Transparent Chennai held a community meeting with slum dwellers on 4th June at Sivarajapuram, a declared slum off Dr. Besant Road in Triplicane. The purpose of the community meeting was to engage residents in a participatory process to identify their issues related to public toilets, prioritize these issues and think together on possible solutions with researchers from Transparent Chennai. The meeting was organized with the help of one of the residents, Mr. Saravanan.
The meeting started with a brief introduction on slum policy in Chennai and various schemes like the JnNURM and Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), and whether they succeeded in providing slum dwellers tenure security and necessary services like water and sanitation as they set out to. Community members agreed to participate in a community mapping exercise that Transparent Chennai had designed to help people identify issues concerning public toilets in their neighbourhood.
Initially, community members were oriented with respect to a base map, and asked to create a community base map by marking bus stops, temples, and other landmarks they thought were important. They were then asked to identify public toilets in the vicinity that they frequented daily. Initial anxiety and inability to orient themselves was quickly overcome when a few members, of notable mention is Ms. Maarithalai, enthusiastically started marking symbols on the map by consulting and debating with each other. It was useful to have many women mapping as they tend to suffer more from lack of proper sanitation. The fading evening light and lack of space did not deter the participants’ enthusiasm and they participated whole-heartedly.
The mapping exercise revealed that a majority of the slum dwellers had constructed a private toilet in their backyard and so, did not use the public toilets. The ones who used public toilets used the ones closest to their houses. The main issues with using public toilets were unclean toilets, unavailability of clean water for washing, lack of electricity, doors and less than 24-hour access. Some community members identified replacement of closets and installation of a western-style closet to help elders and those with physical disabilities as further improvements. Those with private toilets admitted to dumping their sewage into the canal behind the slum. Transparent Chennai researchers informed these people that they could apply for drainage and water supply connections for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) from MetroWater for a minimal fee, provided they agreed to pay a monthly maintenance fee, and wrote application letters to their local councillor.
Although community members participated in the mapping exercise, the possibility of eviction and lack of secure tenure was their chief concern, especially since they were located at the edge of a canal. It is not uncommon for municipal and slum redevelopment authorities to evict slum dwellers along water bodies citing environmental hazards like flooding. Most community members wanted a wall built along the edge to physically enclose the slums. They were willing to invest in construction of toilets provided they could gain tenure security. Priti suggested that slum dwellers not resist enumeration under the RAY scheme, as it could be beneficial to them. Also, as they were a recognized slum, they were perhaps less vulnerable to eviction. The meeting concluded with a request from the community to have a meeting with their councillor to address issues openly, and make him responsive and accountable.
Despite many barriers that constrain slum-dwellers from participation in such meetings (housework, child and elder care, anxiety about action, vulnerability about misuse of their information), it was heartening to have a turnout of about 25-30 members, especially women who often get left out. While researchers might have their own agenda, a community-mapping exercise reveals that communities have their own priorities. A majority of the people who attended the meeting had private toilets and this could have drowned out the needs and issues of those who used public facilities. Some people also shied away due to map-illiteracy. However, this community mapping exercise was our first attempt to get the community to perceive and articulate its own problems and solutions, and to find a methodology for planning and monitoring where residents play a central role.
Written by Nidhi Subramanyam, intern, Transparent Chennai