5 things I learnt at the Corporation of Chennai

1. AE2 is not an algebraic formula

If you visit the Corporation of Chennai, you are bound to hear mentions of and references to ‘AE2’. You will hear officials talk about how the AE2 can accomplish any administrative task: calculations of the exact water and cement ratio required for construction work, generation of charts to monitor the progress of work, checks on the quality of reinforced cement concrete, and also the finalisation of tenders and issue of work orders. I used to wonder what mathematical formula could crunch figures for such a broad range of administrative tasks and how the city would function without the magical AE2!

It was only when I was more familiar with the workings of the Corporation of Chennai did I learn the truth. The AE2 is not an algebraic formula but a public servant! AE2 is Corporation slang for Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE), an engineer who is responsible for a variety of tasks that include conducting surveys of the site, preparing budgets for the construction of new assets, getting these budgets sanctioned, giving out contracts, monitoring the work of contractors and paying their bills.

2. Putting in on paper

Increasingly, local governments are being pushed to migrate from papers and files to “e-governance” systems, or software solutions that simplify and streamline work flows so that government officials can allocate their time wisely and be more efficient at work. In fact, funding from schemes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) are contingent on local governments implementing certain e-governance reforms that include basic citizen services, revenue earning services, efficiency improvement services etc. Unfortunately, not all government officials at the Corporation of Chennai are familiar with computers and the internet; many prefer to print out citizens’ complaints from various different e-governance software solutions and deal with these on paper.

In this context, what is most useful for officials are not ready made software solutions that skirt around their real problems, but just plain old stationary in new innovative avatars. For instance, the Corporation of Chennai uses files that have two flaps – a red flap and a green flap. These flaps are positioned, depending on the urgency of the contents in the file. Files with documents that require urgent attention have the red flap on top; and those that do not require immediate attention have the green flap on top. These files travel the corridors of Ripon building, and are a visually powerful means for officials to identify pressing issues and address them.

Pictures of the file with the ‘urgent’ and ‘not-urgent’ flaps.

3. The extent of informal knowledge and its use

Data at the Corporation of Chennai is of poor quality, has significant gaps and is not in formats that can be easily used and accessed, an issue we have discussed earlier. The processes employed to collect data and maintain databases are often dubious and the data is rarely verified for accuracy. It is no wonder then that officials do not rely on this unreliable data for planning new projects for the city. Instead they depend on their exhaustive informally-held knowledge of the city – knowledge that has been acquired from years of experience of being a street-level bureaucrat in Chennai.

Most officials insist that they “know” their work and the city’s landscape, and take decisions about new projects based on this informal knowledge. For instance, one official in the Bridges department said that bridges were repaired when the officials felt some “uncomfort level”. Another official in the Storm Water Drains department said of contractors that had been blacklisted for irresponsible work: “We have an idea about blacklisted contractors, but it is not a physical list. We all know which contractors are blacklisted and which are not”. A senior official succinctly summarized this reliance on informal knowledge: “all the documentation is in the junior engineer’s head”.

4. The role/rule of consultants

Possibly because data is so scanty and cannot be used for planning, or the inadequacy of human resources, the Corporation of Chennai relies heavily on consultants to prepare their project proposals and reports.

However, relying solely on the reports of consultants has attendant problems. For instance, consultants working with different departments and projects do not always coordinate with each other to ensure that the plans they draft and the solutions they propose are in harmony. Also, many officials agree that consultants often come with ready-made solutions, but little understanding of the problem. But what is most disturbing is the general acceptance that what a consultant says is gospel truth. Many government officials do not remember why they are constructing an asset or what purpose it will serve. All they know is that a consultant said it was required.

5. Coordination between departments

Coordination is a difficult task in general, but especially for such a large and complex organisation like the CoC. Each department performs a very specialized task and is required to coordinate with several other government departments to get work done. In fact, the task is so daunting that many officials and departments prefer to ignore it.

For instance, it is the responsibility of the Solid Waste Management department to construct roads at its dumpsites to ensure that their sites are navigable. Interestingly, the Roads department is not contacted when these roads have to be built, and the Solid Waste Management department directly palms out the task to a contactor. While many argue that constructing roads in a fragile environment dump is a very specialized task, few question why the Roads department is bypassed in the contracting out of roads! Is it really easier for departments to work directly with contractors than for them to coordinate with other departments at the Corporation?

