Transparent Chennai conducted a Ward Accountability Experiment (WAE) in Ward 57. This involves mapping the provision and conditions of essential services and public infrastructure. This data was used to initiate a transparent process where the elected officials and the community can engage in a constructive dialogue to improve their neighbourhood. Citizens are now raising grievances in a monthly community meeting with the councillor to demand improvements. For a brief history on the beginnings and objectives of WAE in Ward 57, read this.
Our entry into the Kalyanapuram slum on July 29 for our fourth monthly meeting made one of our team members exclaim in delight about the new roof that had been installed over the wash area, and the bathroom that was undergoing a makeover with new tiles. These developments were a result of the issues raised by the community during our earlier meetings. We decided to use this as an example of the positive outcomes from community participation to persuade more people to attend, and collectively raise issues.
The turnout at the meeting was significant. One of our team members introduced and explained the purpose of the meeting, and ran through the checklist of resolutions made in the past meeting so that community members could monitor the progress made by the councillor. One lady, who had committed to be the caretaker of a toilet, complained that she had not yet received the keys. The councillor responded that she would be given charge once the refurbishment was complete. Work for clearing out the debris from the roads was ongoing at the time of the meeting.
The members were then invited to raise issues one by one. Since some of the people were first time attendees, they raised several issues without paying heed to the work that had happened so far; nor did they acknowledge that ongoing work would take some time to be completed. At this point, the noise levels in the room peaked as people started conferring amongst themselves without paying attention to the issues raised by their neighbours. The room was soon divided into groups based on their prioritising of issues, and each group refused to listen to the other. People started approaching the councillor with individual grievances. Any attempt at trying to pacify the groups and getting everyone to participate in the true spirit of a community meeting, seemed to fail. This caused half the attendees to leave in frustration.
At this point, the councillor stepped in, and asked the remaining people to respect others’ complaints and cooperate. He tried explaining to them that these meetings were a space for the community to raise slum-level problems that he could solve in his capacity as the elected representative. With some coaxing, a few people stayed back and started voicing their issues. On the issue of garbage disposal, the councillor replied that a dumpster had been provided at the entrance to the slum, but people continued to dump waste on the street. He urged people to take responsibility for the maintenance of facilities once provided. As far as clearing the drains in the washing area were concerned, he said it could be done if people refrained from using the washing area for a day during which the works would be taken up. Other issues included the repair of the faulty public tap near the temple, and renovation of the toilet block close to the canal. However, by this time, the residents’ enthusiasm had dwindled and they continued to reiterate issues that had already been raised in previous meetings, and which were already being attended to.
While we had hoped that the results of previous meetings (visible improvements in the neighbourhood) would encourage residents to participate with more enthusiasm, we were disappointed to find the community divided on issues, unwilling to listen to each other, and unwilling to allow sufficient time for changes to materialise. For future meetings, we have planned to display some progress charts with pictures to facilitate an informed participation of first-time attendees. We are confident that the councillor keeps up his efforts and community members spread the word so that people continue to participate.
Written by Nidhi Subramanyam, intern, Transparent Chennai