March 15, 2008

Communities and Civic Campaigns . .

How do you organise a civic campaign and create space for the voices of the community so that they can be heard?
There are many different ways to do this.
But are there bodies which can come to the aid of a community when it wishes to raise issues in a city like ours?
The City Traffic Police introduced changes in the traffic systems in the Alwarpet-Raja Annamalaipuram neighbourhood last Saturday.
Perhaps central to the changes was the intention to decongest two main roads and to help motorists drive freely and smoothly.
Less than a week hence, residents and shop owners are agitated and some of them have got together to articulate their views.
On one evening, some of the owners of the local stores got together at a local restaurant, debated the issue and jotted their comments on the problems created by the new traffic system.
When residents began to feel the effect of the changes on the roads and streets - especially the problem of seniors unable to cross the main road because motorists were now zipping on the 'one-way' road - they too got together for a meeting to express their views.
But how would they make their views known to the Traffic Police?
What should they do next?
Some of them turned to me.
The 'Mylapore Times' had reported the plans long before they were implemented. Readers who e-mailed their reactions to the plans had got their letters published.
More letters came in the mail last week. We published them too.
The Traffic Police must have studied the traffic patterns to plan the changes. But they did not arrange for public meetings at which they could have got sharper comments and suggestions from people who live in this area.
Here is the problem - state agencies rarely interact with the community and people too keep away from engaging with the state.
The group in Alwarpet and R. A. Puram succeeded in getting a call across to the Jt. Commissioner in charge of Traffic. A sharing of views took place.
How about engaging the councillor of the area? A contact was made.
And why not get the local MLA involved too?
A signature drive is now on. 100 signatures are not enough. So the forms are still doing the rounds.
Meanwhile, the group got other ideas - establish contact with the media, send them a press release, invite them to do on-the-spot stories on the issue . . .
But sustaining a campaign is tough, said one group member.
Very true. Sustaining civic campaigns in communities is a challenge and few people are prepared to keep on track and be in for the long haul.
Fewer still want to stick their necks out.
Groups are fighting for the protection of the Pallikarnai marshlands. Residents of surburban Chrompet and Pammal have run a series of agitations against the state's move to acquire their properties for an airport project. Groups in north Madras continue to challenge the Corporation for dumping garbage from the rest of the city and forcing local people to live with stink and poison.
It is tough.
If your local association or civic group has been on a campaign, do share your experience.

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