Life in resettlement colonies in Chennai comes with myriad issues. Our wait for proper infrastructure, basic services, benefits and entitlements has been long and the fight has been hard.
My life used to revolve around my house in the Perumbakkam resettlement area. Even though I taught children from Classes 1 to 5 to read and write Tamil in our Reading Club, I was still confined to my household and managing its affairs. But as Community Champion, now my life revolves around the entire resettlement area, where I work to make the lives of people here better.
An experiential learning programme, Samaaj/Samugham 3.5%, launched by the NGO Indus Action aims to foster community engagement and leadership through the creation of Community Champions like me. The programme has community champions from four states- Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, and Odisha.
The learning programme conducted for a six-month period between September 2022 to March 202 focussed on community engagement and leadership to foster active citizenship among people.
The Community Champions focus on the first-mile delivery of rights-based schemes such as the Right to Education (RTE) 12 (1) (c) and Construction Workers Welfare Board (CWWB) schemes, Muthulakshmi Reddy scheme which comes under Right to Education, Livelihood and Food respectively to the community that we are engaging.
We help people know, understand and apply for these welfare schemes.
Working as a Community Champion in Perumbakkam
I came to know about this opportunity through my daughter’s Anganwadi teacher. Initially, I was very hesitant to apply, doubting my capabilities. But with some persuasion from the Indus Action team, I was able to see the benefits of turning into a Community Champion.
I attended an interview and interacted with people as part of the selection process. I was selected as one of three Community Champions from the Perumbakkam Resettlement Area along with two others who had been working to help persons with disabilities over the years.
Over the next six months, we interacted with over 200 individuals and government officials, apart from other stakeholders. We were equipped with technological skills and the knowledge of three rights – Food, Education and Livelihood.
We were trained to identify beneficiaries among fellow residents, provide awareness about some welfare schemes and help them out with application and documentation. This was part of our first-mile delivery work as Community Champions.
A major challenge was that I was initially unaware of how to approach residents to spread awareness about welfare schemes. As days passed, I understood how to tailor my communication to convey the benefits of the schemes to potential beneficiaries.
We initially started working on the RTE 12 (1) (c)- creating awareness among people on the 25% reservation of seats in private unaided schools for children from vulnerable sections. First, we reached out to the heads of the apartment blocks in our resettlement to gauge the level of understanding about RTE among people.
Subsequently, we visited schools and engaged with Anganwadis in the resettlement area to spread the word about the Act to parents of eligible children.
However, the process did not bear fruit as there is a lack of private unaided schools within a kilometre from our area, for parents to apply to as per the RTE Act.
This gravely affected the odds of our community children benefitting from the scheme.
Understanding E-Sevai centres in Perumbakkam
As part of the programme, we also studied the E-Sevai centres in a few places in Chennai for the Indus Action team.
We interviewed E-Sevai centre operators and citizens to understand their points of view about the usage and functioning of the centres. This activity made me understand the perspective of the E-Sevai operators and their challenges.
The operators told us that they were not financially stable and some centres had server issues or did not have some services like Aadhaar authentication to serve people efficiently.
While many E-Sevai operators are often blamed for the lack of proper service delivery, these interactions helped me understand the constraints faced by them.
Working on issue of Rights in Perumbakkam
We then decided to work on Right to Livelihood, since our resettlement area consists of many workers in the unorganised sector. They had not registered in the labour boards for access to welfare schemes like scholarships for children, marriage assistance, pensions, etc.
We started the process with construction workers and helped them apply for a labour card under the Construction Workers Welfare Board. To ensure their enrolment, we interacted with many unorganised sector workers, non-governmental organisations working in the space, as well as government officials in the Assistant Labour Commissioner office and Construction Workers Welfare Board office.
I also learnt about the Right to Food through one of our learning sessions as part of the programme. I interacted with pregnant and lactating women in our community about eating nutritious food as well as about learning the process flow of the Muthulakshmi Reddy scheme and how it can benefit them.
Learnings as Community Champion
As a part of our learning journey, we had a residential workshop conducted in Pune.
I travelled out of Chennai without my family for the first time to attend the workshop. Champions from four states gathered for the workshop, where we shared our life experiences and learnt from each other. We were also joined by other social sector organisations and individuals who shared their knowledge about community building. Looking back on the journey of Samaaj/Samugham 3.5% programme, I am amazed by how much I have learned and grown in six months.
In one of the sessions, we were asked to reflect on our personal identity and I came to the realisation that I have begun to see myself as a courageous woman.
My engagement with Samaaj/Samugham 3.5% has helped me gain an understanding of our rights. With this knowledge and confidence, I hope to be able to empower more residents in the community to access welfare schemes and other benefits that can improve our lives.
I hope to bring about lasting change in the community with continued efforts to make the RTE Act accessible and also help construction workers through the welfare board.