WhatsApp has built a community of more than 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide by allowing them to message friends for free. However, in India, where WhatsApp has around 160 million monthly active users, the service has become much more than a no-cost chatting app.

In recent years, the authorities have caught on to WhatsApp’s potential for engaging more directly with the Indian public, especially in some of the country’s megacities.

Increasing women’s safety

A WhatsApp safety group enables New Delhi women who travel by public transport to send photos and details of the vehicle to the police before boarding it. Set up as both a deterrent for sex crimes and to boost women’s confidence, the group can also be used to alert the police in emergencies.

Reporting offences

A number of cities have launched WhatsApp numbers for reporting crimes, traffic problems and other disturbances. A Whatsapp group launched by police in Hyderabad received 341 complaints in just 30 days. In Delhi, a traffic complaints system saw over 250 messages pour in within just a few hours of launching. People can contact local police about traffic violations, unauthorized parking, overcharging by taxi drivers and faulty traffic signals, to name a few. They can also attach video footage or photographs to their message to back up their claim.

Working women queue up for cabs in Bombay October 8 after public transport bus unions went on an indefinite strike demanding an increase in their yearly bonus. The strike which enters its third day today has resulted in massive traffic snarl-ups with tens of thousands of commuters being forced to walk to work. The unions have threatened that if their demands are not met by Friday taxis and autorickshaws will also join the strike.
In Delhi, a traffic complaints system saw over 250 messages pour in within just a few hours of launching.
Image: REUTERS/ Savitar Kirloskar

Holding politicians to account

Authorities in Kerala have taken citizen participation one step further: people can use WhatsApp to file complaints against corrupt government officials, along with video and photo evidence.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has even resorted to a WhatsApp group to flush out absenteeism among MPs. It informs politicians about important meetings and parliamentary sessions they should attend.

Helping flood victims

Beyond bringing government and public institutions closer to the people, WhatsApp has also proven useful as a tool for connecting communities. When many students lost their textbooks in the 2015 floods in Chennai, a private initiative invited them to ‘WhatsApp’ the titles they needed, and sourced those books from across India for them.

Displaced residents wade through a flooded street besides a flooded railway track in the flood-affected areas Chennai, India December 3, 2015.
Image: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee - RTX1WZNQ