Chennai’s fight for citizen participation in local governance

Area sabhas and Ward Committees in Chennai do not provide an inclusive platform for citizen participation despite decades of demands from residents.

Chennaiites have had a spate of complaints about the state of the city in recent months. From the menace of stray cattle to poor roads, all avenues such as social media and the civic body’s official app are being used by residents to raise their grievances. However, they continue to be deprived of constitutionally mandated platforms in the form of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees to put forth their complaints.

With most of the residents not having the chance to attend Area Sabhas and Ward Committee meetings, citizen participation in urban governance has a long way to go in Chennai.

Long road to representation

The first step in citizen participation is the presence of an elected local body. This in itself proved to be a challenge for Chennai as the city remained without an elected local government for a six-year period between 2016 – 2022. At this time, all key decisions regarding local governance were made by the officials attached to the Greater Chennai Corporation, with residents having little to no input on the shaping of the future of the city.

After a protracted legal battle, polls were finally held in February 2022 and Chennaiites were able to elect their Councillors for the city’s 200 wards. With 50% reservation for women, 100 of these wards had women Councillors. 

The city also got its third only woman Mayor in R Priya of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. She is also the youngest Mayor of the city. 

With the election of the council, there was renewed hope that there will be more avenues for citizen participation in the form of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees. 

Functioning of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees

Area Sabhas and Ward Committees are common avenues for citizen participation in governance. Their creation was mandated by the 74th amendment of the constitution which provides a framework for the devolution of power at the level of the local government. Model Nagar Raj Bill (2010) adopted by Tamil Nadu mandates the constitution of one Ward Committee per Ward and ten Area Sabhas per ward in order to maximise citizen participation.

The framework of transfer of power to the people is similar to what took place in rural areas via the Gram Sabhas. 

Ward Committees and Area Sabhas are platforms that bring together the voters and the elected representatives, along with officials of various departments, through periodic meetings to discuss issues faced by the residents. 

Area Sabhas are smaller units that feed into the larger Ward Committee, providing a structure that allows the voice of every single voter to be represented. 

From the Area Sabha, a member is chosen to represent the grievances of the Area in the Ward Committee which is headed by the elected local Councillor. 

Read more: Chennai in 2022: The time for participatory governance is now!

Expectations of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees

When the Chennai Corporation Council was elected in February 2022, the expectation of the residents and civic activists was for the speedy formation of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees to provide an avenue for citizen participation. 

A collective of civil society organisations such as Thozhan, Thannatchi, Voice of People, Arappor Iyakkam, and Institute of Grassroots Governance raised the issue of formation of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees and recommended looking to examples set by states such as Kerala and cities such as Bengaluru in creating a framework for Chennai.

The groups hoped for proper representation of residents’ voices and a coming together of ideas through these platforms. They highlighted how Chennai could have benefitted from having these structures in place during the COVID-19 pandemic as they would have made dissemination of information and coordination with residents much easier, but alas the city had to battle the pandemic without a local government. 

Framing of rules for Area Sabhas and Ward Committees

Months into the election of the local government, the rules for the formation of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees were notified. The rules were notified in June 2022 through an announcement in the gazette.

Civic activist Gurusaravanan opined that the rules have significant shortfalls that defang Area Sabhas and Ward Committees. Some of the issues highlighted include

  • Lack of reservation for women, scheduled caste, scheduled tribes, persons with disabilities and other marginalised sections. Even with a 50% reservation for women in the council, the lack of reservation in the Area Sabhas is a glaring omission
  • The quorum rules are similar to that of Gram Sabhas and do not take into account the size of the urban population
  • Lack of consultation with civil society and residents before the formulation of rules for citizen participation in local governance 
  • Lack of clarity on the linkage between Area Sabhas and Ward Committees and an overarching influence of Councillors on both platforms 
  • No rules or basis for the selection of members of Area Sabhas, leaving the power to the Councillors to select the members
  • The platforms are only suggestive and could merely become a forum for grievance redressal and not a platform where residents can have a say in the policies that shape the city. 

A survey by Voice of People found that a majority of the elected Councillors were unaware of the functions of the Area Sabhas and Ward Committes and their role in it. A staggering 89% of the 110 Councillors surveyed also did not know about the rules framed by the government to enable citizen participation. 

Area Sabha Ward Committee
Civil societies collective(Voice of people, Institute of Grassroots Governance, Arappor, Thannatchi) submitted representation to Secretary, MAWS. Pic: Gurusaravanan M

Read more: Many Chennai councillors unaware of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees

Reality of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees in Chennai

Despite these concerns expressed by activists and residents, the rules were notified without further public consultations or amendments. Steps were then taken for the formation of Area Sabhas and Ward Committees. 

For a total of 200 wards in Chennai, 2000 Area Sabhas are to be formed, at 10 Area Sabhas per Ward. All residents of the delimited area are members of the Area Sabha. From this, an Area Sabha Representative is nominated to be part of the Ward Committee as a Ward Committee Member. Ten Ward Committee Members then discuss the issues put forth in the Area Sabhas in the Ward Committee.

In January 2023, a list of 2000 Ward Committee Members was approved by the civic body and a resolution to hold Area Sabhas and Ward Committees was passed. 

Civic activists and residents expressed concern that the selection of the Ward Committee Members had been a politically motivated exercise with many Councillors choosing members from their own party. 

Without reservation, the Ward Committees also ran the risk of being dominated by men and with poor representation from marginalised groups. Residents who were chosen were more often than not unaware of the role of the Ward Committee Member. They were selected due to their proximity to the Councillor and their political party affiliation. 

A survey by the Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) found that of the 200 wards, there were no women Ward Committee Members in 85 wards. 

Holding Area Sabha and Ward Committee meetings in Chennai 

Over a year since the election of the local government and the framing of the rules, Chennaiites did not see Area Sabha and Ward Committee meetings materialise. 

Despite a torrid monsoon season, residents still did not have avenues to dictate policy and raise grievances beyond social media and grievance redressal apps. 

In 2023, after demands from residents and activists, steps were finally taken to hold Area Sabha meetings in August. Residents of Ward 12 got to witness the Area Sabhas in Areas 9 and 10. 

Residents shared a platform with the local councillor and officials from various bodies such as the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) and the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). Grievances around taxation, water supply, issues with power supply and roads were raised at what was one of the first Area Sabha meetings to be held in the city. 

Other Councillors were expected to follow suit and conduct Area Sabha and Ward Committee meetings in their Wards and institutionalise citizen participation in local governance. 

But dishearteningly, the regular conduct of Area Sabha and Ward Committee meetings continues to remain a distant dream. In a survey by Voice of People among 88 Councillors, it was found that only 32 of them conducted Area Sabha meetings in September 2023. They were also not aware of the rules and did not inform the residents in advance about the meetings. 

Over three decades since the 74th amendment and thirteen years since Tamil Nadu took the first step towards citizen participation in local governance, the role of citizens continues to be limited and dictated by politics. 

A free and fair platform for citizens to shape the future of the city and equitable representation through reservations is yet to become a reality for the residents of Chennai. 

To ensure effective representation through Area Sabhas and Ward Committee, Chennaiites can reach out to their Ward Councillors to remain up-to-date on the dates for conduct of meetings and make their voices heard on matters of local governance. 

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