How these social warriors are using WhatsApp to make a difference in people’s lives
When Afroz Shah, a young lawyer from Mumbai decided to clear the mounds of trash lying on Versova beach, little did he know that he would be able to unite thousands of people for the cause. WhatsApp made this possible for him.
One of the most purposive features of the app – ‘broadcast lists’, enabled Afroz to create a movement with over 70,000 adults and 60,000 students, all of whom readily rolled up their sleeves to clear the litter.
Broadcast lists allowed him to share messages with different contacts without creating a fresh group or selecting them each time, thereby expediting the process of dissemination.
“Whether it was to do with sending a message about the significance of protecting coastal ecosystems or communicating the time and location of clean ups, I leveraged the Facebook-owned service to bring people together,” Afroz tells SocialStory.
At the end of it, Afroz was able to make the seaside beautiful again with the support of his fellow volunteers - though it took him multiple clean up drives across a span of three years.
This was just one instance of how the freeware went beyond chit-chat.
Several NGOs, government agencies, social activists as well as entrepreneurs have been employing this feature, among many others, to create awareness about societal issues, events, and donation drives.
From its inception in 2009 as a one-on-one chat service to becoming the go-to app for all kinds of cross communication, WhatsApp has come a long way. Over the last 10 years, the platform has garnered more than 1.6 billion active users from across 180 countries. This means one out of every seventh person in the world has access to WhatsApp.
Started by two former employees of Yahoo Brian Acton and Jan Koum, the platform today is also enabling communities to unite for various social initiatives and reach out to the needy.
A step towards being heard
Characterised by rows of grimy lanes and archaic yet rustic buildings around every corner, Sonagachi in Kolkata is touted to be one of Asia’s largest red-light districts. Leena Kejriwal, who grew up close to the area, was used to spotting girls and ladies dressed in bright-coloured clothes standing on the roadside.
Though Leena did not understand the nuance of it then, she got an insight into the dark world of prostitution and trafficking during her adulthood when she met some of the women who got drawn into it forcefully. That was when she kicked off Missing Link Trust, a non-profit, to save and empower the lives of women in this line of work.
An alumnus of School of Visual Arts, New York, Leena saw art to be one of the best mediums to bring about awareness on trafficking of young girls.
“Art installations, stencil campaigns, and mural walks are some of the tools that we deploy to throw light on the issue. The Trust also conducts awareness programmes and workshops in rural and urban areas. So far, we have been able to educate 75,000 adults and 46,000 youngsters in 14 cities and towns. We were able to achieve this mainly because of the smooth communication that transpired on WhatsApp,” notes Leena.
From co-ordinating at the organisation level to spreading the word about workshops and crowdfunding campaigns, WhatsApp played an integral role to drive public ownership for the Trust. WhatsApp groups, and audio and video calling options proved to be helpful in reaching out to individuals residing in rural areas.
Visual content coming to the rescue
The freeware is even making its way to assist law enforcement officials and police forces.
Rahul Srivatsava, the Superintendent of Police City, Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, and his team of officers have been using the platform to prevent crimes and in responding to emergencies. Recently, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic WhatsApp came to the rescue in providing support services to citizens.
“Several differently-abled individuals and elderly people were severely affected by the lockdown. Most of them could not step out of their homes to procure essentials and medicines owing to the risk of infection. So, we took a call and decided to lend a helping hand to them. It was through WhatsApp that we identified these vulnerable sections. It was a two-way communication system. The Uttar Pradesh police received many requests to deliver provisions, provide medical aid, and cater to emergencies on the app,” says Rahul.
Besides this, the messaging service is being used to report and take action against various other crimes like drug abuse, theft, and suspicious activities.
There has been a slew of instances where WhatsApp has helped cops intercede in finding missing persons in a timely manner. After all, the platform has enabled everyone to send images at the click of a button. People have the option to either take a photo while on the app or share one or more pictures from their gallery – all in one go.
A few years ago, a 11-year-old boy in Bareilly was rescued when one of the local residents spotted him after receiving his photograph on WhatsApp.
Parminder Singh had left home on a bicycle in the wee hours of the morning. His family lodged a complaint when he did not return home. After the police sent out his photo along with relevant phone numbers, a resident in the area identified Parminder at the Moradabad railway station from where he was brought back.
Be it putting up a status after a fun-filled vacation, getting on a video call with a long-lost friend, sharing pictures on the family group or even expanding business operations, WhatsApp has been catering to one and all.
Enabling communities to serve society
India’s digital divide has been narrowing with time, thanks to the growing access to smartphones, launch of reasonable mobile data plans, and increased 4G penetration. For the first time in 2019, the country’s rural internet users (277 million) outnumbered the urban ones (227 million) by 10 percent according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India. The penetration of WhatsApp too is increasing with this trend.
Though many argue that the platform is giving a leeway to addiction and misinformation, WhatsApp has shown us multiple ways in which it can be used for the benefit of society. Instant communication, easy sharing of multimedia content, minimal restrictions on placement of calls, and selection of contacts has made it a powerful tool to reach out to anybody who needs assistance.
"We have seen WhatsApp emerge as a lifeline to stay connected and bring about positive social impact at a time when people need it the most. We are happy that people and businesses across India are relying on the platform to stay in touch with those that matter most - their friends, family members or customers," says Abhijit Bose, Head of India, WhatsApp.
Edited by Javed Gaihlot