A walk down 1st, 2nd and 4 streets in Balaji Nagar and Masilamani Road in Royapettah, which form a neat rectangle, is enough to sample all things that can go wrong with a footpath.

Mini gardens, dumped construction debris, construction material stored, open manholes, petty shops, junction boxes and indiscriminate parking – these are regular features in the area, forcing pedestrians to walk on the busy carriageways amidst traffic.

Eight months ago, frustrated residents of the area sent a letter to the Chennai Corporation, but to date, little has changed.

On Tuesday, Preethi Swaminathan, a resident of Balaji Nagar, decided to do something. After a written complaint and three days of constant follow-ups, branches and debris were cleared from all four streets. However, larger issues such as encroachments, fencing outside residences and the use of the pavement as storage space remain unattended.

Step 1

The first step was going to the Chennai Corporation office in CIT Nagar. There, Preethi submitted a written complaint about the problems plaguing the footpaths in her neighbourhood.

At the office, she was told that all the officials were out on duty. She handed over the complaint to the office assistant, who gave her phone numbers of some officials, and a maistry who, the assistant said, would come to clear the tree branches by that afternoon.

When Preethi called the maistry, Anand, he said he would clear the branches, but that the debris was not his job. By Tuesday afternoon, the branches on one street were gone and by Thursday, all the branches were taken away.

Step 2

On Wednesday morning, Preethi called Mr. Pasupathy, who she was told was the assistant executive engineer (AEE) to check if he had received her letter. He gave her the numbers of two people, who he said would call her. Two assistants of the junior engineer arrived on her street in the next few minutes. (The area does not have a junior engineer at present.) While promising that the debris would be cleared by Thursday, the assistants remained non-committal about the issue of fencing.

In the afternoon, Preethi called an assistant again, to ask about the fencing. This time, he said he would come the next morning and see what he could do.

On Thursday morning, the men, an earthmover and a lorry arrived on 2 street to clear the mountain of debris. Under the supervision of the two assistants, they worked till late in the afternoon in and around the streets, in at least five places. Ironically, in many places, the debris could not be entirely removed because of haphazard parking.

However, on encroachments, and fencing, the assistants said they could not do much. Their responses through the day ranged from, “Some residents have beautified the pavement,” to “We have tried several times, but residents do not co-operate”, to “Some areas are worse”.

“We are attending to complaints almost immediately. Every morning, we go on rounds and clear debris on other roads as well. A few days later, debris is dumped again,” an assistant said.

Step 3

Not satisfied with their answers, Preethi called the AEE again that afternoon, and asked him about the open manholes and fencing. He said the stormwater drains department was responsible for the pavements and would ask someone to get in touch with her.

When asked about the fencing, he said he would take it up with the junior engineer, and asked Preethi to also speak to the JE’s assistant. When she said she had already showed him the spot, the AEE said he would take it up with the JE who would soon take charge and gave her this official’s number.

“We will first talk to the resident who has put up the fence. If there is no response, we will file a police complaint,” the AEE said. This would take a week to 10 days, he said.

For Preethi, getting the debris and garbage cleared was a small victory towards making the neighbourhood she grew up in a cleaner and safer place to walk in. “I am very happy that there was such prompt response from the civic body and action was taken. But the larger issues remain, and when officials tell you there’s not much they can do, it leaves you feeling helpless,” she said.

For the footpaths to once again belong solely to pedestrians, she said residents should also behave responsibly.

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