Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs) across Chennai have taken on various issues in their neighbourhood over the past few decades. While many of them work in a prescriptive role on matters such as beautification and waste management, in some instances over the recent years, they have expanded their scope of operations and stepped up to meet the needs of residents. One such example is that of RWAs getting involved in creating viable livelihoods and securing education and job opportunities for those in need in their neighbourhood.
The Pulianthope Welfare Assembly, previously known as the Thiru Vi Ka Nagar Welfare Association, has undertaken efforts to link residents with job opportunities. Their efforts have been crucial in light of the economic impact of the pandemic, and their intentions and operations have provided a blueprint for similar endeavours across the city.
Bridging the knowledge gap
Over the years, Pulianthope area had developed a reputation as a ‘dangerous’ and ‘unsanitary’ place, owing to heavy reporting of organised crimes in the areas that come under it. As a result of this stigma around the neighbourhood, many residents are denied work opportunities when their place of residence is disclosed. Even government loans and postpaid data connections are denied, when residents provide their address.
In order to help such residents gain some negotiating power within corporate, bureaucratic and legal settings, the RWA aims to act as a facilitator, and fight for their rights to basic amenities and services, says Selvaraj, Secretary of the Pulianthope Welfare Assembly. The RWA covers around 10 streets with 900 residents, mostly from low income backgrounds.
They connect people from a range of age groups in these areas to opportunities in work and education. The Assembly also helps bridge a significant knowledge gap among people in the neighbourhood, as many don’t know where to begin looking for jobs that match their qualifications and requirements.
“Many people here are unaware of what to do when it comes to looking for jobs. People also struggle with various documentation processes and legal terminology. Our role is to research. We research and hold meetings with the general public. If anyone has any queries about what should be done or if they need any assistance with securing the right documentation, we help with that”, says Selvaraj.
So far, they have matched residents with jobs as security guards, in domestic work jobs as well as in the IT sector. They have done so by networking with individuals working in the Human Resource departments of various organisations, who in turn send them notifications of vacancies. This information is then disseminated to residents via Whatsapp groups.
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Working with children
Working with children and securing opportunities for them via education and sports classes is another priority for these associations. The model in Pulianthope highlights how it aims to change the stigma around the area through education. The RWA arranges for sports classes, tuitions, and even scouts training for children.
Selvaraj mentions how helping build self confidence among children in the neighbourhood is important for their future livelihoods. “The scouts classes in particular aim to increase the self-confidence of the children in the area as it gives them practice in public speaking, which can help them with jobs in the future. We aim to change the reputation of Pulianthope by creating opportunities through education.”
They also aim to offer free or subsidized tuition for children attending government run schools as a priority in the near future.
Residents find strength in unity through RWAs
The residents, many of whom are aware of the Pulianthope Welfare Assembly, have mostly positive reviews.
S. Velankani, 46, who is employed with the Greater Chennai Corporation mentions how the Assembly has helped them fill online applications for jobs and has alerted people to vacancies via Whatsapp groups. “Before we had any organisation, we received no information about job vacancies. Not many people could read the paper and find work through that. Most of us were unaware of what opportunities were there. But with almost everyone getting phones, the sangam (Assembly) has been forwarding us vacancies almost everyday. They also register the online applications for us.”
In the past, the civic body has also attempted to step in and help connect people in the area to jobs. However, these programmes were not sustained over the long-term.
“During the pandemic, the corporation did help and provide a few of us with jobs in cleaning, food delivery, and in shops in the nearby Parry’s corner, but these opportunities only lasted for 3-4 months. After this we had to start looking again,” says Velankani.
Nithya, 31, who works at home to take care of her sister, mentions how the Assembly often sends over vacancies for jobs that actually match the qualifications of people in the neighbourhood. “For many of the people who have graduated from school and college, they often don’t get good jobs regardless of having a degree and the jobs they find rarely match people’s qualifications. The sangam is able to search and find jobs that are suited for people’s qualifications through their HR connections.”
On asking about the role of such an association, V Prem, 38, who works in shipping, mentions that the RWA has also helped residents show strength in numbers.
“When you approach someone (whether it be HR persons, city officials, etc) as a group to present an idea or demand, people tend to care more than they would if you approached them in individual capacity”, says Prem.
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Focus on access
The operations and goals of the Assembly are evidently different from the priorities of RWAs in middle and high income areas of the city. Livelihoods and bridging education gaps do not feature so prominently in the work of the latter, for obvious reasons of residents already having significant social capital. Those RWAs therefore tend to focus more on strengthening infrastructure, improve service delivery and also look at beautification and aesthetics.
The needs of resident groups being starkly different, Pulianthope Welfare Assembly concerns itself more with access. They also help residents with pension applications, Aadhaar, access to PDS and other important documentation. The RWA works with the idea of improving the overall quality of life of the residents and helping them secure amenities, services, benefits and entitlements available to them. Empowering residents to find ways to solve issues in the neighbourhood is also part of the agenda.
“Earlier, when we approached MLAs for help to solve our drainage, water, electricity problems, they would agree and promise help, but later on we would realise this wasn’t going to happen. As part of the Assembly, residents now learn how to file online applications or complaints with the concerned civic body and have developed the practice of filing these applications. I find that the response is much more speedy, when we do this”, says Velankani.