The beginning of 2021 brought Perambur residents new hope as the work on the construction of a concrete median on Perambur High Road – North Side was taken up. The median had existed until 2015 and had been inexplicably removed. Since then locals have been engaged in efforts to reinstall the crucial median to improve road safety and avoid accidents. Residents of the area were very hopeful that the work would be completed before the April Assembly elections earlier this year. The work was almost nearing completion when it was suddenly stalled.
To local residents, it was clear that this had been done to serve the narrow and selfish interests of a select group — namely, a couple of auto drivers and a few commercial establishments — which had considerable political connections. It was obvious that the move was only to prioritise easy passage and access that would benefit the group, even though it was at the cost of road safety.
The story of this median in Perambur and the residents’ persistent but futile efforts to ensure its proper installation poses larger questions about the devolution of power and who actually controls civic work in our cities.
Long fight for the median
The work on the construction of the concrete median was taken up only after several petitions to the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), publication of several media reports, personal representations by the residents and extensive discussions, deliberations and follow ups with GCC officials. We are more than sure that the officials within the agencies concerned would have looked into all the pros and cons before calling for the tenders and awarding the contract.
Even after that long and sustained engagement, as residents and frequent users of the road, we are shocked to note that a development work taken up in larger public interest has been stalled to serve the selfish motives of a few. The work was also stopped abruptly, without any regard for the the fact that an incomplete median could end up being more dangerous than no median at all.
Escalations and follow ups on the median
Ever since the stalling of the construction prior to the elections, we have been in constant touch with the concerned officials and have escalated the matter to the office of the then Chief Minister. Our petition was accepted and we were informed that the work would be completed after obtaining police protection. Several months have passed since, there has been a change in the government and yet, work on the median is still to be resumed.
Since the construction was stopped all of a sudden, contractors abandoned the work one fine morning with things standing just as they did at that point. With no reflective sign boards along the median or at the points where it begins or ends, the divider became a serious safety hazard.
Several accidents have been reported along this median over the last couple of months. On August 25th, residents, who are part of a civic engagement group called the Community Welfare Brigade, received reports of an accident caused due to the incomplete median: a car had crashed into the side of the median and toppled over. Our worst fears were playing out in real time.
Given the seriousness of the situation, we continued to engage repeatedly with local officials, seeking their help. Following the road crash in August, when we escalated the matter to the officials of the GCC and Greater Chennai Traffic Police (GCTP), steps were taken to install reflective sign boards at all the crucial intersections and along the divider. A team of GCTP & GCC officials managed to get the reflective sign boards installed on a war footing.
While the quick action is appreciated by the residents, the reflectors would have served the purpose more effectively if they had been installed immediately after work on the partially-completed median was abandoned. A stitch in time would have saved the commuters from the accidents which occurred over the last few months.
Smooth transition of regimes necessary
When we sought help from the GCC and GCTP officials in resuming the work, they were very non-committal and suggested that we meet the state legislator for the constituency and get his clearance. Strange as it would seem, even higher officials within the ranks of the administration are not aware of the functions and responsibilities of the state legislators, whose clearance is not necessary to undertake such civic works.
Work started by erstwhile regimes have always been put on the back burner by succeeding governments. In the past, residents of Perambur endured a lot of difficulties when work on the controversial Murasoli Maran Bridge was stalled for several years by the ADMK government, before it was resumed and completed by the successive DMK government that had originally commissioned the bridge.
It is a very similar situation now. After nearly five years of relentless follow up we were able to get the erstwhile ADMK government to set the ball rolling on the construction of a proper concrete median. A median made of concrete blocks put in place by the earlier regime between Perambur Railway Station Main Gate and Venkatraman Canal Street on Perambur High Road was removed inexplicably before the 2015 elections. Our voices were heard only after we escalated the issue before the assembly elections earlier this year.
Separation of powers disregarded
It has always been a continuous and relentless process for us, citizens, to get the local administration to provide proper infrastructure, namely roads, footpaths, concrete medians, and also sewage, water supply, electricity and storm water drain networks. The government spends a large share of its budget on urban and rural infrastructure development projects. Whether it is related to road construction, electrification or the provision of drinking water, such projects create new opportunities for growth. But, they also create new opportunities for contractors, officials and local politicians to engage in corruption.
The works that fall under the ambit of the local administration, such as the installation of this median, face long delays due to undue political interference by legislators. The absence of an elected local body in Chennai since 2016 has also contributed to this issue. As there is no elected representative at the local level, the issues that should have been brought to the notice of the ward councillors by the local residents are now being placed before legislators. This results in unofficial consolidation of power that goes beyond what is constitutionally granted to them.
The story of the median highlights that as long as there is political interference in the affairs of the local administration, the democratic values of the country can never be upheld. The separation of powers in a democracy is to prevent abuse of power and to safeguard freedom for all.
Meanwhile, for any positive and meaningful change to occur, citizens from all walks of life must dedicate a few hours every week to “civic and social engagement”. Even as we, as responsible citizens of the Perambur area, try to find a long term resolution to the issue of the incomplete median, we are looking for suggestions from other engaged citizens who may be able to guide us to handle the situation in the best and most effective manner possible.