Editor’s Pick: Chennai stories that made a mark in 2023

From floods to master plans, 2023 was a mixed bag for Chennai. Our Chapter Editor talks about the top stories for this year.

‘Hot, hotter, hottest’ might define the different seasons of Chennai, but its people exude a certain warmth that is endearing. As platitudinous as it may sound, this empathy and resilience shone through during the recent Chennai floods, as residents bent over backwards to help each other.

A lot transpired in the sprawling metropolis in 2023 that gave us reason to cheer—consultations for the upcoming Third Master Plan, the vibrant Madras Day celebrations and Chennai emerging as the safest metro for women according to NCRB.

But all this was overshadowed by the increasingly problematic stray dog and cattle problem; Cyclone Michaung that besieged the city and cracked open all that was wrong with its sewage infrastructure and development plans, and the subsequent Ennore oil spill posing a threat to the fragile ecosystem.

At Citizen Matters, we brought to light stories that needed to be told — about plastic pollution, a community coming together to save a tree, the problems faced by MTC staff, flood management issues, youngsters rising above deep-seated stigma to educate disadvantaged children, housing for the poor and much more.

Chennai’s destiny has been indivisible from the wrath of natural disasters but it’s also a city with wide roads and well-managed traffic; one that is growing at great tempo and embracing change and technology like no other. For me, the city speaks through its mid-October rain-soaked balconies, charming colonial buildings, the distinct scent of books in old libraries and bookshops, movie-going madness and midnight food sojourns.

It’s been seven years in Chennai and just two months since I took over as Chennai Chapter Editor at Citizen Matters; getting to know the team and guiding them, sharing piping-hot sambhar rice for lunch while discussing story ideas on office days, navigating together the difficulties of putting out articles during the cyclone with no power and intermittent Wi-Fi connection—have all been part of the learning curve.

So, as the curtains fall on 2023, here is my take on our Chennai stories published this year that resonated with me and I feel, made an impact on readers:

Collective action bears fruit

Since community engagement and continued interaction with resident groups is an important part of what we do at Citizen Matters, my first choice is one about community action. As citizen journalists, many residents have highlighted civic issues through our platform. And, don’t we love a positive story of people getting together to campaign for a common cause. Gandhi Nagar resident and civic activist Meera Ravikumar’s account of how people in the locality teamed up to save a Fig (ficus) tree, uprooted because on ongoing stormwater drain work, shows what collaborative action can do. The group worked with the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and the Horticulture department to ensure the tree was transplanted in the Kotturpuram tree park. Their vigilance sets an example.

Read more: Oil spill in Chennai’s Manali area can cause irreparable damage to Ennore Creek wetland

Examining the single-use plastic ban

While some save a tree, many others in the city cannot resist the ease of single-use plastic bags, despite the environmental concerns. Mary Murphy’s intuitive look at the Meendum Manjappai scheme and the reasons why the ban on single-use plastic remained ineffective, raises pertinent questions about the heavy cost of convenience. She has examined the economics and implementation of it, looking at it from the point-of-view of small vendors and shop owners, and also customers. Finally, the question to ask is, “Are we okay with our water bodies and green expanses choking under the weight of plastic?”

Challenges faced by MTC staff

Citizen Matters regularly focusses on livelihood issues and public sector workers play a significant role in keeping the city going. A large majority of Chennai’s population depend on the buses that ply in the city and suburbs. Irregular timings and delays can be of great inconvenience to people who use public transport for their commute. While many routes are grossly underserved by Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus services, the acute staff shortage affects both commuters and MTC workers. Our reporter, Athira Johnson, interacted with many people who depend on bus services and with drivers, conductors and other staff, and documented their battle with poor working conditions, long hours and very little rest breaks.

A winner of a tuition centre

Our senior reporter Shobana Radhakrishnan, who has extensively reported on disadvantaged communities, talks about another kind of marginalisation in the locality of Vyasarpadi, born out of deep-seated stigma. Her heart-warming story about first generation graduates, who started a free tuition centre against all odds, to ensure poor children stay in school, stayed with me long after I read it. The effort of these youngsters, aimed at providing children in the community a safe space for learning when they are home from school is a lesson in enterprise.

Read more: Pulianthope Welfare Assembly shows the way for RWAs in Chennai

Free breakfast brings cheer

The expansion of the free breakfast scheme across all primary schools has benefitted students in resettlement areas in Chennai. Pic: Greater Chennai Corporation/Twitter

One area where the government seems to have scored is the free breakfast scheme for children in Chennai’s resettlement colonies. The joy of the children to partake the breakfast, which they see as a communal activity with their friends, is heartening. But systemic issues remain—our reporter Athira talks about how some policies often concentrate resources and facilities in urban centres, creating an “untouchability within untouchability” for marginalised communities. This layered caste-based discrimination perpetuates when students must travel long distances to access proper schools, with their families bearing the financial burden, she quotes an activist as saying.

The reality of nature’s fury

Lastly, I chose this story because it not only brought out the stark reality of lives left in shambles after a cyclone strikes but also highlights how in the eyes of the government, some may be more privileged than others to receive timely help. Shobana’s account of the struggle of marginalised communities in North Chennai, who were totally sidelined by the authorities during the devastating floods, lays bare the gaps in governance. The one positive here was the humane face of local volunteers, who were the only responders in this particular community.

On a happier note, we look towards many more impactful stories by our team in the coming year; stories of change, grit and enterprise.

Here’s to a fruitful and citizen-forward 2024!

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