October 27, 2006

Small effort makes a big data bank

If you have a list of utility phone numbers stuck on the door of your refrigerator, make sure you have the phone numbers of the local doctors, pharmacies and ambulance services.
With the monsoon having broken true and well this past week, these numbers will come in handy.
This was not a coincidence. On my table landed a little booklet. A booklet listing all the doctors in Raja Annamalaipuram.
This work has been a labour of love by a retired doctor of this neighbourhood. Dr. R. Chandrasekaran admits that the compilation has been done in a hurry and promises to include more names and phone numbers in the next edition.
But all of us who received this little booklet are grateful to this doc. He has even included the contacts of the local blood banks and ambulance services.
He took the effort to rope in a prominent tailor of this area and plonk his advertisement on the cover. It was probably a way to fund this venture and a better one than having a leading pharmaceutical company coaxing us to gobble a string of capsules this monsoon!
The booklet though makes me think - what sort of a local information system do we have in our neighbourhoods in times of the monsoon?
Can we call a number which can help us remove the trees that have collapsed in our garden? Do we have a contact to reach out to when we come across a poor family which needs a plate of steaming rice and sambar?
Where can we get help when we find that all the stormwater rains have clogged up and sewage is flowing into our campuses?
I did notice that the Metrowater put out a list of contact numbers of all its zonal offices - contacts we could use if we had problems with the sewage system or with the supply of drinking water.
The Corporation of Chennai will probably put out some phone numbers to use in case of emergencies.
But these certainly seem to be individual practices by some state-run bodies.
More importantly, there is a need to put in place a local information system for the neighbourhood on the eve of the annual monsoon.
I suppose this is where our newly-elected councillors, the City Fathers, need to put their heads together, and look at more innovative ways to address local issues and needs.
And this is where the experience and inputs of people like you and me will help elevate the work of the City Fathers.
We can sit back and wait till a Dr. Chandrasekaran releases the next edition of his local area doctors list.
But we could also join hands with people like him to use his idea as the building block for some thing bigger.

October 18, 2006

'Uncivic' civic elections - Part II

We paid a small price for closely covering the elections to the local bodies.
Our photographer was assaulted and our pictures were 'censored'.
Rajesh, our photographer at the 'Arcot Road Times' newspaper ( which covers the neighbourhoods in the Ashok Nagar to Valasarawakkam spread) and reporter V. Soundara Rani were on duty on Sunday last, covering the elections to the Valasarawakkam Municipality.
They rushed to a booth at a local school when they heard that gangs were forcing their way into them.
The duo had got a taste of the rowdyism and violence on Friday when they had covered the elections to the wards of the Chennai Corporation. But they did not shy away from their second round of reportage since this particular newspaper covers the city's civic body as well as the municipality.
A gang spotted Rajesh shooting pictures, went for him, gave him a few blows, snatched his camera, ripped out the memory chip and had it not been for the intervention by reporter Soundara Rani, the gang would have made away with the costly camera or smashed it in animalistic frenzy.
The duo were shaken and when they went down to the Valasarawakkam Police Station to file a complaint about three hours after the incident, the man on duty said they had come very late.
It required the duo to press the police to register their complaint and took another three calls before a FIR was recorded and a copy handed over to them on Wednesday morning.
Nothing much will come out of this case.
As may the cases related to scores of media people who have been assaulted in the polling that has just gone by.
But this is not going to dampen our efforts to cover and report local issues closely.
As community newspapers we have consistently reported on the functions of the local body and of the councillors who represent the neighbourhood.
We would like to do more. Look at the proposals that councillors put up, look at the monies that are alloted to them, keep a tab on the projects and their progress. And investigate the performance of the zonal council, the Municipality and its officers.
But we have limited resources and this limits us.
However, active involvement of residents and professionals in the function and performance of our local bodies can make our neighbourhoods much better.
There are scores of senior citizens who can bring their experience and stature to play in our local bodies.
But very few voluntarily participate in local affairs.
Why, how many of us raised our voices against the farcical elections that were held last Friday?

