Creating voter awareness for the Lok Sabha elections: Examples from Vyasarpadi in North Chennai

Many voters in Vyasarpadi in North Chennai constituency don't know their MP candidates. A CJ talks about a campaign to educate residents.

In North Chennai’s Vyasarpadi, candidates from different political parties contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections are on the last leg of their campaign around the neighbourhood. This is an oft-repeated tradition among politicians, especially in working-class localities, where they offer guarantees like electricity, water, monthly financial assistance, free buses, job opportunities and more, promised through government schemes. 

In Vyasarpadi, like many other parts of the city, while everyone votes every year, the reasons for the consistent participation are not necessarily rooted in in-depth political knowledge about candidates. The incentives promised by politicians are important for overall development of the community, but these are often based on only one thing in exchange their vote. 

Once the votes are cast, the story is often the same across the city. After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the elected MPs were rarely seen on the streets again. It is no different in Vyasarpadi.

Given that the people of this area have considerable trust in Vyasai Thozhargal, we wanted to help build political awareness among residents so they could know more about the candidates they choose, the meaning of their votes, and the ideology of the people they vote for. 

Read more: Elections 2024: What Chennai residents and civic groups want their MPs to address

For this, we went door-to-door and spoke to residents; to understand what they wanted from their MP; collected their demands and helped them identify the problems they would like to highlight. Through these methods, we as a community, put together a list of demands to hand over to each candidate. We have around 1,500 signatures and have already given the letters to the incumbent MP from DMK and a few other candidates. 

Demands of the people of Vyasarpadi

Here are some of the demands put forward by the citizens living in Vyasarpadi:

  • In December last year, all the roads were inundated for days, and no one came here to provide relief. We as a community came together to provide food, water and transport for residents. Many in the neighbourhood felt that the government and our elected representatives could have done more during a time of disaster. Residents demand a scientific and permanent solution for flood mitigation, which would prevent our homes from getting flooded every monsoon.  
  • Vyasarpadi residents say that drug and alcohol addiction are common among younger people, and urged the government to set up necessary facilities to rehabilitate those who are addicted to substances. They highlighted the need for quality education and good schools as a means to address this problem in the long term. The youngsters need guidance about careers and the job opportunities available to them. Moreover, liquor shops near schools must be relocated or banned. 
  • There is a need to improve the safety of women and children in the area, as many women have experienced sexual harassment. Residents want more streetlights and CCTV cameras on all streets, and police booths to be set up wherever necessary. Awareness programmes for men, sex education for children, and self-defence classes for women will also help address this problem. 
  • A key demand among residents is the issuance of pattas for the lands they occupy, to ensure they don’t get evicted from their homes. They have lived here for generations, but are yet to get land titles. The Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board asks for a beneficiary contribution of Rs 1.5 lakh from salaried residents for their homes. Residents want this to be scrapped.
  • The Housing Board should install a motorised water pump to ensure water supply to all the homes. Many also suggested that a caretaker be hired for housing board colonies through government funds
  • The Vyasai Thozhargal team asked many children and teenagers, who came to our tuition centre, about the changes they wanted in Vyasarpadi. Facilities for computer training and open spaces to play and exercise were some of the major demands. We also need a public library in our neighbourhood. We would like coaching centres that will help students with entrance exams and additional training for competitive exams. 

The need to politicise and organise

When we went door-to-door to speak to people, we noticed that many residents were not aware of who they were electing whether it was a member of Parliament, a member of the state assembly or a councillor. The lines between these designations were blurry and the election was seen as simply another occasion to cast votes, rather than an election to the Lok Sabha. 

pamphlets in Vyasarpadi
Voter awareness pamphlets made by the Vyasai Thozhargal team. Pic: Sarath Kumar

“What is this election? We just have to cast our votes again?” Someone asked us, dejectedly, when we went to their house. They appeared to have little faith in the process of voting. “Aren’t these MPs just powerful people who have control over us?” another resident asked.

This was a common idea among others we spoke to as well. We explained that the MP is an elected representative of the people, rather than a powerful authority figure who rules over others. Rather than people working for the MP, the MP is supposed to work for the people’s welfare. It was after hearing this, that many people started to talk about their demands to us. 

Understanding Lok Sabha 2024 elections

We realised that people were not given adequate knowledge about bureaucracy, the civic and government systems in place, where their vote was going and how to make their demands in a way that could hold those in power accountable. The alienation from electoral and democratic participation was clear. 

A key reason for this is a lack of adequate ‘fieldwork’ done by candidates, elected representatives and government authorities. Politicians, as mentioned before, are not often seen on the ground, in the neighbourhoods once the elections are over, and their engagement is often rooted in the transaction of votes for benefits during campaigning. Once the campaign is over, however, there isn’t much active research and engagement with those who have elected them. 

This is why one of our final demands was that the elected representatives come and meet us regularly once they are elected. 

It is also clear that candidates in the past haven’t made the effort to discuss the role they play as an MP, if elected, the roles and functions of the Lok Sabha, and the impact it has on the country and citizens’ lives. As a result, we felt the need to step in and do this work. 

We also noticed that many residents didn’t feel confident about their choices, and asked us who they should vote for. Since we have worked with the children here, have carried out social work and know the people who live in Vyasarpadi, many residents trust our opinions. We, however, refrained from advising residents on their choice of candidates. The goal is to build the confidence and engagement of the people, to allow them to express their opinions, and to enter a sphere of democratic participation.

What was our approach?

We wanted the people to feel connected to the politics around them, to the elections they were being asked to take part in we wanted to help ‘politicise’ those in our area. This is what we aimed to do:  

Provide information on candidates, their promises, and their political parties. We also trained students from our area and team volunteers at our tuition centre to go to every house, educating people about the roles of MPs, the different rungs of the government, the candidates who were campaigning, and more.

Read more: Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Chennai North — Know your constituency and candidates

Encourage the people to identify their demands and put them together in a consolidated letter. We asked them what they felt they needed from their government and their future MP. We also asked them how they felt previous governments had treated and addressed existing problems in the area. 

It was also important to encourage people to organise; to come together and demand together. This is why we asked each resident to join us when we made representations to each candidate. In these ways, people can feel like they are participating in the democratic process together, that they are making demands as a group, and that they have negotiating power against authorities in a democratic system.

Challenges along the way

While most see this work as important in ensuring a democratic election, we have been experiencing hurdles along the way. As the elections are coming up on April 19th, we have been having difficulties with the Election Commission in organising public meetings. This is because we have no affiliations with political parties or politicians. 

While EC officials told us that the work we are doing is important, they suggested we carry out our awareness programmes once the MP was elected. But, this would defeat the purpose of creating voter awareness, so that people can make informed, educated, and politically-organised decisions for the good of their community. 

People are the head of the country, as per the constitution. They should be allowed to meet and discuss candidates during election time. People must be aware that elected representatives and political parties are representatives of the public. This is why we politicise. To ask questions to MPs on the guarantees given, we must be aware of our power as participants in a democracy. Once this happens we can step closer to the ideal of democracy — where people rather than being voters will be participants in politics in the democratic system.

[Written with assistance from Savitha Ganesh, Engagement Associate, Citizen Matters.]

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