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Mapping and the municipality

How can a municipal body plan for new public toilets in the city when it does not have adequate information about the location and condition of existing toilets, and does not have the time to physically survey 426 square kilometres of its territory in a matter of days? In lieu of a physical survey, Transparent Chennai proposed the next best alternative – a virtual mapping of the locations of existing toilets and identifying space for proposed ones. The Corporation of Chennai is planning to install prefabricated toilets in the city but it does not have the information it needs to make informed decisions on issues such as where to locate toilets, how many toilets the city needs, and the type of users the toilet should primarily cater to. The data created during this mapping exercise has the potential to change the way the Corporation works – from its usual “fire fighting” problem-solving mode, to a less frenzied and more considered view of how best to plan for the city.

Over three weeks, nearly all the 200 junior engineers (JEs) in the city streamed into our office armed with lists containing addresses of existing and proposed toilets, and paper maps of their wards. Using Google Engine Lite, they marked the locations of the existing toilets with placemarks and added descriptions to each toilet point as well – how many seats the toilet had, whether it was being used, or whether it had gone to cede and was slated for demolition. Adding the location of the proposed toilets was not so simple. The JEs had some spirited discussions amongst themselves and there was some back and forth with their colleagues in field to resolve various issues like whether there would be space for the proposed toilet, whether it was too close to a place of worship and whether there would be any objection from the public. After the exercise, we downloaded the KMLs from Maps Engine Lite, converted them into shapefiles and then – voila – prepared some maps!

Image 1: Map of the location of existing and proposed toilets in Zone 9

During this exercise, the problems with municipal data and the way the municipality functions became all too apparent. For instance, the list of proposed locations for toilets was created sometime ago and the officials who had contributed to the list have since been transferred to other posts. The current group of JEs were not all aware of this list and had a slightly different view of where, if at all any, new toilets should be constructed. They were not aware of the design of the new toilets and had the standard design of CoC toilets in mind when estimating space availability. There was also no clarity on the methodology and criteria used to draw up this list of proposed locations for toilets. Interestingly, many toilets that were in the list of existing toilets existed only on paper but had been demolished in reality. This list was not updated with the latest information and this is probably why the sum total of toilets in Chennai changes from day to day (Table 1). What I found most interesting was that some JEs were reluctant to propose new toilets because they did not want to add the maintenance of the new infrastructure to their list of responsibilities!




Newspaper reports (here and here)


Informal discussion with reporters


Informal discussion with Corporation officials

Table 1: Several estimates for the number of public toilets in Chennai

Our mapping methodology had some glitches too – our internet connection failed several times, and Google Streets basemap was not very accurate. Many small streets were absent from the map, some roads meandered in the wrong direction and slums were often depicted as grey areas with no detail. Many JEs, particularly those working at the periphery of the city, had trouble finding landmarks to navigate through their wards. In sharp contrast to this, the paper maps that they had for reference were very detailed and came in handy. Many JEs had added details like sewer lines, lamp posts, manhole covers and other details with pens of different colours. These maps, if scanned and digitised could form a basemap of Chennai that is rich in information and locally prepared. Perhaps this is what we can do to create a repository of data about the city that can be used for the planning and monitoring of all civic services in Chennai.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

The state of the state

I recently visited a ward office near Mylapore to further my understanding of how public toilets in the city are maintained and managed. I had a list of pertinent questions on toilets (who is responsible? how are funds sanctioned? how is water supply provided? what happens when the sewer is blocked?) and was determined to get them all answered by officials at the ward office. The ward officer patiently responded to my barrage of questions, despite a motley crowd of contractors, assistants, potential beneficiaries, and workmen, all vying for his attention. Our conversation was interrupted several times – workmen reported that they had cleared some area of debris, there was some heated discussion about whether an estimate submitted on the Corporation’s e-governance system would be approved, and an old woman, presumably a potential beneficiary of some scheme, was speedily dispatched to another office.

