Can residents’ welfare associations solve key issues in TNUHDB homes in Chennai?

TNUHDB has helped form RWAs in its tenements in Chennai. But the scope of work remains limited and does not address social issues.

Vasudevan S had been living in the tenements of the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB) located in Meenabal Sivaraj Nagar since 1977 before having to move out in 2021 for its reconstruction.

“In the three decades after we moved in, these houses had turned ‘unlivable’,” he says.

The broken staircases, dysfunctional lights, caved ceilings and leaky pipes are how he describes the building.

Perhaps, the description fits most of the TNUHDB tenements in Chennai. Lack of maintenance of the buildings is said to be a significant reason for these buildings to be in a dilapidated condition.

The TNUHDB has constructed and maintains as many as 1.80 lakh tenements in Chennai and other towns in Tamil Nadu. While the board requires Rs 26.62 crore per annum for maintenance of these tenements, but only a sum of Rs 8.25 crore is collected in the form of a maintenance charge of Rs 750 per month for tenements with lift facility and Rs 250 for tenements without lift facility.

A lack of periodic maintenance has been one of the major reasons for many of the problems faced by those residing in the housing board tenements.

Read more: Life beyond the murals in Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar

The Tamil Nadu government came up with a solution to address this issue. Akin to how the Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs) in Chennai’s affluent residential areas have been looking after the maintenance of their property, the government decided to follow the same model in the TNUHDB tenements.

Accordingly, a government order was passed on December 17, 2021, introducing the scheme called ‘Nam Kudiyiruppu Nam Poruppu’ (Our Tenements, Our Responsibility) for community maintenance of the tenements.

As of date, the TNUHDB has formed as many as 497 RWAs out of 694 tenements in Chennai, according to official sources.

While people in the tenements welcome the initiative as it encourages community involvement, there are also larger questions raised by them.

How to form an RWA in a TNUHDB tenement in Chennai?

Explaining the process of how the RWAs are formed in the TNUHDB tenements in Chennai, an official of the TNUHDB says that they first start with creating awareness among the community on the importance of the RWAs.

“Since most of these people are daily wagers, we conduct such awareness meetings during the nights, late evenings or weekends depending on their availability,” says the official.

This is followed by the selection or election of the office bearers of the RWA in Chennai’s TNUHDB tenement. The community is allowed to select the name of the RWA which is suffixed with ‘TNUHDB tenement RWA’.

The RWA is then registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1975. The registration costs around Rs 5,100, which the TNUHDB will reimburse.

The RWAs in Chennai’s TNUHDB tenements that were already formed should also be restructured with model by-laws approved by the Board.

Later, to get the RWA recognised, a request letter has to be sent to the Executive Engineer of the particular housing scheme. Once the EE recognises the RWA, then the maintenance duties are handed over to the RWA.

Maintenance share of TNUHDB and RWA in Chennai's TNUHDB tenements
Maintenance share of TNUHDB and RWA in Chennai’s TNUHDB tenements as mentioned in the GO dated December 17, 2021

TNUHDB also conducts capacity-building training for the office bearers and members of RWAs on how to write the meeting minutes, maintain registers, audit accounts, budget and so on.

“We issue three months advance grant for starting the works and once the bills are settled, the office bearers of RWAs will have to start collecting the maintenance charges. In a bid to encourage the RWAs, we are also selecting the three best RWAs from each of the four zones and giving cash awards,” the official says.

Work of RWAs in the TNUHDB tenements

An office bearer of an RWA in Chennai’s Perumbakkam says that they formed RWA in 2017, even before the scheme was announced. However, after the announcement of the scheme, the TNUHDB officials helped them to restructure the RWA with model by-laws approved by the Board.

“We then registered the RWA legally and installed proper sign boards. Earlier, these boards had political party symbols or pictures of leaders. Following the guidelines given by the TNUHDB, all such things have been removed,” she says.

“We have deployed the liftman, plumber and cleaning staff exclusively for our block. The staff will service only the particular block. The TNUHDB credited Rs 2 lakhs (nearly three months of maintenance charges that have to be collected from 93 tenements in our block) as an advance amount. This helped to kickstart the work like appointing the liftman and other staff. Salaries for these staff also go from the maintenance charges collected from the residents. Training was also provided for recording and auditing the accounts,” she notes.

