It’s just a click away

Did you know that you can complain about your civic issues online to the Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa? The government has launched a website (http://cmcell.tn.gov.in) where citizens can file grievances and receive acknowledgment by email immediately[1]. These petitions are then forwarded to the concerned department for further action.  Citizens can also track their grievances using their petition number.

My experience with the online cell has been good. Despite repeated complaints by residents in my locality over many months, no action had been taken to repair the non-functioning street lights in my neighborhood. The departmental store at the end of the street was the only source of light at night. Recently, I heard about the CM online cell and decided to file a petition. The process was quite straightforward and clear. Two days after I filed my petition, I had two officials come home to enquire about my complaint. I pointed them to the non-functioning street lights, and they were fixed within 24 hours.

Encouraged by the prompt action taken, a month later, I filed another complaint about the non-scheduled power cut in my neighborhood. After a week, the issue was sorted, but I wasn’t sure if this was as a result of my petition, so I tracked my grievance online. The status of my petition read that the problem was because the transformer was under-powered and that to address it, the voltage had been increased. I was quite thrilled because immediate action had been taken against complaints made, and because trouble had been taken to provide an explanation as to why the problem had occurred in the first place. This seemed to me as quite a transparent process from start to finish.

I’m not sure how many people in Tamil Nadu are aware of this e-grievance redressal system. This seems promising because one can complain about the frequent civic issues cropping up in slums; such as drainage leaks, poor sanitation facilities, etc. One hopes that they will be addressed, because otherwise, conventional methods such as appealing to the councilor and various engineers may not yield fast results for slum dwellers. Moreover, the degree of success of such systems depends on if and how the poor are benefitted. Nevertheless this is a promising start.

Written by Aishwarya Balasubramanian, researcher, Transparent Chennai


[1]Petitions can otherwise be filed directly at the CM Cell in the Secretariat.

A review of slum interventions in the city

The slums team at Transparent Chennai is supporting the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in preparing a report for the State Planning Commission to assess the impact of all kinds of interventions into slums in the city. The goal is to identify the strengths and weaknesses in each approach – be it in situ development or relocation – to make possible recommendations to the government on future interventions.  This study becomes relevant against the backdrop of schemes like the JnNURM and the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), through which crores of rupees have been made available for developing housing and basic services for the urban poor.

We at Transparent Chennai have been working on 3 case studies

1)      In situ slum development at Sastri Nagar, Pulianthope

Sastri Nagar in Pulianthope was once vacant land occupied by people from different parts of Chennai. Under the Slum Improvement Programme (SIP) and as a part of MUDP part 1, Sastri Nagar was one of 77 slums that were developed in situ by the TNSCB. The 530 beneficiaries received Rs. 6,000 to build their houses. Basic services such as sewerage connections, roads, water, etc. were also installed.

2)      In situ tenements on Ekambaram Pillai Street and Munusamy Pillai Street,  Ambedkar Paalam, Mylapore

The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board built tenements with water and sanitation facilities for residents of slums on Ekambaram Pillai Street and Munuswamy Pillai Street in the Ambedkar Paalam area. People got these tenements on lottery basis. Those who did not get houses in the tenements were given measured plots within the site to build their houses.

3)      Sites and services at Muthamizh Nagar, Kodungaiyur

Muthamizh Nagar in Kodungaiyur which was developed by TNHB as part of the Sites and Services scheme is an integrated site with water connections and toilet facilities. About 70% of the houses on the site are for those belonging to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS).

Preliminary observations from the field visit:

Among the three sites we studied, the Sites and Services project at Kodungaiyur alone was a relocation scheme: people from various parts of the city moved to this area. Most of the residents whom I spoke to said that owning a house was a dream come true for them. This scheme, which gave people plots with sewerage and toilet facilities, also allowed people to build houses as per their requirements as and when they can afford it. In addition to the land, people were also given loans to build their homes, which were very helpful because they might not have met the requirements of a bank in order to take a loan at that time, when they only possessed an allotment letter and did not own a fully built house against which they could take a loan. Since people have built their homes, paid their full dues and obtained sale deeds, they are now eligible for bank loans, and have become creditworthy.

The huts in Sastri Nagar, Pulianthope were developed as-is-where-is, and people were provided with Rs. 6000 to build their houses. Most people I spoke to said that this sum of money was insufficient to build a house, and had to additionally borrow money from lenders. The houses measure 10×8 and look very cramped; however, most people have managed to build first and second floors for their own use, or for rental income.  Moreover, from the interviews we also found out that almost no one in Sastri Nagar possesses a sale deed due to incomplete payment of dues. Most people also do not know how to go about obtaining one (although five people have somehow managed it), and thus are unable to take loans against their houses.

