TNM spoke to six activists about their work in the city and why they believe the youth needs to get involved.

news Human Interest Thursday, November 21, 2019 - 14:14

While most people do not find time in their busy lifestyle to take enough care about the civic issues concerning their areas, every city has a handful of vigilant residents who take extra care about their neighbourhoods.

TNM spoke to six civic activists in Chennai to find out how they became interested in resolving such issues and the important work that they do.

There’s no stopping the RTI man

Age is not a reason for V Santhanam to stop rallying for civic issues. This 82-year-old resident of Chromepet in Chennai says he began actively working for his surroundings since 1974. “When settled down in Chromepet in 1968, my mother discouraged me saying I have purchased land where there are no facilities. I promised my mother that I will bring all infrastructure,” he says.

He was finally encouraged by an important event in his life —  meeting with the then Chief Minister Annadurai in 1968. “The land that I had purchased was under government acquisition for a hospital. I relentlessly sent 14 registered posts, reminder after reminder, before the CM’s secretary finally got in touch with me saying the CM wanted to meet me. He appreciated my spirit and my land was exempted. That is how I started,” he says.

V Santhanam

At first, Santhanam began by writing letters to the editor. “I wrote a letter to The Mail regarding the national anthem being played playing in Cinema halls in the 70s after the movie ends. I had asked the government to withdraw the order since people were disrespecting the anthem.” He narrates that though the order was scrapped at the time, he was beaten up inside the theatre when he tried to stop two men from fighting while the national anthem was playing.

In 2003, when he raised his voice against encroachment of water bodies and staged a protest.

He then goes on to provide an astonishing fact: “Since the RTI Act was introduced in 2005, I have filed nearly 2000 RTI petitions so far. It has been a great tool for me,” he says.

Activism begins at home

For Ganga Sridhar in Mandaveli, Meera Ravikumar of Gandhi Nagar in Adyar and Vasanthi Kannan of Kodambakkam, activism began at home.

Ganga, who is a member of a residents' welfare association, dismisses the notion that few women are active when it comes to solving civic issues. “I know many women who have taken great initiatives for social and civic causes,” she says.

Ganga Sridhar

For Ganga, moving to Chennai fueled her turn to activism. It was the garbage issue that first pushed her into becoming a voice for her community. “I grew up in Delhi and moved to Chennai only 10 years ago. The garbage problem in Delhi is not as bad as how it is in Chennai, and so I had zero tolerance when I came here,” she says. 

Vasanthi too, who will be turning 60 soon, began with the garbage issue in 1991. “My interest started with Exnora (a nonprofit environmental service organisation). I wanted to keep my area clean. Then I started looking at water problems, which was prevalent back then. Then we took to planting trees around 1992-1993. The trees are now lush and green in our area,” shares the former Central Excise official.

Vasanthi Kannan

“Those at corporation department know me very well now. They pass on information about me even if they transfer I think,” Vasanthi says. Ganga too shares that some Corporation officials may even be "scared" of her. “They know I file complaints if issues are not fixed. Fifteen days ago, there was a deep pothole on my street, caused by poor work done by the Metrowater Board. I got in touch with the Assistant Engineers and raised an online petition. I do not hesitate to take that extra step,” she adds.

Meera also joins the list of women who pioneer garbage management in their area. “My interest was in solid waste management and I started with a campaign on source segregation in 2015,” she says.

Meera Ravikumar

And Meera also has special concern for trees in her area. “The corporation planted a few saplings in our area after the Vardah cyclone.I am very keen on protecting these trees,” says the 46-year-old. She regularly files complaints on debris being dumped on the roots of the saplings and trees being vandalised. 

‘Tuned to pick up on violations’

It would be fair to say the name David Manohar rings a warning bell to residents in Chromepet and Pallavaram areas of the city. The 57-year-old civic activist, who is also a core member of the Arappor Iyakkam, says, “Everyone knows that I’m the man who would raise the alarms when in comes to violations or civic issues. I’ve heard they speak about me behind my back but that does not stop me,” he says.

He shares that he has been civic conscious since his early 20s and began writing letters to the editors of newspapers.

David Manohar (in blue)

David, who focuses on building and parking space planning violations, opines that every citizen is a violator in some way. “They build houses, deviating the sanctioned plans. When I confront them about it, they ask me to mind my own business. They get irritated when I question them. They think we should only question government officials and such small issues should be left alone,” he says.

The before and the after

Go through CR Balaji’s Facebook profile and you’ll come across quite a few before-after pictures of issues he has helped fixed in different neighbourhoods in the city. While his family has lived in Mandaveli for over 70 years, Balaji does not hesitate to flag an issue in any area he travels to.

“I have been doing it on my own and I also volunteer for Arappor. I started taking more interest in such issues 3-4 years ago, after the 2015 floods,” he tells TNM.

CR Balaji

The 52-year-old, who is employed in the petrochemical industry, also helps people who may want to tackle civic issues. “I give them guidance, on how to write an RTI or file a complaint,” he explains.

When asked about his most successful campaigns, Balaji immediately recalls the Mandaveli MRTS dump yard that was recently transformed into a garden and a compost yard. An area that was occupied by garbage and abandoned vehicles, was transformed by the combined efforts of resident associations and Nizhal, an NGO. “I filed a complaint, with help from Arappor two years ago and repeated doing so many times. Then the residents associations, the NGO and the whole community came together to transform it into a wonder,” he says.

You could be one too!

All the activists who TNM spoke to agreed — more youngsters should come forward to take care of their areas.

“It should be developed by parents and the education department. It is your country, let the change start with you,” says Santhanam.

Vasanthi also says one can’t entirely blame the corporation for not doing its duty and that it lies with people too.  “People are not bothered. They say they don’t have time. They only want their houses to be clean, no one cares about the roads,” she says.

David feels that some people don’t know their rights. “People usually don’t recognise violations. They don’t know their rights, where to file a complaint,” he explains.

He further adds that the present generation hesitates from questioning authorities. “Our Education system has changed. We don't focus on civic lessons. People should spend at least 5 hours in a week for the community, for civic or social issues. Youngsters think expressing their views on social media alone will solve problems. They will have to be on the field,” he says.