Meet R Priya, Chennai’s first Dalit woman mayor and one of city’s youngest councillors

Priya won from the Mangalapuram ward, making her the first mayor from North Chennai—an area often neglected by various administrations and too often wrongly depicted in a majority of Tamil cinema.
R Priya, Chennai’s first Dalit woman mayor
R Priya, Chennai’s first Dalit woman mayor

Twenty-nine-year-old R Priya of the DMK will be the first Dalit woman to hold the post of Mayor of Chennai. In January this year, ahead of the recently concluded urban body polls in Tamil Nadu, the state government had passed an order reserving the post for a Scheduled Caste woman. Priya will be Chennai’s third woman mayor after Tara Cherian and Kamakshi Jayaraman. She is also one of the several young candidates to win a councillor post in the Chennai Corporation, the youngest being Priyadarshini (21) of CPI(M), an ally of the DMK in the state. Priyadarshini won from ward 98, Teynampet. The DMK announced on Thursday, March 3 that Priya will be the party’s mayoral candidate and since DMK enjoys majority in the Chennai Corporation, Priya will be formally elected as the Mayor soon. 

Priya will be taking over as councillor of ward 74, Mangalapuram, also making her the first mayor from North Chennai—an area often neglected by various administrations and too often wrongly depicted in a majority of Tamil cinema as a place where rowdyism and violence abounds. In reality, the many neighbourhoods that come within North Chennai are still in need of basic infrastructure — from drinking water to electricity to connectivity to sanitation, issues that a new wave of movies and independent music from here have been vocal about. In this context, the young councillor’s appointment as mayor will be seen as a welcome, long overdue shift towards more political representation for North Chennai.  

As councillor, this is Priya’s first official post, though she has been a party cadre since the age of 18. She sat down with this reporter at her home on Krishnadoss Street on the second floor of a bright pink building to talk about herself and her entry into politics.

Photos of Dravidian leaders, including Annadurai, Karunanidhi and Chief Minister Stalin, are mounted on the walls and shelves alongside wreaths in the party colours of red and black. Well-wishers come and go to offer their congratulations while her shy four-year-old sits with a colouring book in a corner.

Priya says that her interest in politics and passion to help her neighbourhood was fuelled by the DMK coming back to power in the state in last year’s Assembly elections. “I saw that the CM is trying to make a difference, I wanted to be a part of it. There are many issues that this neighbourhood faces. Water comes mostly only on alternate days, the roads need to be improved. There are electricity concerns,” she says.

Her father, R Rajan, is the area co-secretary for the DMK. Asked if her family background had inspired her to be a part of student politics during her college days in Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Arts & College for Women in George Town where she did her M Com, Priya laughs and says, “No, this is a recent development, though I was in the party. This seems like an ideal time to help this area, so I took the plunge.”

She also says that it is important for young people to become involved in politics: “They will have new ideas, new energy. They will have fresh ways of seeing things. This is needed.” The newly elected councillor also wants to remind young political aspirants not to lose sight of the fact that their priorities must always remain service and the people.

People in her ward are hopeful of change. “There are many issues here that need to be urgently addressed,” says 36-year-old Amu, who owns a small petty shop just a street away from where Priya lives. “The water supply situation has improved a bit recently, but summers are hard. Some of us women have in the past had to take an auto to near Dr Ambedkar College (about 4 km away) to get the water lorries to come here. It costs Rs 100 to get there. We also have drainage and mosquito problems. Priya is a local resident, she grew up here. I really believe she will improve things for our neighbourhood because she herself has seen these issues first hand.”

Amu adds, “I usually vote for a different party, but this time my vote went to Priya. Before the elections, she listened to the various issues we all have and has promised to take them up.”

Another issue that the neighbourhood wants taken up is an open corporation ground that could function as a playground for the area’s children if it were cleaned up, Amu says. A group of young boys took this reporter to see the ground, which is bordered by an E-Sevai centre and a brightly painted state government run creche. The ground is littered with rubbish, debris and broken bottles.

“Men come here to drink at night and leave the alcohol bottles here,” one of the boys says. “If this place is cleaned up and fenced off, it would make a huge difference to us. There’s nowhere else for us to go play.”

Both the worker at the E-sevai centre and the creche helper agree with the boys. “Even the little children (between 3 and 6 years) can’t really play outside. There are about 30 of them, mostly from low-income families. We cook for them here, but the rubbish brings in rats. It’s hard to keep the place sanitary in these conditions,” the creche helper says.

With Priya’s victory in the elections, these are some of the issues that the Mangalapuram neighbourhood hopes will change.

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