Three Chennai parks that made Kuppai Thiruvizha what it was

Any inclusive dialogue at a city level requires public spaces that make participation possible and fun. The success of Kuppai Thiruvizha, that sought to create public awareness on issues of waste management in Chennai, brought a few such spaces into focus.

Since its launch in November 2017, the Kuppai Thiruvizha has been in the news for all the right reasons, evincing phenomenal support from the denizens of different parts of the city, both online and on the ground. While the first thiruvizha was very successful for a flagship effort, we had to rethink the outreach strategy before the next one, to make the initiative more participatory and inclusive and amplify its reach to a wider range of actors.

Core members of the alliance, including representatives from CAG, Urban Design Collective, Arappor Iyakkam, Vettiver Collective, etc., convened one fine morning and dissected the different aspects of the thiruvizha including ways to strengthen outreach strategy and programming. One of the key outcomes of this deliberation was a common consensus on the need for an ‘inclusive space’ to foster inclusivity and participation in both letter and spirit.

As the thumb rule of participatory action approach goes, ‘If you do not intentionally, deliberately and proactively include, you will unintentionally exclude’ and one of the most important factors influencing inclusion (or exclusion) in participation is the space itself.

According to UNESCO, well-designed and maintained public space is critical to the health of any city. Such civic spaces allow for social-mixing, civic participation, recreation and a vertical and horizontal integration. We decided that any public space like the beach, park or any government-managed premise would be a great venue for the subsequent thiruvizhas. However, hosting an event like a Kuppai Thiruvizha would mean having a bare minimum infrastructure in place.

Public parks ticked all these boxes for us and we narrowed down on a few prominent parks in the city based on popular responses to our online polls, consultation with public officials and office bearers of relevant Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) to host the subsequent thiruvizhas. We zeroed down on Dr. Nageswara Rao Park, Mylapore for the central region, Murasoli Maran Flyover park, Perambur for the North region and Elcot Avenue Park, Shozhinganallur, for the South region.

Needless to say, all three events were a great success as evident from the participation, representation of different socio-economic and power groups, traction on social media and the extent of coverage by print media-national and vernacular.

Ahead of the thiruvizha in Mylapore, we roped in Hello FM (106.4) as our official radio partner for the event. Kripa from CAG, Vidhya Mohan Kumar from Urban Design Collective, and Radhakrishnan from Arappor Iyakkam represented Kuppai Matters on air on the channel’s weekend prime-time show Hello Thamizha. The channel also ran an extensive advertising campaign for a week and this had a positive impact on the turn-out.

Despite it being a holiday, on the 25th February, Dr. Nageswara Rao Park bustled with energy all through the day and particularly in the evening, when participation was at its peak. The frugal, earthy set-up of the stalls using old palettes and sarees discarded by people reflected the mood and spirit of the initiative. The day-long event had, in addition to our regular stalls promoting sustainable alternatives to plastics, three workshops for hands-on zero-waste experience- cloth pad making, newspaper bag making, home composting, participatory session for mapping waste infrastructure in the neighbourhood, “Trash Talk”, and a waste management clinic.

The event was attended roughly by about thousand people from different parts of the city, including the regular walkers and joggers and curious onlookers who were beseeched by Alternate Media Centre’s vociferous Parai Attam. Several attendees shared their own personal experience with waste and their vision for the city.

The thiruvizha caravan moved to Murasoli Maran Flyover Park, Perambur on the 18th of March, 2018. The team had almost mastered the art of seamless organizing of the event from start to finish. By this time, the initiative had also caught the attention of the who’s who in the corporation and the Health Education Officer attended the event in solidarity. He had also requested us to partner with the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) for their Information and Education (IEC) efforts for SWM.

Apart from the stalls and the workshops which had become permanent fixtures, four additional features, e-waste collection, cloth bag making from old sarees by Ecomithra, toys and book exchange kiosk and story-telling by Farmer and Co highlighting the plight of the Kodungaiyur dump yard was specially hailed by the attendees and the media.

The fourth and the final thiruvizha was organised the subsequent Sunday, 25th of March between 4PM and 8PM at Elcot Avenue Park, Shozhinganallur. The hallmark of this event was that Zone 15 of GCC came forward to co-host this.

Earlier that morning, folk artists from Chander Kalai Mandram staged a street play for the residents of Chemmencherry, highlighting the adverse effects of plastics, the need to avoid them, and the different ways to do the same. Their performance also drew parallels to the nature of dump yards which often occupy the fringes in the city, just like the new tenements in Chemmencherry and Kannagi Nagar which by the residents’ own admission are often neglected by both the dwellers in the other part of the city and the governance.

In the evening, the same group inaugurated the event with their incisive puppet show depicting the treatment meted out to conservancy workers and Informal Waste Pickers. The theme resonated with hundreds of conservancy workers who were present in the arena. It also emboldened them to express their views on their lives, livelihoods and why they deserve to be treated better by the general public and the government officials and the private contractors. This was an eye-opener for several people who had gathered there from the neighbourhood. Through the evening, stalls, games, workshops and the SWM Clinic functioned in full rigour and stimulated excellent exchange of ideas by everyone present at the thiruvizha.

Participation and inclusivity lie at the heart of democracy. Any attempt to facilitate meaningful and inclusive participation cannot be successful if the space for engagement does not conform to the same principles. Public spaces are regarded as democratic because everybody can use them: places that, rhetorically at least, allow ‘community’ to exist and flourish. Public parks in the city have hitherto catered to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of people by bringing together an active community of walkers, joggers, and artists.

Through efforts like the Kuppai Thiruvizhas in public parks, we have managed to establish a ‘standard operating procedure’ for a well-meaning public consultation that is participatory and inclusive in letter and spirit, just like the space itself. A ‘smart’ city would take a cue or two from it.

[This article has been republished with permission from the blog of Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) Chennai. The original post can be viewed here.]

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