When I left the office, some of the ward level officials were drinking their afternoon tea under the trees. One of them called out just as we were leaving and asked me to look around. There was no toilet on the premises, he pointed out. In fact, not only was there no toilet, there was no room to change clothes and no place to store food, he said. The ward office certainly lacked infrastructure – it had only one small room for the Assistant Engineer and a corrugated tin sheet-like structure for the Conservancy Inspector. There was a yellowing washbasin and a cracked mirror in one corner, but no toilet in sight. Remember I had only just presumptuously badgered the official about public toilets in general, without realizing that the very office I was sitting in couldn’t boast of one.

While the municipality attempts to execute several large scale infrastructure projects for the city, it should take itself a little seriously and consider upgrading its own infrastructure as well. For instance, Ripon building, the Corporation of Chennai’s head office, has no space for citizens to park their cars, bikes, or cycles. One has to circle the premises like a bird of prey, slyly registering when someone comes in and is about to claim a precious parking slot, or is leaving and frees one. However, the Corporation is all set to upgrade parking spaces in the city. Apparently, parking infrastructure, if upgraded and advertised on can generate handsome revenues, one official informally said. And, while we advocate for basic services for the city, it is important that we recognize that these services often need to be extended to the people who implement government policy at the lowest level –ward officials.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

SMIFfing it out

Little is known about the Sustainable Municipal Infrastructure Financing – Tamil Nadu (SMIF-TN), a project that was launched in 2008 and under which a whopping Rs.500 crore has been made available to local bodies in Tamil Nadu. The project, which is slated to end this year, is being managed by the Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Limited (TNUIFSL). The SMIF-TN provides capital grants and project funding to eligible municipalities. One of the criteria for municipalities to be eligible for funds is significant. It states that more than 20 percent of project beneficiaries must be from the urban poor – people living below the poverty line. [1]  While this is an enabling provision in a funding programme, a preliminary scan of internet resources has revealed there is almost no information on how this scheme has been implemented.

Here is what I have managed to glean: the outlay under the SMIF-TN was divided into three components – Rs.422 crore was earmarked for the financing of urban infrastructure projects, Rs.13 crore for strengthening technical capabilities of municipalities and Rs.65 crore for a water and sanitation pooled fund. (See Table 1).

SMIF-TN Phase 1 (In crore)
Financing of Urban Infrastructure Loan to ULBs 271.20
Financing of Urban Infrastructure Capital Grants to ULBs 150.80
Technical Assistance Grant 13
Water and Sanitation Pooled Fund 65
Total 500

Table 1: Components of the SMIF-TN

Under the terms of the programme, municipalities can use these funds for water and sewerage projects, municipal solid waste management, storm water drains and urban transport infrastructure. To apply for a grant, municipalities have to submit applications through the Commissionerate of Municipal Administration or Commissionerate of Town Panchayats with a council resolution, detailed project reports and also details of the targeted low income population and the expected impact on their living standards.[2]

There seems to be no comprehensive list of projects funded by the SMIF-TN, and neither is there a list of municipalities that have accessed these funds.[3] All we know is that the capital grant component of the SMIF-TN has been committed to 13 projects, and is being disbursed periodically based on the progress of projects. A sector-wise utilisation of funds, that I chanced upon in the policy note of the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department (MAWS) is presented in the table below. From the table it is clear that underground sewerage schemes have been sanctioned the most amount of money (38%) under the programme. Also, a large percentage (89%) of project costs of roads and storm water drains were met by loans and grants under the SMIF-TN.

  Sector Number of Projects Project Cost Loan Sanctioned Grant Sanctioned Total Sanctioned
1 Under ground sewerage schemes 2 244.89 83.45 78.54 161.99
2 Water Supply schemes 8 188.20 90.33 56.26 146.59
3 Roads and Storm Water drains 3 67.64 44.87 16.0 60.87
4 Briges 1 162.51 52.44 0 52.44
  Total 14 663.24 271.09 150.80 421.89

Table 2: Projects funded under SMIF-TN
Source: MAWS policy note – 2011-20212, Accessed June 26, 2013. http://www.tn.gov.in/maws/municipal_administration.pdf

So here are some of the issues with the SMIF-TN: Since, there is no information on the implementation of the project, it is impossible to ascertain how these projects have benefitted the urban poor. Or how they are even related to the urban poor? For instance, do the projects under the water and sanitation sector increase coverage to low income areas or provide subsidies? If the projects are being implemented in slums, then are these declared or undeclared?

