Panel discussion: What the city really wants from the new government

Ahead of elections, as promises and manifestos fly around, we asked an active citizen panel what they really want the new government to address. Catch the discussion here.

The upcoming Tamil Nadu assembly election, which will see the state voting on April 6th, is being hotly contested between the two major parties DMK and AIADMK and their allies. On the third front, looking to break their hegemony is the relatively new entrant, Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam. 

With polling dates close by, a slew of promises have been made by various candidates and parties. But what do citizens want from their elected representatives? What are their most pressing concerns that they would like the state to address?

Citizen Matters brought together a panel of eminent citizens, who have long been working on the ground in various domains and have significant insight into issues, and asked them to share their perception of ground realities and their expectations.

TN Assembly elections are set to take place on April 6, 2021. Pic: Vivian Richard

The panel threw light on the lacunae existing in various aspects of governance, as they bear upon their respective fields of work, and hoped that the incoming government will address these on priority. 

On women’s safety

Jothilakshmi Sundaresen, an advocate with the Madras High Court, highlighted the fact that issues related to women’s safety, rights and representation have remained largely unaddressed. This dire situation prevails despite women forming a major part of the electorate whose vote determines who comes to power in the state. 

“We still see widespread violence against women in private and public spheres. 80% of violence happens at home. The public space and the digital space is even worse for women. Individual empowerment must be institutionalised. Despite the various agencies that exist, women are yet to feel safe in the city”, said Jothilakshmi. 

Read more: Women’s Safety – No One’s Concern?

Jothilakshmi linked the lack of focus on women’s issues to the poor political representation. She pointed out that the various political parties, despite their tall claims on empowerment had fielded very few women candidates in the upcoming elections.

On environment

The steady degradation of the environment in the city due to pollution, encroachment of water bodies and negligence is an issue that has largely gone under the radar. Even as the city battles water crises every few years, political parties have historically not viewed this in the larger context of looming environmental issues, until recently. 

Karthik Gunasekar of the Chennai Climate Action Group outlined the various environmental hotspots in the city, mainly concentrated in the northern parts, and appealed to political parties to take cognisance of the looming problems faced by the people in those areas. 

“The Northern part of Chennai is one of the most industrialized in the country. There are industries and dump yards that affect the quality of life due to widespread pollution. Another issue faced by Chennai is that of water. Organising and maintaining existing waterbodies should be enough to sustain us, but a large part of the city is dependent on tankers. The drinking water quality is one of the poorest in the country in Chennai and we have even found micro-plastics in reservoirs in the city.”

Read more: These six industries in North Chennai are polluting the air for more than half the year

He hoped the incoming government would take a prudent approach to solving such issues without resorting to measures such as desalination and dredging of marshlands. 

On education

Education is one of the fundamental pillars of a progressive society. Yet, the status of public education in the city leaves a lot to be desired. Merlia Shaukath of Madhi Foundation elaborated on the importance of improving public education, failing which the impact could be felt across the city. 

“Public education is one of the issues that suffers from the apathy of a large section of citizens.The kind of class segregation that is seen in public schooling is appalling. The subject of education is also heavily centralised, so local involvement is less but there is no excuse for the current situation”, said Merlia. 

Read more: What’s stopping Chennai government schools from catching up with Corporation schools?

She also raised the important issue of safety. “Generally in urban settings both parents work and the child doesn’t have a safe space to go to after school. In Chennai the stories of abuse children face from lack of a safe space is heart-wrenching. Schools should double up as the safe spaces to help children.”

On issues of Persons with Disabilities

Even as election promises by various parties pour in, very few are focused on the creation of an inclusive city. Professor K Raghuraman, a disability rights activist, laid out a host of issues faced by those with various disabilities and the various ways in which the state has failed to address them meaningfully. 

“The challenges we face in Chennai are many, despite it being a metro. Every scheme or programme that could help those with disabilities suffers from lack of proper data. There are 21 types of disabilities as per the relevant legislation but even when those with disabilities try to get the certificates, it is a humongous task to access the right person and platform,” said Raghuraman.

Read more: When can persons with disability look forward to regular beach outings?

He urged the government to look into ways of extending medical support for those with disabilities; the lack thereof was felt strongly during COVID-19. He pointed out that women with disabilities faced safety challenges too, in addition to issues of accessibility.

On reforms in governance

While various groups across the state have batted for systemic reforms in governance, little headway has been made. Prashanth Goutham of Arappor Iyakkam listed the various reforms in governance that must be taken up on priority for greater transparency and accountability. 

“The incoming government must focus on devolving power to the people. This is what governments have been resisting. Ward committees and area sabhas must be formed on priority. Governments must avoid appointing special officers to conduct projects that are not required, such as the stormwater drain project in ECR. The newly-elected MLAs must bat for enforcement of the necessary amendments to be passed,” said Prashanth.

Read more: Raise your voice for functional ward committees in Chennai

Prashanth also batted for robust police reforms that would liberate the forces from the clutches of political influence. 

On engagement with citizens

One of the main issues faced by citizens is the complete absence of engagement by elected representatives once they are in power. Harsha Koda, co-founder of Federation of OMR Residents Associations (FOMRRA), detailed the various strategies that have been attempted to engage with elected representatives to solve issues faced by them. 

“Chennai doesn’t have a city plan. There is a lack of coordination between government departments. Nobody wants a plan but just a project and set of funds. To overcome this, we have begun educating the citizens on segregation and we have been building a knowledge base on various issues” said Harsha.

Read more: Residents quiz South Chennai candidates on their plans for the constituency

FOMRRA has been pressuring various administrations to get piped water and sewerage connections in their area for close to 15 years now. The entire stretch is dependent on tankers for their water needs and the provision of these facilities will save residents spending on these basic amenities. 

Watch the complete discussion here:

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