“I was inspired to start my political journey after looking at the political life of my father and uncle. So, I cannot say that I am completely new to politics,” says Mayor Priya Rajan, who belongs to Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Her father, R Rajan, has been a functionary of DMK and her uncle, Chengai Sivam, was a DMK MLA.
It has been a little more than a year since Mayor R Priya assumed office. As the youngest Dalit woman Mayor of Greater Chennai Corporation, she has overcome many hurdles to find success.
We catch up with her to know more about her vision for the city, her pet projects, challenges in governance, her take on reservations for minorities and more.
Life as Chennai Mayor
It has been a little more than a year of you being the Chennai Mayor, and this is your first political stint. How has that experience been so far?
PR: I learnt a lot of things in my first year- how many civic works are being done and what difficulties arise during those projects in Chennai. For instance, when we were constructing stormwater drains (SWD), there were a lot of issues like road traffic problems and public complaints. Many people asked why GCC has taken up SWD work. But SWDs ensured waterlogging did not persist in many places across the city.
What do you hope to achieve in your tenure as the Mayor? Please share your vision for Chennai.
PR: My vision for Chennai is to have an excellent public education system. I have been focussing on improving the GCC schools. I believe that the next generation must get a good education, especially children belonging to less-privileged backgrounds to climb up the ladder.
For instance, the government schools in extended areas of GCC were not under our ambit earlier. Now, we have brought 139 schools under GCC’s ambit, to bring about better infrastructure in the school. I consider this as my first achievement in the first year of my tenure.
Apart from schools, I am also concentrating to give all the parks a facelift. Parks are those community spaces where families can go and relax after a stressful day. I want to ensure that the parks are made as comfortable as possible for the public.
How have you used your Mayor Fund of Rs. 2 crores?
PR: I had given Rs. 80 lakhs to a GCC school in Kolathur. Apart from that, I have used it to build a badminton court in my ward, and the work has just begun. Then, I spent it on a couple of Anganwadis in my ward.
Work as Councillor of Ward 74
You are not just the Chennai Mayor but also the Ward 74 Councillor. How are you managing both Mayor and Ward Councillor duties? How do you divide your time to look at your ward and the city?
PR: I do not look at the duties of Mayor and councillor separately. I consider all the 200 wards to be my wards. However, I do have a special focus on my Ward 74. My ward is not large in size and it has around 38,000 voters are there. They are asking for basic needs like road facilities, streetlights, parks and community halls.
Residents of my ward come to visit me in the early morning hours or in the evening hours to discuss ward matters. Since I was born and brought up there, people know where I live.
Connecting with people of Chennai
South Chennai residents claim that the Chennai Mayor does not visit their areas as much as North Chennai. You have also begun the Makkalai Thedi Mayor scheme in North Chennai. Is there a reason why you do not visit South Chennai as much?
PR: (laughs) It is not like that. I visit based on the need for development projects. For instance, North Chennai faced relatively more waterlogging than South Chennai. So, I focussed on North Chennai to go for inspections.
At the same time, you take schools in the extended GCC areas. South Chennai has had schools with poor infrastructure. A week back, I visited the GCC schools in Zone 14 to review their infrastructure.
So, it is not like I visit one part of Chennai more than another part. It depends on what kind of development work they need at that time.
Makkalai Thedi Mayor is a new initiative you have started. What is the intention behind it?
PR: The intent of the programme is to have a direct interaction between the Mayor and the public. We have the Namma Chennai app, 1913 and the GCC website to raise grievances. But when they meet me directly, they will get the satisfaction to talk or present their issues directly to me.
Also, the Makkalai Thedi Mayor programme has received a very good response from the public- we got more than 300 petitions in Zone 5 [the first round] and around 230 petitions in Zone 6 [second round]. We have sorted 270 petitions that we received during the first round.
But both the sessions in North and Central Chennai were held on weekdays and some people have said that they would prefer weekends over weekdays to attend the sessions. Would that be considered next time?
If people prefer that we hold the Makkalai Thedi Mayor event during weekends, we will consider it. Also, based on their complaints, I am planning to go for ward-wise inspections.
You have met the people as the Mayor. When will you meet your ward residents as the councillor and conduct Area Sabha in your ward?
PR: I plan to hold the Area Sabha in my ward in June or July.
Governance in the GCC
Contractors have alleged that bribery exists in GCC, even though the local body has time and again claimed that action will be taken against people who ask for bribes. How is GCC going to put a full stop to such practices?
PR: Instances of briberies are not many here. If we get a written complaint about someone asking for bribes, we will take action. We cannot take action against oral complaints.
You are the first Dalit woman Mayor of Chennai. How vital do you think is minority reservation for urban local governance?
PR: I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to become the Mayor of Chennai by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MK Stalin. It is very crucial to give minority representation in local governance since there are a lot of people belonging to minorities who do not get such opportunities.
Now, since I am in this position, I believe that there will be more importance given to the population belonging to the minority sections of society.
Then, why is there no women reservation among the Ward Committee members (also called Area Sabha representatives) in Chennai? There is only 7% of women representation among Ward Committee members. However, there are 102 women Ward Councillors out of the 200 Councillors (50% of the GCC wards were reserved for women).
PR: Some people have told me that there are fewer women on Ward Committees. When we enquired on the ground, many women assumed that they would have to attend meetings every day and have to work as much as ward councillors. So, they told me that they will not be able to concentrate on their families.
But ward councillors have been picking women as Ward Committee members if they came forward.