Not a civil servant. Not a Councillor. Not a full-time activist. Just another Chennaiite, like any of us.
While most of his age prefer to spend time with family, go on vacations and concentrate on personal and professional goals, 50-year-old C R Balaji clicks pictures of badly laid roads and illegally dumped garbage during his commute to and from work and reports it to the appropriate government authorities.
If you are a resident of Mylapore, you cannot miss this tall, middle-aged man going around on his bike taking pictures to highlight the various civic issues in the neighbourhood. And his efforts have attracted the attention of the authorities many a time, resulting in action. Thus Balaji is what you could truly label as a citizen changemaker.
Citizen Matters Chennai wanted to know more about his inspiration and what keeps him going.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into this part-time activism.
I’m not a big shot, just an ordinary citizen carrying out my duties, I’d say. I somehow got very interested in civic issues at a very young age, in my childhood. I could say my grandfather sowed the seeds, as he filed various civic complaints. I used to accompany him and my father to government offices when I was a young boy which led me to follow their path.
Thanks to technology advancement, now we do not have to run from pillar to post to file a complaint as in the olden days. It has been much easier these days and is just a click-away. I take pictures of the issues on my way to work and email the concerned authorities once I reach office. It just takes 15-20 minutes of my time.
When did you start filing complaints?
I have been complaining about the issues spotted across the city for about two years now. Before that, I had been focusing on civic issues in and around Mylapore for another two to three years.
Tell us about your first victory.
I would not use the word ‘victory,’ really. But if you still want me to describe the case, it would be the clearance of debris near Mandaveli Railway Station. Someone had already reported about the issue, it had not been followed up on, so I took it up.
In April 2016, with the help of Arappor Iyakkam, I emailed the complaint to Greater Chennai Corporation and Railways department. I pursued it with focus and it took 3-4 months for the Corporation to remove the garbage as they had to find an alternative location.
This was around the time that there was a lot of advocacy around the Swachh Bharat Mission, especially over clearing of garbage and debris; so, around the time that I filed the complaint, the Jeth Nagar Residents’ Association (JERA) also reported the case to the Swachh Bharat Mission. After this, the area was fenced and today it is free from debris dumping. It is a joint victory, I’d say.
Tell us about some of the most challenging cases that you have taken up in these two years.
Removal of water hyacinths from Okkiyam Maduvu is the one case that I had to chase for a year and a half. The waterbodies team from Arappor Iyakkam audited Okkiyam Maduvu and submitted the report to the authorities.
Apart from Arappor’s efforts, I personally emailed the complaint to authorities from the Public Works Department (PWD), the Tamil Nadu State Disaster Management Authority (TNSDMA), Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and the Deputy Commissioner of Health. Had it rained really heavily in 2016, Pallikaranai, OMR and other areas along the line would have flooded once again because of this infestation.
I had also been pressuring the GCC to remove the water hyacinths with the amphibian vehicle which is only available with them. Later, a court judgement directed the removal of water hyacinths and desilting of lakes. I wanted to do a reality-check on the action taken, and found the condition to be the same; so I emailed the GCC again and the CM cell. Reporting to the CM cell finally worked and water hyacinths were removed from Buckingham Canal and Okkiyam Maduvu just a month or two ago.
Apart from water bodies and garbage cases, you have also filed complaints about the roads in Chennai. Tell us a bit about that.
Yes, it was about the material used for relaying roads in Nungambakkam High Road. The road was dug up by Metrowater to lay new pipelines and the road was plastered for half a kilometre with cement ready mix which could cause road accidents. Within a week of filing the complaint with the GCC, I saw people scraping up a part of the high road along its centre, following which it was relaid with bitumen.
How many complaints have you filed thus far?
The number of complaints must be around 200 and I have also filed an RTI.
All 200 complaints relate to civic issues. Three months ago, I filed an RTI to find out the reason behind the relaying of roads in VC Garden Street, Mandaveli. The road had been dug up by the Metrowater board to relay pipelines and cement/bitumen were left there by them. The response to my RTI informed me that a fine of Rs 10 Lakh had been imposed upon the contractor and that the road relaying was under process.
While passing through the road last week, I saw the roads had been levelled, but have been spoilt by the rains yet again. On seeing this, I raised the issue with the local MLA and he said that the work will be done after the rains.
I do not file complaints for garbage removal, I see it as a waste of time for everyone. Instead I just call up Ramky, the private agency involved in garbage clearance or the Assistant Engineer in GCC or the Garbage inspector and get it done then and there. It just takes a few minutes to have it attended to.
How has the response to your complaints generally been — from the government authorities?
So far, I have received only positive cooperation from the authorities. Whenever I file a complaint, I receive calls from the concerned department or personnel to discuss the problem and solution. I politely keep insisting on resolving the issues, even if it takes inordinate time and energy.
After Arappor’s involvement in such issues, I have learnt to file complaints in an organized way which has met with better response. The ‘Know Your Rights’ programme organized by them gives the audience more insights about complaint filing mechanisms and about the appropriate authorities to contact in each case.
Have your ever received threats from people who try to act against you?
So far, I have not received any kind of threats, as I do not pressure or threaten anyone. But I will be prepared to handle the same in future.
What do you think are the most important issues that need to be raised and addressed in Chennai at this moment?
Among the existing issues, I feel the problem of garbage must be handled immediately and effectively. The Corporation is trying to address it, but it has been ineffective so far. We do not have garbage bins in my locality, and the garbage is collected at the doorstep of every house. But I am not certain that segregation of garbage is being implemented as it should be. I usually segregate the household waste and hand it over, but the garbage collectors insist that I should give them the waste as it is; they say they will segregate it at the dumping points.
Apart from garbage problems, equal importance must be given to problems such as street lighting, sewage leakage and roads on the bus routes.
Tell us about your other activities and pursuits.
I self-audit the water bodies in the city during the weekends, and audited the Puzhal and Sholavaram lakes most recently. The sewage from households in Puzhal are being let into the periphery of the lake through the stormwater drains. In addition, the underground drainage line is not connected to the sewage pumping station, which could cause tremendous damage to the lake. I have forwarded the complaint to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and Metrowater board, and hope for immediate action.
What do you want to tell those who wish to take up civic issues themselves?
Everyone should start filing complaints; If they cannot take up problems relating to the city as a whole, they can at least start with the problems in their immediate locality. Patience and perseverance are two equally important virtues that we need to develop and stick to, if we are really keen on making an impact. If you are just beginning, you can seek help from Arappor Iyakkam.
I write about my activities on my Facebook account with the hope that someone, somewhere will get inspired and start being an agent of change.