Some internet trawling has revealed that in Chennai these funds are being used to clean up 29 lakes. A newspaper article mentions that one important challenge to this clean-up mission is going to be the removal of encroachments from the banks of these lakes.  It is likely, that the urban poor who live along the banks will be evicted.  But since the DPR is not available, it is difficult to say what the procedure for eviction, resettlement and rehabilitation will be. And anyway, how is this particular project – the cleaning of lakes –  going to ensure that 20% of its beneficiaries improve their standard of living? By contributing in a very general way to a cleaner environment for all citizens?

Clearly, too much about this programme is unclear. While there have been controversies about how big budgeted schemes like the JnNURM and UIDAI have been implemented, at least these schemes are committed to sharing data on implementation with civil society.  The SMIF-TN phase II was launched recently, with an outlay of 578 crore. Let’s hope that this time around we know where the money goes and how it is used.

[1]TNUIFSL Website, Accessed 26 June 2013, http://tnuifsl.com/gf1kfw.asp
[2]Ibid, Accessed 26 June 2013, http://tnuifsl.com/gf1kfw.asp
[3]From government orders, some of the municipalities that have accessed funds under the SMIF-TN include Pallipalayam, Villipuram, Tiruchirapalli, Panruti, Erode, Tirunelveli, Tirrupur, Thanthoni, Kadayanallur.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chen

Notes from a Workshop

What is the precise meaning and the implications of term “informal”? – this is one of the questions that kept cropping up during a workshop called Paradigm shifts in housing: informality and incremental housing in Delhi, organised by micro Home Solutions and the Centre for Policy Research. Turns out, there are too many answers. The debate on this issue was intense, sometimes circuitous, and almost always came back to the issue of how citizenship, access to services and finance were linked to land ownership, title and super-secure tenure. One of the few things that remained constant through the debate was the fact that although the informal sector contributes massively to the economy of cities, they live between the interstices of the law, with poorly defined rights and hopelessly inadequate access to services.

On the one hand, Rahul Srivastav and Matias Echanove from URBZ confronted this debate by throwing it out altogether. They rejected the dichotomy between the formal and the informal, argued cities were incredibly complex and that settlements were impossible to define. On the other hand, others argued that skirting around the issue was not a constructive way to approach the question of informality, and that informal settlements had to be brought under some formal governance system. Moreover, what is considered to be formal – adhering to rules and regulations – is often not purely formal. Rules are pliant, blind eyes are turned and dubious transactions occur almost routinely in the corridors of power. Summarising the debate into three neat positions – accept, ignore or support, which served as a convenient analytical framework but did not ultimately address the question at hand.

The sessions at the conference were on themes ranging from access to municipal services, inclusive development and decentralised solutions to innovation, microfinance and disaster preparedness in slums and informal settlements. These sessions illustrated that answers to this debate are not in definitions themselves, but in their implications. For instance, the session on microfinance made clear that even though there were a slew of schemes targeting the urban poor, all of them require primary collateral: the ownership of land or property. Access to basic services like water and sewerage also seemed to be contingent on this. Transparent Chennai’s workshop on subsidised water and sewerage connections for the economically weaker sections revealed that households had to have some rights over the land and property to be eligible for the scheme.

The title of the conference suggested that the alternative to large scale resettlement colonies may be in incremental housing and self construction. While this may be one strategy to “address” the “informal”, I think that this shift must also include a commitment to divorce or delink municipal services from land and property rights.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

The EWS Scheme: A ready reckoner

The EWS (Economically Weaker Sections) scheme provides subsidized water and sewer connections to economically weaker households. It was launched in 2008 by the then Local Administration Minister M.K Stalin. When it was rolled out, the scheme was expected to benefit 48,000 households in the city.[1] Under it, applicants could avail of water and sewer connections at connection charges of Rs. 100. Without a subsidy, these connection charges would amount to Rs. 7500.

Economically Weaker Sections are defined as households that earn less than Rs.1 lakh per annum. [2] To be eligible for the scheme, the household must have a built-up area of up to 500 sq meters and the applicant some form of address proof. Another eligibility criterion involves the applicant submitting letters to the Revenue department of the Corporation of Chennai and the Finance department of the Metrowater Board seeking the levy of property tax and the calculation of water and sewerage tax. Water connections are awarded at a concessional rate only if the applicant has a functioning sewer connection.[3] Water connections are awarded for hand pumps, and sewer connections for water closets.

