Aware Citizens of Assagao: The Beginning of Something Good

 In Community, Sustainability

When a group of active citizens comes together with the aim and conviction to drive positive change, remarkable things can happen. In the picturesque village of Assagao, there’s a new order being created. What started out as a small group coming together to have conversations and find solutions to local issues has grown to a force strong enough to influence opinions in the community and to get people to actively participate in local self-governance.

Revolution is a word that’s sometimes thrown around a bit loosely these days. It’s a romantic ideal that most people would want to be a part of, but few find the courage to pursue it to its end. Ever since I started leaning towards social and political causes, I saw this word thrown about quite a bit. Every time people got agitated enough about an issue, there would be calls for revolution and people would be up in arms to protest and seek out solutions, but more often than not, the movement would slowly evanesce from public memory.

That’s why the Active Citizens of Assagao story needs to be told. It may not have a far-reaching impact on society, but it is changing the social order within its small community. This growing group of active citizens have been meeting on a regular basis for the last six months and have initiated a number of small campaigns to help bring about positive change in their village.

In order to get to the undercurrents that swept this movement forward, I will break this story down into parts, each of which will have a different member of this group narrating their role and providing an insight into the workings of the group. The first part is pieces of a conversation between Jill Ferguson, Director of Forca Goa, and one of the first members of this group.

FG: How did this community of different individuals come together?

  • JF: The seed of this was grown when representatives from Live Happy, ForcaGoa, Video Volunteers and CircleWallas met at the EU Change Makers conference in Goa. The point of the conference was to get like-minded people together and effect change within a community. During the conference, we managed to have conversations and network and realized we all wanted to make a difference. Felly Gomes has an NGO called Live Happy, which works with the community at a grassroots level in Assagao. We all came from different organizations and had various skill sets and decided to help Felly bring the Assagao community together to create a sustainable future. This vision fits perfectly with what the Change Makers conference wanted.

FG: When did you’ll have the first meeting and how did you’ll decide upon the agenda for this group?

  • JF: We had our first meeting on the 29th of April. We wanted to create a pilot project to put a sustainable village in practice. Tamer, Joanna and I are trained in the art of hosting and harvesting conversations. It’s a process where you need 2-4 people to host the meeting and everybody gets a chance to speak and get their opinions heard. So everyone got together and decided to meet once a week to discuss the issues and the way to go ahead and resolve them.

FG: A lot of the members who helped start the Active Citizens of Assagao group were not from Assagao itself, what motivated you’ll to be a part of this?

  • JF: We wanted to help Felly get this group started and we wanted to learn from it. We hoped to make Assagao as a model village for sustainability that we could then use to replicate in other villages in Goa. A lot of us are not locals but have been living here in Goa for a while. So how we function and work in our spaces in our own country might not necessarily work here. We wanted to learn how to effectively communicate with local citizens, how to empower them and most importantly, how to make this system work.
  • For us, it’s not just about what’s good or bad, or right or wrong. It’s a learning journey, where people can have a space that they need to feel empowered and find the information they need to act as participants in the running of their village. A lot of times, people get frustrated because they see the same thing happening year after year. They get apathetic to all the issues because they don’t know how to solve it. Being an educated citizen shows you the tools that are at your disposal to help solve those problems. There are individuals who are corrupting the system, the system is not corrupt. The system has never actually been used the way it’s supposed to be. There are so many wonderful laws in India that nobody knows about. And there are lots of checks and balances for the government to function properly, it’s just that people need to be aware of how to use those checks and balances.

FG – What were the initial challenges that you all faced with the group?

  • JF: A lot of people want to change to happen immediately, but that’s not how it works. India as a democracy is still very young and it has a lot of things working against it, as it has such a large population. It doesn’t have the infrastructure either to reinforce and support that large democracy. In terms of adequate education on how to be an active citizen in a democracy, that doesn’t exist. Schools don’t spend that much time teaching children about how a democracy should function. It’s not about voting for a leader and then expecting that leader to do everything, it’s about everybody taking part. You have rights but you also have responsibilities.

FG – Did you all set out goals and timelines to what you all wanted to achieve? How did you’ll decide what the main issues were?

  • JF: All the people who were attending the meetings but were not actually from Assagao, were there as support systems. It wasn’t our role to set targets for the village, our role was to mentor, empower and guide the villagers to come up with their own ideas themselves and then give them the resources needed to reach those targets.

FG: How did you’ll manage to get people in the village involved?

  • JF: All the villagers were invited to be part of it. Felly made announcements at the church, he made personal calls and went around calling people. Felly’s a very charismatic leader who is good at mobilizing people. A lot of people came for the meetings because of the respect that they have for Felly. Slowly the people were getting empowered and started telling their friends and neighbors and family.

