Picture a gathering of residents from your neighbourhood where you can put forth all your grievances about civic amenities and services directly to the officials in charge. Area Sabha meetings are platforms for just this and more.
More than 12 years since the first steps were taken to improve citizens’ participation in decision-making in urban local bodies, Chennai held its first Area Sabha meetings.
How did these meetings go? Were residents able to raise matters affecting daily life and find solutions?
We attended one such Area Sabha meeting to find out.
Read more: Area Sabhas and Ward Committees: Power to the people or power with the officials?
Preparation for Area Sabha meeting in Ward 12
Area Sabhas are platforms that facilitate participatory planning. The Ward Councillor is the chairperson and the voters of the area are members of the Area Sabha. Every ward in Chennai has been divided into ten areas, with each area having its own Area Sabha. A Representative from each Area Sabha is selected to be a member of the larger Ward Committee.
With the framing of rules for Area Sabhas and Ward Committees and their ratification by the Council, Chennai can hold Area Sabha and Ward Committee meetings for the first time.
Ward 12 in Thiruvottiyur has begun hosting Area Sabha meetings, with Areas 9 and 10 taking the lead.
The Area Sabha meeting for Area 9 in Ward 12 was scheduled for 5.30 pm on April 15. Area 9 comprises Kavarai Street, Chetty Street and VOC 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Streets. The organisers expected an attendance of 300 residents.
K Raghu, the Area Sabha Representative of Area 9 in Ward 12, went door to door to invite all the residents of the area to attend the meeting.
“We told the residents that they can talk about issues faced by them such as bad roads or problems with electricity supply. Residents were also encouraged to suggest projects that can be taken up to improve their neighbourhood. They were informed that this is a platform where they can directly interact with officials.”
In addition to going door to door, the message about the meeting was also disseminated through social media and WhatsApp. An invitation with details about the venue and attendees was shared with the residents.
The Greater Chennai Corporation has allocated a sum of Rs 5000 for holding Area Sabhas.
An open car parking space was the venue for the Area Sabha meeting of Area 9.
“The owner of the space volunteered to allow us to host the Area Sabha meeting there for free,” said V Kaviganesan, Councillor of Ward 12.
The car park was cleared for the meeting and set up with LED lighting, speakers, projector, chairs, stage, carpet and three banners announcing the meeting.
Chairs and tables were set up at the far end for dinner to be served to the attendees.
Read more: Councillor talk: V Kaviganesan aspires for a zero-waste Ward 12 – Thiruvottiyur
Residents speak up at Area Sabha meeting
The start of the meeting was delayed by over an hour as the residents arrived at the venue only at 6.45 pm. The meeting was originally scheduled to start at 5.30 pm.
Around 130 residents, including 20 women, from the various streets part of Area 9 participated in the meeting. They were provided with a packet of biscuits and a water bottle before the start of the meeting.
While there was awareness about the meeting and its purpose, not all residents were enthusiastic.
A vegetable vendor right outside the venue said that she would not be attending the meeting.
“Maybe if my family members get off work by then, they may attend,” she said.
The Ward Councillor was in attendance along with officials from the Greater Chennai Corporation Revenue, Health and other departments. An official from the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), a Police sub-inspector of the division and an official from the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) were also present.
The meeting started off with a video of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin talking about the Tamil Nadu Municipal Laws (Amendment) Act, 2010 in the Assembly.
“The video was shown to establish that Area Sabhas and Ward Committees are legal structures of urban grassroots governance for people to make use of,” said the Ward 12 Councillor.
The floor was opened for the residents to raise grievances and make requests.
“I call upon all residents to start asking their questions to the officials, without any hesitation,” said Raghu, the Ward Committee Member representing Area 9. “Please state your name, the street you stay in and your problem.”
Residents of Kavarai Street spoke about poor-quality roads which were damaged only a few days after being laid. This damage to the road and potholes had led to waterlogging.
The residents noted their appreciation for the councillor in ensuring that the street did not flood the last monsoon. They also demanded an improvement in the quality of roads being laid.
“There is a Yoga centre in Kavarai Street. We teach people for free and many senior citizens make use of our classes. Due to bad roads, many people have stopped attending classes. We want proper roads laid,” said Vijayalakshmi, who is part of the Yoga centre.
Responding to the request by the residents, M Prakash, Assistant Engineer of GCC, said, “In the first phase, we will lay 60 metres of the road as part of the road maintenance project.”
“When the roads are laid this time, we will hear your opinions and work to lay better roads,” said the Councillor.
Attendees also spoke about garbage dumping by some residents leading to foul odour and mosquito infestation.
This problem was made note of by the Councillor who assured action.
Area Sabhas also allow room for residents to raise personal grievances.
Chandrakanth, a resident of the area, raised the issue of tax computation with the AE of the CMWSSB. “I am paying around Rs. 3600 as water tax. I am asked to pay my water tax as per commercial charges and not domestic charges,” he said.
The AE requested the resident to bring his water tax payment receipts and promised to address the issue.
Other grievances cited by the residents include lack of proper drinking water supply, delay in the removal of roadside garbage bins and poor street lighting. Residents also asked for public drinking water pipes in the streets.
Officials responded to the queries with the necessary information and assured follow-up and further action on the demands of the residents.
Residents encouraged to continue engagement with Area Sabhas
“We work for you and your taxes pay our salary. So, if you have any issues with electricity, please contact me immediately,” said the official from TNEB.
The residents were also reminded of their responsibility in ensuring their locality is clean and livable.
“If we have to remove garbage bins, you have to segregate waste and properly hand it to the conservancy workers,” urged Ward 12 Councillor Kaviganesan.
“We are glad that Area Sabha meetings are happening here and I hope they happen regularly. We are ready to help with the arrangement. I can even make PowerPoint presentations to show which civic issues were solved based on the previous Area Sabha,” said a resident.
The meeting ended with the presentation of mementoes to the officials in attendance. A dinner spread of idli, chapati and khichdi along with side dishes and a sweet was served on banana leaves for the attendees.
It is a welcome move that Ward 12 has begun organising Area Sabhas. The meeting provided residents with an idea of how they can be involved in local governance.
However, the process is not without issues. There are no guidelines regarding the procedure to be followed to hold Area Sabha meetings. Many Ward Councillors themselves have also requested additional training to effectively conduct Area Sabha meetings.
Standardising the process, providing a blueprint for officials and councillors to follow and fixing a time frame for holding Area Sabha meetings can all improve the efficiency of the platform.
This is a great way to involve residents in local governance and get their feedback on what is important to them. I hope this catches on in other wards as well.