The application form is free, available online and also at the Metrowater area offices. [4] The procedure to apply for a EWS connection is the same as that for any water or sewer connection. A one page application form that requires information about the legal status of the applicant, the type of connection and some contact details has to be completed. Also, documents like CMDA or Corporation of Chennai sanctioned plans, notice for assessment of property, registration number of sewer application and proof of having paid taxes and charges, address proof etc have to be enclosed with the application.

And then?
The completed application form and enclosures have to be submitted at the registration counter at the utility’s head office in Chintadripet. The fees for the connection have to be paid through a challan.[5] The applicant is supposed to receive an acknowledgement slip and a registration number after which the application is forwarded to the concerned area engineer. If all goes well, the applicant will have a water and/or a sewer connection within 30 days from the date of registration.

In slums and informal settlements, property rights are often difficult to define and hence EWS applications from these areas are possibly difficult to process and award. Slums have not been declared by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board since 1985. So, several slums are not “official” and do not have formal access to basic municipal services. Needless to say, access to water in these slums is hopelessly inadequate. A survey of 242 “undeveloped” slums in the Corporation of Chennai’s earlier boundaries revealed that the slums had to rely on public taps, wells and water tanks. On an average the number of persons dependent on a water point was found to be around 620, far higher than the norm of 75.[6]

The application form also requires the applicant to sign a declaration which states: “Our street is having water/sewer main, hence I am applying for water/sewer connection”. Clearly then, the scheme cannot be implemented in areas like slums and informal settlements, as they are inadequately served by the utility’s network.

Also, while the scheme is known as the “100 rupee connection”, like all things too good to believe, there is fine print. Only the connection charges amount to Rs.100 and there are other charges like material costs. Material costs amounting to Rs. 350 have to be paid wherever Metrowater has laid a sewer up to the compound wall of the premises. Also, the applicant has to pay extra road cut charges if the road has been newly laid. After the connection has been awarded, the applicant has to pay Rs. 50 per month for a dwelling unit as water and sewer charges. [7]

So far?
Not so good. From Metrowater’s data, it looks like the scheme has had a very variable impact. Based on data from an RTI, 48 out of 128 do not have any EWS water and sewer connections.[8]

The EWS scheme requires that an applicant have a sewer connection to be eligible for a water connection. However, in 42 wards there are more water than sewer connections. Strangely, these wards are concentrated in only four Metrowater areas.

Clearly, the data leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, how is it that some wards have one EWS connection while others have 450? What explains the disproportionate number of water to sewer connections in some wards? An in-depth study into the EWS connection is required to understand how the Board translates its mission of contributing to the health and quality of life of citizens of Chennai into reality for low-income residents.

[1] Water Connection for at Rs. 100 for underprivileged launched” , The Hindu, 10 September, 2008, accessed 3, June 2013, http://www.hindu.com/2008/09/10/stories/2008091059570300.htm
[2] Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, “Revision of Income Ceilings for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) and Low Income Group (LIG)”,accessed 3 June, 2013, http://mhupa.gov.in/W_new/EWS_OFFICE_MEMORUNDUM_14_11_2012.pdf
Concessions in Sewer and Water Connection Charges for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS), Chennai Metrowater, accessed 3 June 2013, http://www.chennaimetrowater.tn.nic.in/rti/rti_Reg_EWS.htm
[4] Citizen Charter, Chennai Metrowater, accessed 3 June 2013, http://www.chennaimetrowater.tn.nic.in/public/charter.htm
[5] A challan is a form that is filled to make a payment.
[6] Indian Resources Information & Management Technologies, Limited, “Chapter 6: Demand-gap assessment of environmental infrastructure services and prefeasibility” in Pre-Feasibility Study for Identification of Environmental Infrastructure Requirement in Slums in Chennai Metropolitan Area, 110 (2005)
[7] Tariffs, Chennai Metrowater, accessed on: June 3rd 2013, http://www.chennaimetrowater.tn.nic.in/departments/finance/tariff.htm
[8] RTI filed with Chennai Metrowater on 19th October 2012

