In the upcoming local body elections, many of the contesting candidates are individuals who have engaged in civic activism in the city over the years. Having witnessed the many civic issues in their locality, ranging from flooding to poor waste management, these socially active citizens have entered the fray with the hopes of making a big difference, given their deep understanding of issues in the ward.
One such candidate is Meenakshi Sundharam, a prominent activist from Manikam Nagar in Chromepet. He has worked on a number of issues in the area from lake restoration to rehabilitation of stray dogs. He has decided to run as an independent candidate in ward number 25, under the Tambaram Corporation for the urban local body polls taking place on the 18th.
In an interview conducted with Citizen Matters, he provided insights into the issues in his ward, the difficulties in transitioning into electoral politics, and the performance of previous councillors:
Why did you decide to stand for elections this time around?
If a country needs to run properly you should collect taxes and ensure that that money is put back into people. The people who are representing us should make sure this happens. It is obvious that this has not been done in the past, as crores of money have been misused by officials for projects that have not come full circle. An important priority of ours is that we don’t want bribery to be part of any of work we do.
Which ward are you currently running for, and which corporation does this fall under?
I am currently running for ward number 25 under the Tambaram corporation. Around 16 streets come under the ward and around 10,500 residents stay in this area. Around 16 people are contesting for the post of councillor in the ward.
Read more: Independent candidates to make a statement in the local body polls in Chennai
What are the issues you have worked on in the area?
Around 30 years ago, a Tamil medium school was constructed here. Till 2002 it was running as a school in the area. From 2002 they slowly started to shut it down partly because it was a Tamil medium school. I have been negotiating with the corporation to get the school open for 30 years. This is still ongoing.
There are around eight Eris in the Pallavaram area. Out of these 3 have completely dried up. One of these was the Nemmilichery Eri which falls under my area. This eri was 47 hectares (1 hectare being 5 acres) but it was reduced to 17 hectares. The area was going to be sold to construct houses in 2016. In order to carry on with construction the Kanchipuram collector at the time had said that the area wasn’t an eri.
We (Sundharam and many other neighborhood associations) went and showed the documents to the collector. The documents included historical records and measurements of initial extent. We proved that it was an eri. From 2016-17, I got in touch with businessmen in the area to pool in around 20 Lakhs, and in 2018, we dug the Nemmilichery Eri to start the restoration process. Currently the water is at 20 feet. I was part of getting the order to dig up the lake.
What are the long standing issues in your ward?
- Many cattle owners are leaving their cows loose, and are seen walking around on main roads. Pigs are also found on main roads.
- Many canals where sewer water is supposed to flow into, are not maintained. Rainwater canals are also not maintained. Underground sewer connections and gutters have a lot of blockages. The underground sewer connection schemes which cost around 2-3 Crores, have been implemented without much planning as sewage often overflows onto the roads. This happened in Kamakodi Road, for example.
- Lack of Metro Water connections: Most people in the area do not have metro water connections to their houses (Few have RO water connections, but most cannot afford this). One of the roads in my ward hasn’t had metro water connection for three years.
- Another problem is that the connection between Barathmatha Road and Sharadi Road has been closed for around 10 years, so that a college could be built there. This connection is actually a route for people to carry their dead bodies to nearby burial grounds. Due to the closure of the road, people have to carry dead bodies by going around this connection, which is an extra 2-3 kilometres.
- Garbage often collects on the roads as there is no place to temporarily dump the waste by workers. What happens is that waste gets dumped and burned on the 200 Feet Radial Road. Large amounts of waste have also been dumped in the Eris.
- GST Road (Grand Southern Trunk Road) often has an excess amount of traffic, with commuters being stranded for long periods of time (an hour or more) on the road.
- The Hastinapuram Bus Stand is very badly maintained with garbage often being dumped in the area, inadequate and unsanitary restrooms, and a lack of roofed sheds.
- Many roads have been built over eris in the area; The 200 Feet- Radial road is an example of this. The same way importance is given to roads and land, officials do not give importance to eris and water bodies. Reviving and preserving Eris, increasing greenery, engaging youth and senior citizens in these processes is an important part of our campaign.
Read more: Five reasons why it takes half an hour to travel a kilometre on GST Road
What are the solutions you could bring to these issues, if elected?
I would want to maintain proper accounts for all development projects. If any contractor that wants to develop a road, I will first and foremost ask for an account of the funds. Another key focus is that when people dig up roads to fix piping problems, the roads are often left as is. I will be following up on any road digging that takes place to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Waste segregation will be a priority. I will be doing door to door campaigning for waste segregation at the home level, so as to ensure easier collection. Handling of pigs and cattle will be done by mandating owners to keep them in a fixed area. For stray dogs, vaccinations will be provided. Reducing TASMACs and wine shops in the area is also a priority for us. For senior citizens, free checkups per month will be provided.
Since you have worked on getting patta for people in your area, what could be expect in this regard, if elected?
For those who don’t have patta, I will be speaking and campaigning to the Tehsildar by providing the number of people who haven’t received patta in their ward. Another priority is helping those who are living under Slum Clearance Board houses in the process of getting patta. A reason why getting patta is this difficult is because bribery regulates the process. We would like to carry this out without bribes.
What have previous councillors done to improve your ward?
Previous councillors haven’t come down and done much work. Garbage has often just been lying in areas even upto six months. This has happened in NGO colony, Chromepet. Projects to manage traffic have not been thought out too well. For example, below GST Road they are going to build an underground tunnel near Sarvana Stores.
The corporation has only allowed two wheelers and four wheelers to pass through. The councillor should extend this for heavy vehicles like buses, as this can reduce long distances traveled by a lot of people. Development projects have also been delayed for years for example, the underground tunnel in Radha Nagar, has been delayed for 10 years without much push from the corporation.
What are the challenges in transitioning into electoral politics?
The challenge will be that I would have to decide how to divide finances for different projects through consultations with residents. I haven’t been in charge of ward level finances (which can go up to 30 Lakhs) for various projects, when I was working as an activist.
When the corporation allocates funds for a particular project, I would want to take inputs from residents on how the money can be spent, the pros and cons for different projects and how long the implementation should take.
Indeed, such such a dedicated crusader is the need of the hour and wonder as to how many Meenakshi Sundaram can we spot these days…