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How a local paper created citizen vigilantes

A long-time ‘Metro’ supplements editor reminisces about the heart-warming stories of neighbourhood love and social responsibility that she came across

‘Metro’ shut down in 2007 but the call of community remains strong.
‘Metro’ shut down in 2007 but the call of community remains strong. (Photo: Alamy)

Over the last two months, several inspiring stories have emerged from the south Delhi neighbourhood of Shaheen Bagh. Mothers and children have been braving the harsh winter weather to participate in the sit-in. At a local café, the lemon chai pe charcha is all about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). A peek into the community kitchen reveals biscuits, bananas and biryani are fuelling the round-the-clock protesters.

Amidst a larger narrative demonstrating the power of collective action, it’s these tiny threads that captured my imagination, taking me back to a time in my life that was all about locality love.

Back in 2002, I edited a series of weekly community newspapers called Metro. Published and distributed free across the Mumbai suburbs by Mid-Day Publications, these hyper-local editions were conceptualized in a style similar to those found in the US. I had just returned to India after a short stint at the Times Ledger, a weekly newspaper covering every community in Queens, New York. It was an unimaginable time to be in a city devastated by 9/11. But by turning the lens on acts of local heroism, tributes to fallen neighbours and the support mobilized for grieving families, the Bayside Times and Queens Village Times revealed to me the greatest strength of a neighbourhood newspaper: the ability to build a real relationship with readers.

Metro was all about fostering a community spirit, and we were welcomed with a great deal of enthusiasm. Families were becoming smaller and, in the days preceding the social media explosion, people were still seeking out connections with those around them. Love for the neighbourhood became a common cause. On the hunt for stories, our reporters discovered the new ecosystems forming within localities. Advanced Locality Management (ALM) groups, made up of citizen activists, lobbied for everything from removal of speed-breakers, hawkers and encroachments to the cleaning of public gardens and stormwater drains. Signature campaigns were undertaken to improve by-lanes, install streetlights and dispose of garbage efficiently. As they banded together to improve their locality, a special camaraderie among residents was formed. Morning walks, scheduled calls on the building intercom and coordinated weekly visits to the offices of local authorities soon became de rigueur.

The Vigilantes—Metro’s version of the Page 3 celebrity—entered into a committed relationship with their locality. Mohammad Afzal didn’t just complain to the traffic police about delivery boys speeding—he stood at the traffic junction for hours on end just to get a picture of them breaking a signal. Shirley Singh followed the garbage trucks in an autorickshaw for two weeks to ensure the door-to-door garbage segregation programme in her society was effective. On his daily rounds in the locality, S.P. Jathan was never spotted without his walking stick, which he used to clean any clogged stormwater drains he chanced upon.

Some of the custodians weren’t opposed to using a little aggression to get the job done. Angered by the overflowing garbage dump in front of her house, one resident threatened to move into the municipal officer’s house until her locality was cleaned.

For the paper, no story was too small. From birthdays, school sports and parish activities to building dandiyas and iftaar parties, we covered it all. The achievements of local citizens were written about and celebrated. I even recall a shout-out for actor Raveena Tandon’s dog when it went missing (yes, the dog was found).

Even as the paper reported on the community, the community in turn was being shaped by the paper. Encouraged by the coverage, residents persevered until solutions were devised or demands met. One example of how serious this relationship with the neighbourhood became is from the 2005 Mumbai floods, when the homes of affluent Juhu residents remained waterlogged for up to three days. A spirited campaign to clean up the locality followed, and in the local election there, India’s first citizen corporator was appointed from the Juhu Citizens Welfare Group. It’s no coincidence that the suburb never experienced this level of destruction again.

We once did an anniversary issue for Bandra Metro where residents admitted they would “beg, borrow or steal to live in the neighbourhood". Metro reporters had front-row seats as they watched these love affairs with the locality evolve. As honorary residents, they were invited home for tea and festivals, and even a few weddings. Years after they moved on to other assignments, the intimate bonds they formed with these early sources have left a strong impression.

Among the most joyous discoveries during those years were the tales of neighbourly love. A robbery attempt foiled when the victim’s desperate cries were overhead by a group of youngsters in the next-door apartment. Paying no heed to their own safety, the boys overpowered the thief to save the day. Residents collecting money to support the family of a security guard who died on the job. After a series of leopard attacks were reported in the central suburbs, neighbourhood groups were formed to patrol the area at night. Similar teams came together after news of locality thefts. To provide one another with emotional support, women from one building set up a group that met weekly.

Reminiscing with a former colleague, and with Shaheen Bagh foremost in our thoughts, we recalled many stories of solidarity. Ganpati and Muharram rituals under one roof in a housing society in Mumbra. Hindus fasting with their Muslim friends during Ramzan. A dahi handi celebration organized by a team of different faiths. Then there is this wonderful anecdote of a lasting friendship formed during the 2005 floods. Soni Shukla, a Hindu girl, found herself stranded in Thane. She was rescued by two Muslim girls, one of whom is Meenaz Munshi. The reporter who covered their story says that the two remain friends. I am delighted to learn that the reporter has stayed connected to them on Facebook.

I was heartbroken when the paper shut down in 2007. Yet it’s evident from Shaheen Bagh, and countless other neighbourhoods across the country, that the call of community remains strong. Metro may not be here with us in print, but I am grateful that its spirit lives on.

Sonal Nerurkar works with HarperCollins Publishers India.

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