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Navigation by Sanitation

Finding your way in and around Chennai is no mean feat. Leave aside, for the moment the fact that traffic doesn’t move, it swims. It weaves its way very purposefully within and between lanes only to be marshalled into order by the next red light. Then there are a million “one-ways” – these are roads where traffic could move in two directions but have become unidirectional because of the exigencies of the Chennai metro. If you happen to turn onto a “one way” in the wrong direction, you may rest assured that the universe will conspire to mow you down. And then there is the phenomenon of a “free-left.” Depending on your ideology (pro or anti pedestrian) and your situation in life (in a car or on foot), they either exist or they do not. And to top it all if you lack a basic sense of direction and the inability to tell left from right, you are, like I often find myself, disoriented and/or lost and perpetually wandering.

This is how I felt, until I began mapping and surveying public toilets with Judith Sebo. Our experience at each public toilet was so incredibly varied that I slowly began to identify areas and roads by toilet type and the disposition of the toilet caretaker. I now base my sense of direction on my experiences in toilets rather than on hidden or broken signage. For instance, I know that I am close to Chennai City Center when I see the toilet where a caretaker brandished bottles of phenyl at us to prove that he cleaned the toilet at regular intervals. Then when I see the toilet where a drunken man accosted us and demanded to know why two girls were inspecting toilet pans, I know that I am close to the beach. The road that leads to Beasant Nagar is flanked on one side by a toilet with a steep ramp at its entrance. This is the only toilet we surveyed that is purportedly “disabled friendly”, but the ramp at the entrance is so steep that the toilet has to be summit-ed to be accessed. And, I know that I am nearing the famous Santhome Basilica when I pass the toilet that had several faux marble washbasins and even cans of liquid soap!

Signboards have failed to explain the city to me. If I followed the lane divider lines on the Adyar Bridge – the bridge has been widened but the divider lines remain the same – I would end up floating in the ‘fragrant’ Adyar River. In fact, maybe signs cannot adequately explain a city where the motor-ability of roads changes on an almost daily basis – because of convoys, cows, or construction projects. Municipal infrastructure like toilets, councillor offices and schools are so ubiquitous and so many people are dependent on them. I wonder why people don’t use these as their signposts in the city.

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Food for Thought

After an afternoon of kindly requesting officials at the Corporation of Chennai for data on basic municipal services, we stumbled upon the Herbal canteen at Ripon building. The food was absolutely delicious. While we had planned to sample only one plate of vadai, we found ourselves devouring two plates each. The canteen also seemed to be managed well, looked clean and hygienic and was very affordable. If the standard of the Herbal canteen is anything to go by, Amma canteens (comparable in terms of menu and price) are probably just as fabulous.

Enough has been said about the phenomenon that is the Amma Canteen. For instance, sample this, this, and this. The Corporation of Chennai is opening new canteens at breakneck speed. This programme, launched in February 2013 with 15 canteens, now has about 200 canteens in the city with one in every ward. [1] With a double-digit food inflation rate making essential food items unaffordable for many, these Amma canteens are a welcome alternative, especially for the urban poor. The food is healthy and nutritious: on the menu are items like herbal tea, sambar with assorted vegetables and ragi puttu. But what really are the hidden costs of Amma canteens?

Our field work at Transparent Chennai has unintentionally proven revelatory about what these canteens mean to the existing municipal infrastructure of the city. For instance, when we were mapping and surveying night shelters for the city’s homeless, a regular user of the Nandanam shelter on Chamiers Road told us that the Corporation was seriously considering converting that shelter to a canteen before they identified an alternate location. At another Corporation shelter for the homeless on Third Line Beach road we learnt that one dormitory had been converted into a canteen. In another instance, a typically devoted AIADMK councillor casually mentioned the pressure he was facing to open a canteen in his ward. We also noticed that a conservancy office in Alwarpet has recently been converted into a canteen. There was also an article about a public toilet in Thirumangalam that was renovated and converted into an Amma Canteen. The report states that the Corporation was in a hurry to open a canteen as soon as possible and this led to an allegedly unused public toilet being converted.

Spurred by the tremendous response the canteens have received from the public, there are reports that the government is considering opening them all over the state. This level of efficiency in the implementation of a government initiative is unprecedented and raises questions about why we do not see a similar drive and efficiency in other development programmes.