October 13, 2006

'Uncivic' civic elections

My experience on Friday, the day of the Corporation poll, has made me lose faith in the people who are in charge.
The police. The Election Commission.
And I am sure many others who wanted to or did take part in the election harbour the same feeling.
In the 2001 election, I was witness to a rape of the democratic process. Violence, intimidation and dereliction of duty at a time when the votes were being counted in the Corporation council elections of 2001.
In 2006, I have been witness to intimidation, violence and apathy in the polling booths.
From my office in Alwarpet, I notice a stream of SUVs slowing down on the main road. Hordes of young men jump out. They receive instructions from men dressed in starched khadi who remain in the vans or lean against them.
I expect the worst. For, this morning, minutes before I walked down from home to cast my ballot, a similar scene had taken place in Adyar.
I double up to the main road and walk into the campus of a Corporation engineering department.
The crowd of young men hang around till someone calls them into the booth. There are two booths here - one for men and another for women.
The group rushes into the booths, efficiently tears away the ballot sheets, shove an officer who dissuades them, and clinically drop the ballots into the box. The act is over in five minutes.
One policeman and one Home Guards person stand by and stare, helplessly.
Two others, who must have come here to cast their ballot remain on the sidelines and slink away.
I venture into the booth for men and share in the conversation.
A woman on duty is ashen-faced. She says she has never seen anything like this before.
The roughed up officer sits back in his seat, sipping tea, while his colleagues desperately thumb some numbers on a cellphone to report the 'act'.
All of them seem helpless. About 75 ballots have been torn apart. And stuffed in the box. How are they going to account for them? How are they going to answer their superiors?
The Home Guards volunteer calls me aside. He tells me that they have alerted the armed police. 'They could arrive any time so it's better that you go away,' he advises me. He does not want me to be caught in the line of fire in case there is violence.
There isn't. The place is deserted.
The mob has zipped down to the next booth. It has a job on its hands.
I have lost faith in the police. And in the Election Commission.

October 07, 2006

Socially-committed citizens as councillors for the city

How many of us really know which Corporation ward we belong to?
Ward 122 or ward 144 or ward 155?
Does it really matter to us that this city has an elected council and that its members are elected from wards and that these wards fall under zones . . .
If we still have not given these and related issues a thought perhaps on the eve of election to our local bodies like the Corporation of Chennai, we may want to do so.
There are some positive developments that have taken place this time around in some neighbourhoods, though all of them relate to the municipalities and panchayats on the fringe of the city.
Residents' associations, community welfare groups and social activists have chosen candidates from amongst them and encouraged these men and women to file their nominations and campaign hard.
In Ambattur and in Avadi, in Valasarawakkam and in Alandur, people are waking up to the fact that grassroot issues - roads, water supply, sanitation, street lighting, public spaces - can best be raised and pursued in democratically-elected bodies.
And that people who live in the areas and have been dealing with them as activists or socially-committed citizens are more qualified to pursue them than those who are candidates for all the wrong reasons.
And yet, of the little that I have managed to witness in neighbourhoods, grassroot politics seems to simply ape bigtime politics.
Tearing autorickshaws or manic jeeps transporting candidates and their supporters, piles of handbills dumped into mail boxes and fuzzy posters stuck on public walls . . . .
Could we make space in our parks and playgrounds to arrange for informal meetings with people of the area who may want to share points on local issues that need attention or ideas for a project that the neighbourhood can promote?
Could we gather together on our terraces and, over a cup of tea and biscuits, chat with our candidates and get to know them better even before the first ballot is cast?
Could we formulate a common programme for the ward and get the candidates involved in informal chats so that, once the election is over, we are not gifted a gym that costs a couple of lakh of rupees and functions on the odd days of the week. Because it is not a gym that the ward required but better drains?
Postscript: Ward 153 can have one councillor elected from this place.
But why do divisions 153 and 153A exist?
The best answers will get lollipops!