As the late APJ Abdul Kalam rightly said, “In a democracy, the well-being, individuality and happiness of every citizen is important for the overall prosperity, peace and happiness of the nation.” An important part of individuality is voicing one’s dissent, which is an essential part of democracy. Change.org in this context plays an indispensable role where individuals from all walks of life can start a petition voicing dissent over issues ranging from environment to sports.
This platform provides complete autonomy to the petition starter. Country Lead of change.org Preethi Herman elaborates, “It is the petition starter who drives her campaign forward. The most iconic people-driven campaigns on the site are those that have powerful personal stories, a clear ask from the decisionmaker and a definite timeline in which action should be taken.”
After the petition starter has garnered enough support (to her best judgement), the next step is to approach the decisionmaker with the requested change. Many petitioners are able to flash the V-sign when the change suggested is actually made a reality. Herman states, “Of the 30 lakh current users of the site, almost a third (10 lakh) have been part of at least one winning petition.”
A recent victory on change.org is reversal of the ban on turbans by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), a petition started by RPS Kohli. Agreeing to Kohli’s petition, fiba lifted the ban on turbans and other religious headgear worn by the Sikh community in the International 3×3 games in September last year.
A more famous petition was started by Laxmi, an acid attack fighter, in the year 2013. Explaining her motivations, Laxmi states, “I started this petition when I realised that the government was not taking this heinous attack seriously. I had support offline too but not in such numbers.” Taking advantage of the fact that the Internet has indeed become a wider platform for debate and voicing opinions, Laxmi garnered over 50,000 supporters for her petition. “I still use the portal and it is such a relief that it has started in Hindi. It is great to know that I can read and write the petitions in my own language,” she rejoices.
Her petition did chalk up success after she approached the then Union minister for home affairs, Sushil Kumar Shinde, to stop the sale of acid. The central government gave a directive to the States that stringent control should be exercised on the retail sale of acid. Following this, the domestic cleaning agent that can be transformed into a deadly weapon has been included in the list of substances under the Poisons Act, 1919.
There is no doubt that change.org is one of the most popular tools for exercising one’s democratic rights. But the ‘.org’ suffix does cause some confusion, as it is often mistaken for a non-profit organisation. There is also the difficulty of verification for the initiators of a petition. Consider the Nalsar Law University petition wherein students and mediapersons both started petitions of assault against each other. Such glitches, however, are bound to happen.
What change.org’s launch in India did was increase accessibility and opportunity for various individuals to raise their voices against a range of issues in society. Pradeep Raj says, “Accessibility is the biggest challenge in India. If we can’t go to school, can’t go to college, hospitals or offices just because we are differently abled, then what is the point of talking about rights? We also struggle with implementation of existing laws and measures that guarantee us rights. Bills get tabled, they get passed but the new regulations are not implemented.”
All said and done, however, it cannot be denied that change.org has provided the general public a means to achieve an end. It is one more way of preserving the essence of democracy: of the people, for the people, by the people.