Another matter of concern is one raised by the renovation of existing public facilities to adapt them for a use other than their original purpose. This entails a significant cost, not just the actual costs of renovation but also the loss of important public buildings, such as libraries and even the Tamil Nadu Secretariat. Public infrastructure must be planned according to the need and demand for them by people who need them most. The possible difficulties involved in identifying and acquiring land in every ward for a canteen and the pressure on existing Corporation infrastructure may be very real. Yet allowing transient political priorities to supersede planning processes involve real costs too, costs that must be made a part of the cost-benefit calculation of any infrastructure and service initiatives.


Written by Priti Narayan and Vinaya Padmanabhan with inputs from Harsha Anantharaman, researchers, Transparent Chennai

Still Open Ended

Open data is “in”.[1] Only last week President Obama issued an executive order to make all US government data “open and machine readable”. Several national and city governments across the world have already been doing this for several years. In 2009, the US federal government started the trend when it launched its open data platform, following close on the UK government’s initiative. These open data platforms and initiatives are premised on the supposed benefits of open data: make institutions transparent, cities “smarter”, improve service provision, revolutionise economies and improve businesses, among others. However, my experiences at Transparent Chennai suggests that data is often a messy thing, and while opening data may have some benefits, we need to address problems with data in general before pushing for open data.

One of the principal problems with government data is that it is often not situated in the context in which it is created and used. For instance, one issue with existing data in Chennai is that it often excludes or under-represents the disadvantaged. One plausible explanation for this is that government data is created when there is an interaction between the state and the individual/society, and many communities and people – unintentionally or by design – have limited access to the state. Such an interaction creates a situation where data “under-represents those less likely to be part of data producing interactions”.[2]

For instance, in the case of slums in Chennai, it has been nearly three decades since the government of Tamil Nadu recognised new slums. Because many slums are not officially recognised or notified, they do not have formal access to basic municipal services, although communities in the slums have acquired some of these by informal means. Communities in non-notified slums interact with the state in a very limited and mostly informal way. Importantly, by not recognising non-notified slums, government agencies like the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board absolve themselves of the responsibility to develop them. The Census 2001, the country’s largest official data drive, similarly under-counted slum populations and emphasised the absence of large sections of the population in official records.[3] The demand to make such data open, without correspondingly emphasising on the quality of the data itself, can reinforce existing problems, many of which disproportionately affect the vulnerable.

A related problem is that existing data collection and storage processes are not immune to bias and often reproduce the social and political prejudices with which they were created. Numbers do not speak for themselves, often reproducing the biases with which they were created. A study in the city of Hyderabad revealed that that an assortment of crimes against women recorded by the Cyberabad police under the category “outraging the modesty of a woman”.[4] This category reproduces the patriarchal stereotype that women are supposed to be “pure” and “modest” and would most likely influence the interaction between police and victim. For instance, if a woman reporting a crime appears to be immodest, how do the police deal with her? Also, how do they record the crime committed against her and would they be impartial to the prejudices they harbour?

The push for open data is very real, but we need to take a step back to acknowledge and analyse the nature of our existing data and how it is created, collected, organised and stored. Clearly, several value judgements, biases and design considerations may skew datasets. While it has been argued that opening this data – even if it is of dubious quality – will allow for comment and analysis, it is important to recognise that such a policy may engender several attendant problems. One concern is that everyone cannot use open data in the same way. Large and unstructured data sets can be mixed together and analysed using software but this may be accessible only to large organisations and enterprises, and people with very specialised knowhow will be able to use such data, maybe even in a self-serving way. In other words, this differential suggests that open data is more open for some.

Another concern with open data is the privacy of the individual. While there are techniques to de-link data from individuals and make data anonymous, many scholars believe that there are significant risks of re-identification. For instance, many activists in India have objected to the UIDAI’s Aadhar project on the ground that it could violate people’s right to privacy. The project issues a unique identification number to all residents of India.[5] This number is linked to demographic and biometric information that will be used to target certain sections of the population for government services and schemes. However, biometric information is sometimes unreliable, there are serious concerns about sharing data with third parties and significant risks of hacking and identify theft. While the proponents of Aadhar claim that it may be the only way to effectively target the poor for schemes and services, there are others who caution that “the demand to trade-off one freedom for another, say the invasive loss of privacy for ‘development’, is an untenable demand”.[6]

