A wish list for 2021

It is based on lessons from RWAs in Chennai as well as initiatives in other metros

Can residents be activists?

“Residents as activists” is no longer a far-fetched idea. K. Viswanathan, secretary of Mylapore Residents Welfare Association (MRWA), says there is evidence on the ground to show that residents’ groups are emerging as a strong voice in Chennai.

He cites the example from Mylapore, where MRWA has been able to galvanise 130 RWAs into meaningful activism.

“Initially, residents had reservations about lodging a complaint individually. Now, whenever a concern is voiced on a WhatsApp group, the issue behind it is either taken up by another individual or as a group. Residents have understood the advantage of representing a local issue under a banner as opposed to going it alone and waging a lone battle,” says Viswanathan.

Every Trust Cross Street in Mandavelipakkam Trust, he says, has formed a local group, which means residents have their concerns addressed hyperlocally.

A 2018 data by Change.org, an online platform for launching campaigns, found Bengaluru topping the list with its residents filing the maximum number of online petitions on civic issues. More than 3,600 petitions were started on the platform, of which 2,100 pertained to civic, road and infrastructure issues. As per the data, while petitions started by Bengalureans went up by 42.5% that year, Chennai saw a rise of 30%. Delhi stood at 4% and Mumbai at 13.6%. Can we see Chennai racing past Bengaluru when Change.org comes out with its new data?

‘My waste, my responsibility’

With Indore bagging the “cleanest city” title four years on the trot, many other cities were naturally keen on learning what the Indore model had to offer. There is also a learning to taken from what Bengaluru has done in this area. In 2019, the civic body Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) tried out the Indore model in some wards only to dump it a year later and revert to its old system of garbage collection and disposal. BBMP had commissioned vehicles fitted with separate bins to collect wet, dry and sanitary waste but the model did not work for the city.

At a gated community in Nanganallur. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj  

Mangalam Balasubramaniam, waste management expert and managing trustee Exnora Green Pammal, says she admires the Alappuzha model where emphasis is on de-centralised solid waste management.

“But one system that worked for one city may not necessarily suit another. Any model needs to be adapted to suit local realities,” she says.

Mangalam says awareness about managing waste at source has increased among the residents of Chennai but the city still has a long way to go. “Our end-to-end needs have not been met so far, what I mean by this is that we must be sending only 5 to 10% of our waste to the landfills and for this to be achieved, the city needs better infrastructure,” says Mangalam.

The Alappuzha model is a success as there was people’s participation and political will and we would need all of these if we were to replicate it in Chennai, says Mangalam.

Whether Chennai tweaks its own model or learns from others, we need to challenge ourselves and improve the city’s cleanliness story in 2021.

Residents for waterbodies

Sample the case of the Rajakilpakkam lake. Water scarcity was so acute in the neighbourhood that the Federation of Rajakilpakkam Residents’ Welfare Association, which consists of 23 residents’ welfare associations, put up an united effort to revive the waterbody.

Ambattur Waterbody Protection Movement (AWPM) formed three years ago with 10 like-minded individuals, now has more than 300 members and their activities go beyond Amabttur — Avadi and Thiruverkadu were added in the recent months. “Our initiatives go beyond clean-ups; we monitor the waterbodies near us,” says Nedumaran S.P. of AWPM. He says they act as a pressure group for the government and get departments to take steps to protect waterbodies in their localities. “We revived seven waterbodies in Ambattur as part of the first phase; and work on another 11 is under way.”

There are similar examples in Perungudi, Sembakkam, Korattur and Madambakkam where citizens’ initiatives have helped save lakes from further encroachment and deterioration.

Arun Krishnamurthy, founder, EFI which works in 14 cities, says Chennai has set an example for other cities in reviving lost lakes.

Ahmedabad, Indore, Hyderabad and Coimbatore would match Chennai when it comes to sustained efforts to revive and conserve waterbodies, he adds.

“Even before 2015, Chennai had a volunteering network that would take care of its lakes and ponds. Post-2015, this network has become more vibrant as the Chennai Floods came as a wakeup call,” says Arun.

Later, the 2019 water crisis again underlined the importance for a collaborative effort while attempting to restore neighbourhood wells and ponds. Greater Chennai Corporation joined hands with corporates to restore ponds in city. Clubs like Lions and Rotary got keenly involved in waterbodies’ rejuvenation exercises. It would do Chennai great good if many more groups joined hands and a complacent attitude did not set in.

Engagement on social media

The social media pages of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), Chennai Metro Water and Chennai Traffic Police, to name only a few departments, are frequently buzzing with posts.

Having a social media presence alone would not do. It boils down to how effective these departments are in propagating their campaigns, showcasing their activities, interacting with the public with the objective of serving them better.

Last July, GCC brought out a newsletter titled ‘The Chennai’ which focused on the work carried out by the civic body during the pandemic. There is also the trend of government departments hiring the services of PR agencies to handle their social media handles. This approach could infuse more professionalism into how these departments connect with residents.

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