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