The tenements in Ambedkar Paalam also measure 10×8, but there is no scope for expansion of the house. At first, the houses had individual water connections, but later, the connections became defunct. Hence now, people have to draw water from the common water pumps on the ground floor. Residents living in the top floors are facing a difficulty of climbing up and down with pots of water every day. Aged people also find it tough. Pattamma, a 60 year old resident of this area recently moved from her tenement in the 4th floor to a shack in the area for rent as she was finding it hard to climb up and down the stairs. None of the people here have obtained their sale deeds, as they are all still paying their dues. They feel that the individual plots given to people who lost the lottery are much better than the tenements as there is a scope for customization and expansion of the houses, and the potential to get an individual water pump per house.

From my observations and interviews so far, beneficiaries of the Sites and Services scheme seem to be doing better than people in other sites in terms of upward mobility. The site has witnessed tremendous development with land costs going up multifold since the scheme. The children of many of the residents we spoke to possess college degrees and are now in salaried employment in private companies. Sale deeds have given people tenure security as well as financial security. Though this is a relocation scheme, it was voluntary, so there was none of the trauma associated with forced relocation. This suggests that relocation itself is not a bad idea. It depends on who benefits from it (in this case, tenants who voluntarily moved here), and how the site is developed: whether it provides access to basic services, good education and livelihoods, etc.

Under RAY, it is important to plan slum development programmes depending on the pros and cons, and successes and failures of past schemes, which is what we attempt to do in this study. These are only preliminary observations and analyses: an examination of all the completed case studies, as well as case studies from elsewhere in the country and the world, will throw more light on what type of recommendations can be made to the government on future programmes in slums.

Written by Aishwarya Balasubramanian, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Passport for suburban trains

Recently, I took a train from Nungambakkam to Guindy. I had been travelling by train only for about a month at the time, and was a first-time season ticket user. I was stopped by a ticket collector at the Guindy railway station. After I showed her my season ticket, I was asked to show my original ID proof. When I told her that I wasn’t carrying my ID, she said my ticket is invalid. She then directed me to her colleague in the station master’s office. I was asked the same questions. I tried to explain to the ticket collector that I wasn’t aware that my ticket was invalid without an original ID proof. The ‘Guidelines to Passengers’ printed on the back of the ticket also do not mention the ID. The ticket collector told me that it is not her responsibility to tell the passenger that a season ticket is invalid without an ID proof. She asked me to pay a fine of Rs.225 or wait until 7 pm to go to court with the policemen in the station.

I was doubtful whether the fine amount of Rs. 225 was fixed by the authorities or not, until I found a board inside the station master’s office which had information on the fine amount. However, this board was not visible to all the passengers, but only to those very few who are taken to the office anyway to pay the fine.
I had called my father asking him to bring my ID proof. It was 5 pm and the ticket collector had to go home, so she asked her colleague to deal with me. At around 5:20 pm, while my dad was still stuck in traffic, the other ticket collector also had to leave and so, she asked me to go home. She emphasized again that I need to carry my original ID proof and that even a photocopy of my ID will not be accepted.

So we live in a place where there are enough rules and penalties but information on the same is not easily available. Is it not the responsibility of the ones who make these rules to ensure they are easily available to the public? How can the public get to know about these rules after being pulled up for not following said rules? However, now that I know that season ticket + original ID proof makes my travel valid or legitimate, it is my responsibility to carry it. But who may want to take the responsibility for not printing these guidelines on the ticket and for not making such information easily available to the public?

Situations like these, however, vindicate my reasons for working at Transparent Chennai, and for believing in the need for data to be open and transparent. In order for us to be law-abiding citizens, the law must be made open and accessible for us.

Written by Aishwarya Balasubramanian, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Slum eviction plans in Chennai sparks protests

Close to 150 people gathered near the Tamil Nadu State Guest House, Chepauk on April 9, 2013 to oppose slum eviction in Chennai. People from various slums, including Annai Sathya Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Otteri, and Kasimedu, and other community groups assembled around 11 am.

According to residents, the proposed upcoming riverfront development project and other road development projects will likely displace people from these slums where they have lived for several decades. People at the protest told me that though they have been living in their current locations for so many years, they still do not have access to basic facilities like good drinking water, electricity, ration card, and also the land ownership documents. Moreover, residents believed that a few slums in Chintadripet, Pudupettai were burnt by officials so that slums could be removed. In addition, tsunami victims of Besant Nagar who were already deprived of the disaster and calamity relief schemes are also being forced to move far away from their source of livelihood.

All of the displaced people will be moved to resettlement colonies in Thoraipakkam, far from their current residences, places of work, schools, etc However, demand for alternate housing settlements within the city and in close proximity to schools and their work place has gone unheard.

During the protest on 9th April, 2013

The people at the protest told me that every successive election campaign brings politicians to their doorstep begging for votes in return for promises of getting them legal documents of land ownership. But they are still waiting and hoping to get those promises fulfilled.

Written by Aishwarya Balasubramanian, intern, Transparent Chennai