage that a powerful builder had cut trees without their permission. They ordered an Inspection and a subsequent Stop Work notice. So don’t ignore this route. Meet those on the official side. Sometimes instead of a stuffed government shirt you will encounter a human being who is genuinely trying to do his job. It always leaves me hopeful.

By now the individual back lash will have started. You can expect notices from the panchayat, cases filed against you at the police station and stones thrown at your house at night. These are all tactics of intimidation, and it amazes me how little it takes to scare people. A couple of stones rattle against the roof and suddenly all the supporters vanish. You’re there to fight, correct? Then fight. Go and register counter cases at the police station. Hire a damn good lawyer. Take them on head on. It always neutralizes them. One activist who got a demolition notice for a perfectly legal garage merely shrugged and said ‘ Okay I’ll demolish my garage even though it is legal – so now what are you going to do?’ That left them stumped. It is important to make them realise that you are not a pushover who will run at the first sign of trouble. Let them know that you are a yodha and this is going to be a real battle. Make sure you keep the press in the loop. Press coverage is good protection.

Sounding more complex than you bargained for? The most important things in life are always got at a high cost. But the cost of not fighting for them is even higher. You got started because you were angry. Keep the anger going. Keep the fight going.

Venita Coelho's article in the Herald newspaper in Goa - How to start a protest - Part I

I do a weekly column for the Herald. This is the first in a three part series that passes on the lessons that I have learnt on starting a protest. Posting it because it might come in handy for you.

The Accidental Activist – 4th Jan 2004

How to start a protest – Part I

First you have to be very angry. Indignation won’t do. Any battle worth fighting takes a long time and your anger will have to simmer through months and maybe years. It will have to sustain you when family try to talk you out of it, neighbours quit talking to you and the panchayat sends you notices for trumped up violations. Really hopping mad? Willing to put yourself on the line? Here’s some simple advice on how you can get going.

The next step is to get the facts. You want to stop that mega project in its tracks? The public protests won’t do it, though they are vital for bringing the issue into the public eye. What will do it is some small little overlooked permission, or fact that will turn up when you get all the documents under RTI. Get someone else to file for the documents under RTI. Why set up alerts before necessary? Further, filing legal objections is often a time bound activity, counting from the day you actually got the facts in your hands.

Getting the facts out of various authorities under RTI is a complicated exercise. If there is the slightest ambiguity in the wording of your request, they will promptly send you the wrong papers, deny they have them, or Xerox every paper in the building, except the one that you want, and hand you the bill. But the key to winning the battle is right here. No facts. No case.

Take your facts to the experts. Go straight to the people who are already fighting on the ground, and use legal counsel that has already proved itself as unbuyable. Remember that crores are at stake and in Goa unfortunately, almost everyone and everything is up for sale.

If you are going to fight a long hard battle, you need an army. First mobilize all those who are going to be affected by what you are protesting. Start with your village. A good way is to do a simple flyer ( in English and Konkani). Rope in some youngsters to deliver it doorstep to doorstep – always on a Sunday. Then hold corner meetings at the various vaddos, explaining the facts. Follow up the flyer with an awareness meeting.

You need a name, a working base and a face before you go public – launch an Action Committee. Never ignore the existing clubs/committees/consumer forums etc in your area. Speak personally to every single one and get their support. If you leave them out, you can be garunteed an outbreak of politics the minute the issue hits the headlines. Get a spokesperson who can speak both English and Konkani fluently. Make sure he/she knows the facts backwards. Get two convenors in case one is ever out of town, or compromised. Make sure you have at least four people who will not buckle no matter what the pressure. One of these better be a good organizer, quick with to do lists, and inexorable with follow up. Take a little internal donation so that you have some working capital.

Tackle the Panchayat. Make sure you are clear about the Panchayats role having got all the correspondence from the files. Confront them in writing. Documentation of every step is the key here. When it all ends up in court you will be grateful for every single scrap of paper that you have that traces the process. Get them to commit on paper the permissions they did or did not give. Don’t expect much. Projects worth crores, or violations that make money for people in high places, aren’t ever innocently passed by the panchayat. If you can get a couple of panchayat members on your side that is a bonanza.

At your awareness meeting you can expect your first reprisal. Along with curious villagers, there will be spies in attendance, and, possibly, rowdies paid to disrupt the event. Be ready to have a timely powercut disrupt the proceedings. Make sure you have informed the police in writing of the meeting and the loudspeaker permission is in place. Pulling the plug on you is a simple matter for the authorities if you haven’t already covered every single base.

Pull every favour to ensure that some press is present. This will protect you.
Make sure you have some heavy duty names speaking. Get respected activists who bring their moral authority to the issue that you are tackling. Go and meet each of them personally with the facts be. Don’t be afraid. They have spent years trying to save Goa. They always welcome one more fighter to the fold. Make sure the awareness meeting alerts the villagers on how the issue will affect each of them personally. Will it ruin their water supply? Change the population of the village so they are outnumbered? Dump sewage into their fields? People respond to personal threat.

Next week – taking the battle to the public and the press

Article about Leeza in Prabhat Khabar 22 December 2009

Headline reads 'Leeza gets the Best Videographer Award'. This is incorrect, but we are glad this paper chose not to focus on the disabled angle, like the others.

Article about Leeza in Sahara newspaper 22 December 2009

Article about Leeza in Jagruti Times December 21, 2009

'Leeza, an Inspiration for the Disabled' - Article in Chauthi Duniya newspaper, Patna, Bihar

It is unfortunate that the newspapers in Patna picked the story angle about Leeza being a disabled candidate selected in the WAVE program. This is NOT why she was selected. She should be proud to have been selected because of her extensive media and NGO experience.

Leeza's interest in videoblogging (Article in Aaj newspaper, Patna 22 December 2009)

Came across a fan blog post on

Read full story here

The news is music to ears

It is almost a month since I wrote my view on the need for blog networks in India. In that post I mentioned how a prudent blog network should have:

  • A more professional blogging experience,
  • Better content therefore, better marketing because of organization and value,
  • Better methods of training for continuance of blogs as information repositories

Women Aloud almost freakishly epitomizes these points in what it does and how it plans to go about it.

I don’t have much clue on the monetization plans this team has on mind, and therefore I am not in a position to question or suggest any either. The project itself though holds benefits aplenty. Besides the empowerment of women through collective learning and a global platform, it can help penetration or computing in the hinterlands.

In one of my earliest posts on WATBlog I had said that I hope the two buzzwords of our time social media and social entrepreneurship work together and grow to completely alter the value chain and entrepreneurial eco system for the better. I am glad to see an example of the same with this idea that Women Aloud brings to the digital table. It also underscores another thought that echoed within this blog of how new media will move on to building solutions and not just conversations in a small manner.

Scrolling through this post I think I made it sound like the seeds of my toil and hard work are now paying its dividends, which is not the case of course. Though I do wish I had come up with such an idea (and some more). All I hope is that this project works out well and meets all the objective it has set out to achieve. Hopefully it will lead to even better digital innovations in India.