Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 15, November 16-30, 2018

The malligai poo is less than sweet-smelling

by A Special Correspondent

Take the case of Malligai Poo Nagar on the banks of the Adyar River near Meenambakkam. Residents have been complaining about dumping of garbage along the bank. The settlement does not have the luxury of municipal garbage collection service. The spot has become a dump yard and breeding ground for diseases. Their community toilet was “razed by the civic body three years ago” and a new one is yet to come up. They have no toilets and are forced into open defecation.

As part of the integrated Eco-Restoration Project, the river had to be fenced to prevent encroachment on its banks, to keep them clear for periodical dredging and to control flooding in times of heavy rain. As there is encroachment, eviction is necessary, say officials. Although this Project was announced 15 months ago, there is no resettlement plan nor are Malligai Poo Nagar residents seeing any sign of getting the elementary necessities to live life with dignity.

Closer analysis of this case, which is probably one of many hundreds in the City, shows signs of the lackadaisical approach to governance. When the whole country is talking aboutswachhta and funds are released to build crores of toilets in the country why is an existing community toilet razed before providing a new one? The residents of this place need a resettlement plan that does not deny them their employment and social moorings. You would expect the local Councillor to have noticed the travails of these poor people and taken up their cause with the civic body officials. In the event, he has done it, the residents have no easy way of knowing the status of the restoration programme in specific terms.

Announcements of projects are made periodically as part of the annual Budget speech. Also outside of it on political and other platforms. Broad indications of project costs and likely completion dates are at times given. Making a list of such projects and trying to get the latest information on progress of each from government web-sites and related sources is a futile exercise. Citizens have no way of knowing how or whether promises and plans are being or have been executed.

There are many “Malligai Poos”. Velachery Lake is an ecological tragedy. This lake which covered 256 acres at one time, has now shrunk to 50 acres. A cosmetic attempt was made in 2010 when the then Mayor said that at a cost of Rs. 7 crore the lake would have boating facilities and attractive walkways. In 2017, a more ambitious scheme costing Rs. 25 crore was announced to restore the lake by clearing the overgrown hyacinth and the huge garbage dumps. Apart from a poorly kept walkway nothing substantial has taken place so far. Estimates are under active consideration, as the saying goes. Most projects confront the same set of hurdles – multi-departmental involvement, land acquisition and related litigation delays, and sister departments/organisations not easily parting with bits of land/structures that unavoidably fall within the project area. History keeps repeating itself and we keep re-living the same old problems and frustrations. No legislative and organisational solutions are found for these impediments.

A project for Rs. 1,442 crore was announced 15 months ago to shut down the dump yards in Kodungaiyur and Perungudi. Remediation of the existing dumps, revamping the conservancy process, and setting up two plants to convert waste into energy were part of the project. Overall, it is an excellent project awaiting implementation. The second project was to commission a study to formulate a plan for solid waste management in the city on a public-private partnership basis. The third was, of course, the Cooum restoration of the last 32 km of the 72 km. The scheme visualised de-silting, marking and defending boundaries, resettlement of 55 slums along the river bed, solid waste removal, laying interceptors, installation of sewage treatment plants, expanding underground sewage system and providing cycle tracks and walkways. These projects would benefit the City substantially. After 15 months we are not expecting completion but, at the least, enough signs that they are not forgotten. Where do we look for these signs? For example, we want to know if money has been sanctioned, which is a sign of seriousness and a reassurance to anxious citizens. There is no way for citizens to know if the Government or the civic body is making real or hollow promises.

When we are kept happy with announcements and no further information on progress, governance becomes a myth. Citizen watchdog organisations are a way of keeping the Government and civic bodies on their toes. For such organisations to be effective, an official communication line must be established. How we wish we had a State Promises Monitoring Commission with statutory powers to call upon any public agency in charge of projects to record periodic progress in an easily accessible public domain. Routine upkeep and service deliveries need not be covered by this system. A recent study elsewhere in the world found that many government websites tend to be text heavy and off-putting to the user and, some government websites are complex to understand and navigate and information is often hard to find amongst large amounts of policy material that are irrelevant.

This responsibility to report progress must go down to district and civic body levels in respect of projects under their jurisdiction. MLAs/Councillors of the Project location must be made responsible for chasing implementation and acting as a link between citizen’s bodies and public authorities.

Any announcement of a new project must be accompanied by objective, main features, cost, duration for completion, expected date/s of sanctions of money for different phases in the case of larger projects, and the officer of department or agency responsible for posting the progress at a minimum frequency of, say, once a month – and the name and contact particulars of the people’s representative of that area. An identification number for each project is necessary for quick access. The Promises Website should be maintained and monitored by the Commission. The Commissioner must have powers to demand these details whenever a project is announced. The Auditor General and the Comptroller General focus on evaluating past actions. Citizens need information on implementation of on-going projects.

A reporting mechanism is an aspect of participative democracy and has benefits for politicians, public servants and civil society. Councillors and MLAs are the representatives of specific geographic areas and are ideally placed to be the link between the people and the public agencies of government. Sadly, they are not performing this function. Providing access to information on progress of public facilities is the operational aspect of the Citizen’s Charter. The latter is a mission statement and the former is commitment to performance effectiveness and is a Performance Charter. We quote Rick Stapenhurst and Mitchell O’Brien, World Bank Institute: “Social accountability relies on civic engagement, whereby ordinary citizens and/or civil society organisations participate in exacting accountability. Mechanisms of social accountability are very often demand-driven and operate from the bottom-up.” It is time we, as citizens, demanded social accountability.

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