While open data initiatives are multiplying, the concerns surrounding both data and open data need to be interrogated and addressed simultaneously. Open data may have the power to radically change governance but its success hinges on everything democracy hinges on as well: “functional institutions, the rule of law, political agency, and press freedom”.[7]

[1]Data is open if “… anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike”. See http://opendefinition.org/okd/
[2]Johnson, Jeffrey Alan, “From Open Data to Information Justice”, Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference (2013), Accessed May 7th 2013, http://ssrn.com/abstract=2241092
[3]The Census 2001 is reported to have undercounted slum populations. The definition of a slum adopted by the Census 2001 was limited and included only: “(i) All specified areas notified as ‘Slum’ by State/Local Government and UT Administration under any Act; (ii) All areas recognized as ‘Slum’ by State/Local Government and UT Administration which may have not been formally notified as slum under any Act; and (iii) A compact area of at least 300 population or about 60-70 households of poorly built congested tenements, in unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking in proper sanitary and drinking water”. See Census of India, (Provisional) Slum Population – Explanatory Note, accessed November 26 2012,
[4]Hyderabad Urban Lab“Examining Data Practices: The Cyberabad Metropolitan Police’s publicly accessible crime map”(2013), presented by Siddharth Hande at the Open data Camp, Bangalore.
[5]The eligibility criteria for Aadhar states that any resident, non resident or foreign citizen residing in India can apply for Aadhar. The Aadhar card is meant for establishing unique identity and not citizenship. See “My Aadhar Card”, accessed May 17, 2013, http://www.myaadhaarcard.in/eligibility-for-aadhaar/ and “UIDAI website”, accessed May 17, 2013, https://portal.uidai.gov.in/ResidentPortal/faqLink#aadharfet,
[6]R Ramkumar, “Identity Concerns” (2011) Frontline, accessed May 16th 2013, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2824/stories/20111202282400400.htm
[7]Howard, Alexander B. “The Best Thing Obama’s Done This Month: His executive order to open government data is a really big deal” (2013) Slate .http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/05/open_data_executive_order_is_the_best_thing_obama_s_done_this_month.html

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai

Toilet truths

During the course of our research on public toilets, I have come to accept certain unusual toilet truths. For instance, some toilets have more alcohol bottles than mugs or buckets. Also, encountering goats, chickens, dogs, cats and other assorted animals inside toilet cubicles is common. However, recently, I was caught off guard when we were surveying toilets in a park in north Chennai. I had to add a new toilet tale to my list: the denial of the existence of a toilet.

When we visited a park in a well-to-do neighbourhood in Chennai, many evening walkers seemed to deny the fact that there was a toilet in their midst. They were reluctant – nay embarrassed – to reveal that they used the toilet. Some people who we had seen use (enter and exit) the toilet insisted that they never entered the park toilet. Some young boys skating in the rink nearby eased themselves right outside the toilet despite a useable latrine in the men’s section of the toilet.[1] Their parents were overseeing their games and feeding them snacks, but strangely did not object to them not using the toilet. Many walkers had no complaints about the toilet even though the women’s section toilet was particularly dirty.

In contrast, the communities in slums we had visited were very concerned about the toilet. They complained at length about errant toilet caretakers – how they did not report every day, how they did not use phenyl to clean the toilet and how they took too long to address their complaints. They also lacked basic municipal services. There was no system for the disposal of solid waste from the toilet, there were too many mosquitoes in the toilets and water supply was erratic. Due to the lack of electricity connections in the toilet, children reportedly urinated in the passage because it was too dark inside the cubicles. Recently, some men from the slum had bought a light bulb and installed it in the toilet to address the lack of lighting. In another slum toilet, residents told us how they had tapped an overhead wire to provide electricity connections in the toilet.

Undoubtedly, people living in slums usually do not have access to private sanitation and are more dependent on a public toilet than park-goers. However, this does not explain the latter’s indifference to a public convenience. When it was available and when children needed to use a toilet – then why not use it? Also, this experience gave the lie to the middle-class notion that slum dwellers are responsible for “polluting” the city. It illustrated that it was possibly the other way around.

[1]Based on our public toilet survey on the February 21, 2013

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, volunteer, Transparent Chennai