FG: Did you ever feel that the meetings were getting nowhere and nothing tangible was happening?

  • JF: Certainly there were meetings that were more productive than others, but we always strived to find that middle ground that was using the art of hosting processes but also creating a safe space where the locals felt comfortable to voice and share their opinions. Not everyone is used to voicing their opinions in a public forum and so our process did take time to get everyone comfortable and on board with us.

FG – With my experience, a lot of people have opinions and solutions to issues but won’t necessarily take that action themselves to resolve it. Did you’ll face that issue?

  • JF: The ironic thing is that a lot of people who joined us at the beginning were what we call transplants, people who were not necessarily locals but still called Assagao their home. Those people were a lot more comfortable with the process and took the group forward. Now in the last three weeks or so, a lot more locals have joined in. It took time to build that and to create that space for locals to come. Goa also has a history of outsiders coming in and telling people what to do. There’s a problem when that happens because it creates a dependency on others to solve the problem. That’s an issue because we want to create independence where people can resolve issues for their village by thinking of solutions themselves.

FG: When this group started, did you actually see this lasting for so long and having the impact that it did?

  • JF: I don’t think anyone predicted this. The goal was always to create a model that we could replicate and also a way where we can empower the locals to step up and take the lead themselves and that’s still the goal. If we were to do this again, I don’t know if we would do this the same way but the reality is, doing it this way earned the trust of the locals. This was not funded; everybody who did it did it in their own free time because they thought it was an important thing to do. In that sense, it was done in a very honest way and everyone was really involved. Everybody was there because they cared.

FG: You said that you would change a few things if you had to replicate this model. What would you change?

  • JF: One thing I would perhaps change is that some of us were very strong faces of the group in the sense that we would be hosting the meetings, offering opinions, leading the meeting. Maybe because of that some of the others got nervous about stepping into that position because they felt that they lacked the experience and expertise to do that. A lot of people are not comfortable with speaking in public and that’s something you have to do in order to lead a meeting. People should understand that you’re not there because you know everything; you’re there because you don’t have all the answers and that together in a group you can find potential solutions. One thing we’re doing now is that we’ve called back the people who’ve trained us in the Art Of Hosting process so that they can come in and train more locals. We’re doing this so that locals can get the tools that they need to go out and lead these kinds of community conversations. In addition to that, Joanna and Tamer have created this kind of mentorship program for a month where people can get comfortable and gain confidence in hosting these kinds of workshops.

FG: And if this group and these meetings had to stop, would you call it a success? Did it meet expectations?

  • JF: I would definitely say it exceeded expectations for sure, but it’s an on-going battle. Being in a democracy is being involved in the democratic process your whole life. This is just the beginning, but all of us are pretty overwhelmed with the commitment we saw from everyone involved. Every week we saw around 40 people turn up. After the initial set of meetings, people made self-organized groups and each dealt with separate issues. One group was an active citizenship group, one dealt with waste, one with bio-diversity etc. And after we formed these groups, we found out that these perfectly aligned with the committees that are mandatory for every village panchayat. What we realized is that our groups could not only become the village’s official committees but also be support groups for those panchayat committees so that they have a wider reach and get more information.

FG: What was the experience like getting involved in the local self-governance?

  • JF: A lot of people had dismissed working with the government. But that changed once we found out that the government provides for various opportunities for people to participate in local processes. That information came to us from a fellow member of the group, Owen Braganza. After the first meeting, we became aware that there was an election coming up which meant that whatever happened in the past with the previous governmental body, it could be changed. So whatever issues people had with the panchayat, a fresh start could take place. And after this election, there was going to be the village development plan, which addresses all the needs and issues of the village and creates a year by year plan to address those needs.

FG: How far along you think this group towards the ultimate goal; that is making Assagao sustainable?

  • JF: One of the main things that have contributed to the success of this group is the fact that Live Happy as an NGO is rooted in Assagao. So even if the rest of us leave, Live Happy will continue working within the community.

FG: Are there aspects of this project that you’ll are ready to take and replicate in other villages? For example, now that you’ll know about the various committees, can you’ll go to another village and educate them about it?

  • JF: Yes and no. The thing is everyone wants to know of a place where something worked, where an idea like this was successful. Some of these committees are really new. So how it works or doesn’t work is still being figured out. This isn’t math where there’s one answer to the problem, there are a million different ways for it to work. Everyone wants an example of a place where it worked and we want Assagao to be that place. A lot of people feel so apathetic and negative to the possibility of being able to affect change and to be a part of anything, that a story of success and hope are huge. Here we have 90 people who are a part of something, maybe it’s not as big as they want, but it’s still impacting people and I think that is important.
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