While safety has been a major issue in resettlement areas like Perumbakkam, she also notes that they have been wanting to install CCTV cameras in each block to ensure safety. However, only after the RWA started functioning, they were able to install the CCTV camera in their block.

“Earlier, even if we have to do such small things, we had trouble collecting funds and getting the resident’s consent on it. Now that we are organised as an RWA, it is becoming easy to take such initiatives,” she notes.

While the RWA has helped to take a small initiative like installing the long-pending demand of installing CCTV cameras in Perumbakkam, the RWA in Meenabal Sivaraj Nagar has helped to a greater extent.

“When our building was proposed for reconstruction, we were able to demand the TNUHDB to give us the building plan. We also made them change the plan thrice after inspecting several TNUHDB sites. While the building is demolished now and the reconstruction works are yet to begin, we have also been promised that they can visit the reconstruction site at any time to check the progress of the works,” says Vasudevan.

“Informed consent on the building plan and beneficiary contributions were possible only because of the effective functioning of the RWA,” he adds.

Challenges in the functioning of the RWAs

While RWA in Chennai’s Meenabal Sivaraj Nagar was also formed before the announcement of the scheme, Vasudevan fears that the involvement of TNUHDB in the RWA activities will interfere with the autonomy of the RWA.

“We were able to demand the building plan and other such details only because we organised ourselves and were having sufficient knowledge about the functioning of the RWA,” he says.

He also adds that when such RWAs are formed by mandate, there are chances of interference from political parties.

“For all these years, the government was blamed for not maintaining the tenements properly. Now, it seems like the burden of maintaining the buildings is put on the residents themselves. These are the people who have lost their livelihood due to resettlement. While we hardly make any money, how will we be able to pay Rs 750 as a maintenance charge?” asks Kumaran, a resident of Kannagi Nagar.

Read more: Chennai families caught in a debt trap as they await new tenements from TNUHDB

D Balaraman, President of the AIR TNUHDB tenements RWA in Chennai points out that there are 5,850 dwelling units in 154 blocks in their tenement.

“People from various parts of the city were allocated houses in these tenements. Let alone collecting maintenance charges, even forming an RWA by organising these people is a huge challenge,” he says.

This has also been the case in Perumbakkam where less than 60 RWAs have been formed out of the 183 blocks.

The office bearers of an RWA in Kannagi Nagar note, “Unlike the government officials, we live in the same blocks as the other residents. At times when we insist the residents pay the maintenance charges, it causes issues among us. It becomes hard to face them on a day-to-day basis.”

The office bearers of the RWA who are also residents of the same tenements are already struggling to make ends meet while shouldering the additional responsibilities without any remuneration.

“We do not get paid to do the work as suggested by the TNUHDB. Maintaining records and going door-to-door to collect maintenance charges requires time and effort, which we would rather spend on working to make our lives better,” says an office-bearer.

When asked if any measures are taken by the Board to ensure the livelihood of the people in the tenements, the officials from TNUHDB says, “It depends on the project. We provide skill development training in coordination with Tamil Nadu Skill Development Corporation and Tamil Nadu Urban Livelihood Mission. We only coordinate with the two said departments and they will conduct the training and job fairs.”

Balaraman also points out that the focus of these RWAs in Chennai is only on the maintenance of the buildings and does not extend to social issues.

“Drug dealing and crime rates are high in our resettlement area. I wish the Board can also help us to address these deep-rooted issues,” he says.

Read more: How flawed eviction and resettlement are triggering child marriages in Chennai

What can be done for the effective functioning of the RWAs in Chennai’s TNUHDB tenements?

The interaction with the people in the tenements reveals that the reason for them not paying the maintenance charges is the lack of resources for livelihood.

As Vanessa Peter, Founder of the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), often points out, providing housing, a mere building, cannot be seen as an isolated solution to addressing urban deprivation.

While forming the RWAs helps in organising the people, it should not be merely for collecting the maintenance charges.

The government also holds the responsibility of ensuring the social mobility of these people which will ensure that their livelihood issues are also addressed. RWAs in these areas should be empowered to focus on wholistic community development.

As much as the standard of buildings is crucial to the safety of the people, the standard of living of the people living in the tenements should also be increased.

In that light, the RWAs in Chennai’s TNUHDB tenements should also be equipped enough to address the more significant systemic issues in the area along with support from various government departments.

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