April 26, 2009

Meetings at community space

Wine shops did brisk business on the day of the bandh.
Some shop managers reported that sales had doubled that day.
Many who patronised these shops were political party worker. They had been busy campaigning on a hot day and chilled beer at the end of the day was welcome. Many shops said that they ran out of beer at dusk.
This is a gist of a report that appeared in a newspaper earlier this week. It is election time and April-May is certainly not the best season of the year to run an election campaign. Not when temperatures are in the397 and 39 region, not when the sea breeze refuses to set in and move inland and not when it is tall task to coax people to at least stop and stare.
But then, General Elections are sacred. And some chilled beer for hardworking cadres is certainly not a crime.
This morning an election caravan rolled into our neighbourhood. The accompanying band made sure that its was a trifle louder. If people stood out of their balconies or peeped out from their windows, the objective would have been served. Not many did. But the bandsmen go on with their job.
Rolling caravans and street corner meetings, at least in urban neighbourhoods don't seem to work in elections. Will meetings at community space work?
N. S. Venkataraman, consultant and social worker and a candidate in South Chennai says it does. He has been meeting people in their colonies. 15 to 20 attend and the interaction is lively he says. And if they can go back and influence one hundred then the effect is significant, says Venkataraman.
Over the past ten days, I have seen many candidates making time to attend such small, informal meetings. In Thiruvanmiyur and Mylapore, in K. K. Nagar and Ashok Nagar.
Perhaps then it is an occasion for community organisations to quickly plan and host such meetings for a tete-a-tete with the candidates of their constituencies. We should be able to convince the Chennai Corporation to allow us to hold such meetings in parks and playgrounds, in their community halls and chatrams. Free of cost if they are organised by community groups.
These spaces are diminishing and unless the community regains them they will be lost forever. Such meetings on election eve provide for meaningful debate and discussion and a healthy political relationship. So if or your organisation can play a role this General Election, plan a meeting now.

April 18, 2009

Civic Campaigns in Our Neighbourhoods

Here is a challenging project for students of sociology, social work, public administration or political science.
This summer, would you like to document and research some of the interesting community and neighourhood campaigns which have taken place in the city of Chennai?
If you are keen, the field is wide open.
For a couple of years now, we have been reporting a campaign that involved the neighbourhoods of Ashok Nagar and K. K. Nagar.
It began small. A handful of people who wondered how a prime piece of open land that should have been developed for the community had been taken over by hawkers, brokers and small-fry politicians.
What began as a simple effort led to a legal battle and finally ended with victory for the community - it managed to get the Chennai Corporation to take charge of this area and develop it into a nice park.
The campaign was a tough one. There were hints of violence too.
And one man called Ravichandran led the community from the front.
Soon thereafter, another issue troubled the same neighbourhood.
Major changes in the traffic flow system were made by the Chennai City Traffic Police in the Ashok Pillar area.
Heavy traffic, of state transport buses on long distance routes and goods-laden lorries criss-cross this region and the police wanted to address the issue.
But the changes completely ignored the condition of the residents in the colonies of this area. They could not cross the roads, they could not access key utilities and their locomotion was curtailed.
Ravichandran had another campaign on his hands. But he had to rouse the residents into action.
Civic campaigns are not easy.
Most people prefer to sit back and let the dedicated do all the dirty work.
In this case, more than a handful lent their support. They did not go too far. But they did not give up.
On Thursday, they tasted success. The Traffic Police revoked the changed system that was on 'trial'. The community won.

April 11, 2009

Please Vote for Me

We should have had the General Elections in July.
Then we could have had the opportunity to expose senior school students to the ins and outs of this democratic process.
Days in June would have been perfect.
Should school students get involved?
A few days ago we were treated to a selection of the best documentary films made worldwide. These were films chosen at the famed INPUT Festival which has its base in Germany and the screening in Chennai was arranged by the Goethe Institut.
One docu film was a clear winner.
The film is called 'Please Vote for Me'.
Made in 2007, it is based on the elections for a class monitor in a 3rd grade class of eight year old children in the Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China.
This was reported to be the first election of its type for a class monitor held in a school in China and it was thought to be an interesting use of classic democratic voting principles and interpersonal dynamics.
This wonderful film gives a glimpse into China's contemporary urban middle classes.
'Please Vote for Me' was named by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one of 15 films on its documentary feature Oscar shortlist. The list was narrowed to five films but this one did not make it to the final five.
The film is part of the "Why Democracy?" series. It has been aired in no less than 35 different countries around the world.
Every act that you may associate with an election also takes place in the midst of these children, in the classroom and at home and outside. Oneupmanship, despair, frustration, tall promises, intense preparation, networking and even grant of freebies!
And there is a lot to learn from the actual event on that campus.
I think it is time we took the democratic process to all our schools.
And provided it a decent amount of time - to talk, discuss and debate. And extend it to a campus election and all that comes after an election.
Perhaps this is one of the many ways in which we can have a better informed and educated electorate.
And for those who manage schools in the neighbourhoods and would like to get a feel of the China experiment and perhaps even try it out, 'Please Vote for Me' is 'must see'.
I am sure the Goethe Institut will arrange a screening if it has a copy.

April 04, 2009

Even Tributes have a place in Community Web Sites

Arjun Vasudev was one of our city's best young guitarists. He even had a huge community of fans.
A teenager of many talents, his large groups of friends looked up to him.
Last weekend, Arjun died in a nasty accident on Arcot Road, close to the neighbourhood where he lived.
His death has numbed his friends so much that none of them wants to speak about the incident or about Arjun.
They don't want to believe that Arjun is no more here.
I never knew Arjun. I may have seen him on the stage at a rock music festival in the city or outside - today, dozens of young Indians are pushing their dreams of being professional musicians and you see them all over the circuit.
Arjun was a rising star, I learn.
And when we posted the news of his death on the neighbourhood web site - arcotroadtimes.com - we never expected a stream of reaction to follow, some severe, some poetic, some numbing.
Many of them posted by Padma Seshadri students and alumni - for Arjun was a PSBB alumni.
It was Arjun's profile and space on Facebook that opened up his world to us. A passionate football player, deeply involved in dramatics, a magician with the guitar and a youth others looked up to.
The continuing posts on that web space have motivated us to update our reportage on the death of a talented young man.
And keep the neighbourhood informed.
In many ways, the Internet and the Web is best suited to build strong neighbourhoods.
Though some attempts have been made in some corners of our city by Net-savvy residents, they have not bloomed.
I came across a nice attempt which had been made by the residents of Kannappa Nagar, a colony off the ECR in Thiruvanmiyur.
Many pictures, extensive notes and a long list of phone numbers.
But the effort had gone into the freezer months ago.
If you are part of a Net-worked neighbourhood community, please post a note on your project on my blog. There may be leads others would like to take.
And if you are a musician or a music lover, do attend a memorial concert planned in Arjun's memory.