“I’m 94 years and six months old,” emphasises Kamakshi Subramaniyan, who is busy preparing for her election campaign. Yes, the nonagenarian has filed her nominations for the upcoming local body polls for the post of corporation councillor. She will be contesting from ward 174, comprised of Besant Nagar and Adyar areas of Chennai.
Known fondly as Kamakshi paati among the locals of Chennai, she is also the co-founder of SPARK, a civic forum, started in 2012 with the aim of helping the citizens of the city to tackle civic problems. SPARK helps Chennaiites by guiding them in approaching the right officials, lodging complaints and ensuring that the problems are solved.
Kamakshi Paati will also have the company of two of her fellow members from SPARK, who will be contesting as independent candidates from the adjacent wards. 55-year-old Priya Rajshekhar will be contesting from ward 179 and 48-year-old Meera Ravikumar will be contesting from ward 173.
While admitting the fact that mainstream political parties like the AIADMK and the ruling DMK, who have been the two dominating powers in the state for decades, clearly have the upper hand in the polls, these independent candidates feel that the electoral participation of common citizens like themselves will send the message that citizens also have a say in matters concerning the development of their locality.
Read more: SPARKing a civic movement
‘Fed up of waiting for change to happen’
Citizen Matters caught up with the three women candidates from SPARK and the conversations conveyed the root cause that motivated them to stand for the post of ward councillor. They were all fed up with the delay and lack of accountability they have had to face from officials, when it came to solving issues in the wards, over the years.
“For years, we have been going after officials pleading for issues to be fixed. Instead of asking and depending on other officials to do something, I decided why not enter the system myself,” states Kamakshi, who states that she has been waiting for the last 10 years, since the last time Chennai had a local body polls, to get an opportunity like this. “Instead of complaining that this is not done and that is not done, I want a chance to actually work on it, along with getting more people involved in it,” she adds.
The same thought was reiterated by Priya, who also works as a director in her family business. She says that, for citizens like her, who are tired of waiting for development to take place in their wards, a chance to stand for the post of ward councillor allows them an opportunity to set things straight. “It’s not as if the Greater Chennai Corporation wasn’t doing anything but there was no accountability,” she says.
As active citizens, who have been involved in tackling the issues of the community, Meera, a resident of Adyar and a vocal advocate of clean and green neighbourhoods, says that if people have to bring actual change, getting into electoral politics is one way of bringing that change. “Also we wanted to give out the message of public participation in parliamentary democracy. Ordinary citizens coming forward to contest elections will definitely give out a positive message and help in strengthening our democratic system,” adds Meera.
Key issues to be addressed
When compared to parliamentary or assembly elections, where larger development issues become talking points, local body polls address the various basic issues that citizens have to deal with on a daily basis, such as poor conditions of roads, a lack of proper waste management system in their neighbourhood, faulty storm water drains, untidy parks and so on. And these are precisely some of the issues that these independent candidates also plan on addressing during their campaigns.
As far as ward 173 is concerned, Meera wants to work on improving the greenery cover of the ward and also help in improving the conditions of the existing parks. “I want to work on sustainable solutions for solid waste management and also work on preventing encroachments in public spaces”. Another prominent issue that needs to be addressed in her ward is with regard to the issue of clean drinking water, especially in low income areas. “I would also like to work on ensuring that social security and welfare schemes are availed by all the beneficiaries,” adds Meera.
In ward 174, Kamakshi Paati wants to work on improving the poor conditions of roads, prevent stagnation of water during monsoon, develop places of worship, schools, gyms and medical facilities in the ward. And in ward 179, Priya says that the issue of frequent power fluctuation, apart from all the other issues mentioned by the other two candidates, will be addressed.
All three candidates have said that the development of wards will only be done by consulting with the residents of the ward. “We do not want to undertake development activities that we want but what the people want,” says Kamakshi. For this, they will delegate individuals in charge of each locality in their wards who will report to them about the various issues that the residents of their locality are facing. They also plan on conducting regular ward sabhas, if they win.
Message to the people
The state capital of Chennai, like the rest of Tamil Nadu, has not had an elected local body council over the last 5 years. The administration of the city was monitored by a team of bureaucrats, led by a Corporation Commissioner, who is an IAS officer.
“The absence of ward councillors has created a gap between the people and the administrative system. A councillor is to a ward, what an MLA is for an assembly constituency. They are your immediate point of contact for solving neighbourhood issues and pushing welfare and development projects in your ward,” says Meera addressing the importance of the upcoming polls, which is scheduled to take place on February 19.
Reiterating the same thought, both Kamakshi and Priya say that the importance of this election is to let the residents know that they have power in their own hands and for that, they have to come out and vote for the candidate, who they feel can bring about the necessary changes in their wards.
“I want the residents to get involved in developmental activities in their area. If they find that a certain project is being undertaken in a flawed manner — for example, if road relaying is done without milling the road — they should be able to step in and say that this is not how it should be done and that they should not allow them to proceed with it. I want to create an awareness of our power, because it’s our money they are using for these projects,” says Kamakshi, who also adds that she is not worried about the results as the focus is on sending the message of the power of ordinary citizens.