For the last three months, thousands of slum dwellers at Thattankulam in Chennaiâ€™s Choolai, are forced to knock on a neighbour's door or walk at least half a kilometre to answer nature's call. Women and children are the worst affected in this locality, after the Chennai Corporation mowed down their only public toilet. When residents questioned the local body on the lack of this basic facility in the area, they kept getting redirected to different departments.
"We approached the Special Deputy Collector as mentioned on the Chennai Collectorate website but he claims it doesn't come under his purview," says Madan, an activist and resident of Choolai. "They are not taking our complaints seriously at all. If only we had a Councillor to intervene, the matter would have been drastically different. We would at least know who exactly to approach and it would have increased political pressure on the civic body," he adds angrily.
Across the state of Tamil Nadu, Madan's frustration resonates amongst other residents. For the last 18 months the state has been functioning on auto pilot without elected local body representatives or panchayat leaders. The local body elections that were scheduled for October 2016 had been stalled by the Madras High Court after the Opposition DMK questioned the way the poll process was being carried out.
Back then, the DMK had challenged the polls citing law and order problems, irregularities, inadequate ST reservation, and a hurried announcement.
The HC dismissed their argument that reservation should be done based on Census 2011 but by then State government had begun a delimitation process based on Census 2011. For the last one year and eight months, Tamil Nadu has been functioning without local body leaders and now the government led by Edappadi Palaniswami has stated that it will take six more months for the delimitation exercise to end.
Currently, the state is missing 200 ward councillors and 12,524 panchayat leaders.
'Most accessible leader'
"The most accessible leader in an elected democracy is missing for the people of Tamil Nadu now," says Jayaram Venkatesan, convenor of Arappor Iyakkam. "An MLA is not someone that you go to for your daily civic problems. His or her only function is to legislate. While the middle class and lower middle contact the local engineer in the area, poorer sections of society depend on the ward councillor, to discuss all issues related to their area. This vacuum cost them dearly," he adds.
67-year-old Shanthi Balachander, who resides at Kasturba Nagar in Adyar, concurs.
"There are cars parked indiscriminately on the main road, with no space to walk. Senior citizens and children are finding it very difficult to manoeuvre the traffic. Earlier we would go to our ward councillor Gokila Kannan and she would resolve the matter by putting in place necessary restrictions. But now, we don't know who to approach," she complains. "We had a time limit for construction work in the area imposed by the councillor. But now it goes into the wee hours of the night and is a source of constant disturbance," she adds.
A councillorâ€™s role includes policy making, executive oversight and constituency improvement. They address the issues of the public and monitor the Corporationâ€™s activities when it comes to health, education, water, sanitation, roads and street lighting. For ward development, they are given a discretionary fund with which to undertake development work in their constituencies.
'Vacuum is political'
Saidapet MLA and former Chennai Mayor M Subramanian of the DMK alleges that the government's decision to delay the elections is purely political.
"Yes, the DMK filed the first case regarding delimitation. But it was to ensure transparency in the system. But now the delay is political. The AIADMK is well aware that they will not win if an election were to take place today," he says.
"But it is the common man who is getting affected. Funds meant for civic work and public infrastructure will remain unutilised. If there was a local body in place, standing committees will be formed and there will be discussions on development works. There are special officers in place to hold things together. But they rarely understand what the people want," he alleges.
Protests against special officers
In Coimbatore, protests are underway against the decision to privatise the cityâ€™s 24Ă—7 water supply scheme to a French Company, Suez Projects. Activists are questioning the validity of the decision to privatise an essential service by the Corporation special officer in the absence of an elected council. Former councillors further point out that the special officer shouldn't take a decision in the matter considering the scale of the project â€“ Rs 2,661 crore for 26 years.
Chennai-based NGO Change India has in fact gone to court in 2017 stating that the appointment of special officers is unconstitutional. In May 2018, the organisation then filed another petition seeking an interim injunction on special officers taking any decisions over implementation of schemes. The hearing is reportedly likely to come up in the Madras High Court soon, according to its Director A Narayanan.
"In cities and town there is some form of awareness at least," says Jayaraman. "But villages suffer the most in this power void. With no Panchayat leader, they have to see the Block Divisional Officer for every small problem. This means that they have to travel 10-15 kilometres every time. Most of them will not be aware of their rights and the Panchayat leader who usually represents them, is currently not available," he adds.
At the village level
But it is just not civic problems that Panchayat chiefs handle in their villages. Multiples instances in the past show, they are the first point of contact, even when a rural society is handling a brutal crime.
In February, a Dalit family of three was found brutally attacked at the Vellamputhur village in Villupuram district. The perpetrator had allegedly beaten them with a blunt weapon, killed an eight-year-old boy, sexually assaulted his 13-year-old sister and left his mother 45-year-old mother unconscious. And when police began investigations, they found a shocking set of details. Two other crimes, with the same modus operandi had occurred in the village in the last six months but nobody came forward to register a complaint.
Natesan, the former Panchayat chief of the village from 2006-2016 tells TNM that this was not surprising. "These are illiterate people who are afraid to even go to a police station. When such brutal crimes occur, it is usually the Panchayat chief who takes it to the police. Villagers are afraid of authority figures. But with no panchayat elections, there is no trusted leader for the residents here," he explains.
"The government's hunger for power is literally costing people their lives," he alleges.