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

Vol. XXXI No. 24, April 1-15, 2022

When Chennai got its first woman Mayor

by V.V. Radhakrishnan. Courtesy: The Illustrated Weekly of India, February 2, 1958.

Following our featuring the three women mayors of Madras in our Heritage Watch section of MM dated 16th March 2022, Ramineni Bhaskarendra, our go to person for printed material from the past, sends us this interview with Tara Cherian shortly after she took up office as the first woman mayor of the city in 1957. It throws much light on the pressing issues of the times.

AHUSHED silence fell over the Council Hall, Madras, as the members listened with rapt attention to Mrs. Tara Cherian’s maiden speech. That was six years ago when, as an Alderman of the City Council, she made an eloquent plea for midday meals for poor children studying in the municipal schools. An old City Father then predicted that she would one day be the first Lady Mayor of Madras. That prophecy has now come true. Today, as an elected councillor, Mrs. Cherian represents the most enlightened constituency-Madras University.

Her unanimous election as Mayor by the members of the Council irrespective of their party affiliations shows the high regard and esteem they have for their colleague. Forty-four-year-old Tara Cherian comes of an old Tamil Christian family. Her father, the late Mr. D. I. Jesudasen, was Postmaster-General of Madras. Her husband, Kerala-born. Dr. P.V. Cherian, a well-known E. N. T. surgeon, held many high offices, and finally retired as Surgeon-General in the undivided Madras State. Now as Chairman of the Madras Legislative Council he presides with great dignity over the deliberations of that august body.

Madras has had lady Ministers and a lady Sheriff, but this is the first time that a woman has been called upon to be the first citizen. Mrs. Cherian as Mayor now holds the office which her husband occupied six years ago, and perhaps it is the first time in India that any municipal corporation has elected both husband and wife to adorn the Mayoral gadi.

RECORD OF SOCIAL SERVICE

Many distinguished benefactors have in the past been Mayors of Madras, but few have had a greater record of social service than Mrs. Cherian. Ever since she graduated from the Women’s Christian College, 25 years ago, she has devoted herself to several good causes for the poor and the needy, the sick and the physically handicapped.

As Vice-President and Chairman of the Guild of Service, she was one of the earliest Indian members of that organisation and was connected with it for several years.

On each occasion that Mrs. Cherian has gone abroad – her last visit to the West being in the summer of 1957, when she again visited the U.K. and the Continent – she has studied the working of various social service institutions and local bodies including the London County Council. The experience she has thus gained will stand her in good stead in carrying out a number of reforms she has in view.

Mrs. Cherian runs the Corporation as efficiently as she does her home. From an early hour in the morning she is ready to receive callers – Divisional Councillors or others who have to bring to her notice urgent matters requiring her attention.

Conferences with the Commissioner and departmental heads with a view to toning up the efficiency of the administration have now become a regular feature. Within a fortnight of her assuming office, Mrs. Cherian has been able to dispose of more than a hundred items pending on the agenda.

The Mayor has made an earnest appeal to all friends and fellow-citizens to co-operate with her in making the city not only clean and beautiful but also more attractive – in short to make ­Madras “The City Beautiful”.

With this end in view, Mrs. Cherian has taken upon herself the question of the eradication of slums, which she considers a blot on a great city like Madras. But the problem is a big one, entailing heavy expenditure. Pending reorganisation of the slums on a permanent basis, the Mayor feels that the minimum amenities such as water supply, lighting and public conveniences should be provided to the existing slum dwellers.

Being a doctor’s wife and having been on the advisory board of several hospitals no one realises better than Mrs. Cherian that the health of the city is the primary concern of the Corporation. Her constant attention is being bestowed on how best to improve the dispensaries, clinics, child welfare and maternity centres run by the municipality. She has also a scheme for enlarging the work done by the Corporation Public Health Laboratory with a specialist in charge. Here the citizens can have medical tests done at a nominal cost.

IN THE CAUSE OF LITERACY

Nearly a hundred thousand children attend the 282 schools maintained by the Corporation. Mrs. Cherian has, ever since she entered the Council, been striving to see that compulsory elementary education is given to all children of school-going age, so as to ensure cent per cent. literacy. In order to attract a larger number of children and also to improve the general standard of health, Mrs. Cherian has asked for an increase, with immediate effect, in the number of free midday meals given to poor children in the municipal schools. A great step in this direction was taken when, on New Year’s Day, Union Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari inaugurated the “Mayor’s Midday Meals and Clothing Fund”, meant to bring permanent benefits to underprivileged children.

The roads of the city have to be maintained in good condition. The famous Marina which justly draws the admiration of all visitors needs to be kept in constant repair. All these and several other schemes entail heavy expenditure. The Mayor however feels that taxation has reached the saturation point and the City Council must look to alternative sources of revenue to increase its resources.

MUNICIPAL REVENUES

The Madras motorist, be he the owner of a private car or a commercial vehicle, is perhaps the most heavily taxed in India. The Mayor thinks that the Corporation has a legitimate case for asking the Government for a greater share in the proceeds of the Motor Vehicles Tax and for the entire Terminal Tax. It is her intention to approach the State Government and press the municipality’s claims for grants, loans, subsidies and concessions on behalf of the city.

Receiving distinguished visitors is a prominent part of her duties. Within a few days of assuming office she had to hold a civic reception in honour of those good and faithful friends of India – Lord and Lady Pethick-Lawrence. They were no strangers to her and recalled meeting her in the summer of 1957 at a gathering of the India Overseas League and the East India Association when she spoke to them on “The Role of Women in India Today”.

Mrs. Cherian feels that the term of one year is too short a time in which to achieve all her aims. So in her first speech to the citizens of Madras, she said: “I do not want to promise big things which in the present circumstances of financial stringency may not be possible of achievement. However, I feel with your friendly co-operation and the co-operation of the Councillors, the Commissioner and the administrative staff, it will be possible for you to tell of me, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’ “

That is typical of her. Tara Cherian is not only the first citizen of Madras but also the first servant of the people.

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