How Chitlapakkam near Chennai became a symbol of citizen activism

How Chitlapakkam near Chennai became a symbol of citizen activism
In May 2019, when the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department (PWD) gave the go-ahead to a citizen activism group in Chennai to desilt a lake by themselves, the residents of Chitlapakkam were relieved, in fact, the happiest. The biggest sense of relief for the Chitlapakkam residents was that they will not have to suffer through another horrifying experience if torrential rainfall hits the region. It was also a long-overdue victory for them as they have been fighting with all levels of the government machinery since early 2016. Chitlapakkam, situated around 25 kilometres from Chennai city, is a small town with a population of around 60,000 people. Over the years it has become a centre for citizen activism. From basic civic issues like garbage clearance to bigger movements like reclaiming a lake, the residents of the locality have worked as one big team. What perhaps makes Chitlapakkam stand out from the other localities in and around Chennai is that while the other localities have small residents’ welfare associations at the colony or apartment level, Chitlapakkam not only has these small bodies but also has bigger umbrella associations like Chitlapakkam Residents Associations Coordination committee and Chitlapakkam Rising, which work towards issues that concern the locality as a whole. Activism since the 80s Citizen activism is not a new concept for the residents of Chitlapakkam. As early as 1989, there were groups of concerned residents who took a stance against the state government for trying to convert the parched Chitlapakkam lake into land for constructing houses. “The Tamil Nadu Housing Board wanted to acquire that land and we fought against it. They contended that the lakes are not necessary for urban areas and are only needed for irrigation,” recounts Viswanathan, who has been a citizen activist since 1989. Currently the convener of the Chitlapakkam Residents Associations Coordination Committee, Viswanathan says that over the years, their activism has only swelled and strengthened in the area. How addressing root cause helped The citizen activists dedicatedly highlighted some of the common civic issues in Chitlapakkam — panchayat not clearing the garbage on time and dug up roads not closed properly, among others. Over time, bigger groups like Chitlapakkam Rising stood up to address larger issues, including reclaiming and restoring the Chitlapakkam lake, thanks to the number of volunteers in the group. Started between 2012 and 2013, Chitlapakkam Rising was initially an effort to keep the area clean and green. However, through experience, the group realised that the only way to prevent issues from recurring is to address the root cause of the problems. Sunil Jayaram, a co-founder of Chitlapakkam Rising, describes this with an example of constant water-logging in front of houses, which often completely blocks access. “We understood that the problem was often caused due to the wrong procedure adopted by the authorities in re-laying roads, which cause a drastic increase in the height of these roads from the surface level. This lowers the entrance of houses and the height difference causes water stagnation,” he explains. Similarly, during the 2015 Chennai floods, Chitlapakkam was one of the worst-affected areas. More than half of Chitlapakkam was reportedly under water. “We realised that Chitlapakkam lake was neglected for many years, and was the root cause. For many years, the lake was left without desilting, deepening and proper inlet for water,” Sunil points out. The group then decided to petition the authorities and also filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Madras High Court. The Tamil Nadu government, however, delayed the case, he alleges. “However, since we have enough volunteers, we told the government that we will take up the task of maintaining the lake ourselves, and started cleaning the lake. That caught the government’s attention, and that is how the Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami sanctioned Rs 25 crore for this purpose," Sunil recalls. In the past couple of years, Chitlapakkam Rising has filed 100s of RTI (right to information) requests and PILs in the Madras High Court — all concerning laying roads, lake conservation and other civic issues. With a volunteer strength of around 6,000, the group has been successful in putting pressure on the authorities to attend to civic issues.  “Recently, we announced that we will hold a candlelight vigil to highlight the sewage problem in our area. Soon, one evening, about 300 to 400 people turned up with candles. The state government started feeling the pressure when more people became aware and interested in these issues, and soon started responding to these issues,” Sunil adds. The increasing popularity of the group has also brought with it, its own share of problems, including arrests and intimidation from the local politicians. In 2018, Sunil and a couple of other residents were booked by the police for 'rioting' and two of them were also arrested when they questioned the government authorities about an ongoing stormwater project. The FIR registered against Sunil is still open. “Threats are common. When we highlight more and more issues, the local politicians construe it as questioning their decisions and credibility, which impacts their reputation. What ensues is threats and intimidation. The way we are able to tackle that is with our volunteer strength,” says Sunil. “We could have been easily sidelined if it is a small movement. The network of other non-government organisations (NGOs) that we are in touch with also help bring attention to such issues and stand by us, which helps the cause,” he explains. Awareness improved over time Comparing the activism in the early 1990s and the present day, Viswanathan says that awareness among people has increased over time. “In the early 90s, when we took up the lake issue, residents in the surrounding areas questioned us. They argued that when there is ample groundwater in the area, what was the need for a lake. We explained the role of the lake when the population will grow manifold in the future. Now, people have become more vigilant and many want to save water and water bodies for our future,” he explains Global funding agencies, including the World Bank, have also changed their priorities from funding construction projects to funding conservation issues in the last few years. “Citizen activism has improved over the years. Now, the government and funding agencies have also changed their perceptions and began putting more money into conservation efforts. The World Bank, which was earlier funding constructing houses on acquired lands in the lake, is now funding for lake reclamation and rejuvenation,” says Viswanathan. For Ramkumar, a volunteer with the Chitlapakkam Rising, the movement is all about giving back to society. When asked if he gets enough time to contribute to the group’s initiatives, he says, “We make time for such initiatives. It is a continuous process and from the hearts. All we need is more people to come forward and contribute to working for society.” 

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