In a week from now, 44.5 lakh voters will cast their votes to choose the Mayor and 200 ward councillors. For residents of areas that are merging with the Chennai Corporation, this election holds the key to major infrastructure improvement. While residents of the existing city are skeptical about the future of the expanded city, those in the suburbs are hoping for changes overnight.

Former councillor and advocate P.S.S. Dhanushkodi said expansion would mean more work for councillors and officials. “At present, councillors get Rs.30 lakh each as ward development fund… this would hardly be enough for wards in the expanded areas. The government might impose some kind of development tax on some areas to fund infrastructure in the expanded areas. We have to wait and see what powers the State government gives to the Corporation,” he said.

Candidates feel that the suburbs, which are growing faster than the city, would see better infrastructure after the elections. “Smaller municipalities do not have enough funds to develop world-class infrastructure. The Chennai Corporation has done a better job than the suburban bodies. They get funds from the State government… we have to go to the Collector for funds,” said R. Ammu Ravichandran, president of Theeyambakkam panchayat.

Every day, the Chennai Corporation toll-free helpline 1913 receives around 150 calls from residents complaining about garbage collection, non-functional streetlights, unauthorised constructions and incomplete stormwater drain construction.

Residents of City Limit Road, Secretariat Colony, Adambakkam are so disappointed that they have put up notices requesting candidates not to canvas on their street. Banners have come up protesting callous attitude of the Corporation, for not arresting sewage flow on the street during rains and not providing sufficient drinking water in the locality. “Voting is our democratic right… we will decide whether to vote or not. But for now this is how we are showing our protest,” said B. Selvaraj, a resident.

“Our voters are aware about local issues and how their councillors functioned. Local issues, including bad roads, solid waste management, streetlights and water supply, would reflect in the election of councillors,” said SUSTAIN Managing Trustee M.G. Devasahayam.

Candidates' profiles

Even as campaigning by political parties has reached a feverish pitch, residents across the city are doing some active thinking about whom to vote for and whether to vote or not. Voters are also looking at the profile of candidates. “There is no criterion that they must be educated… their age and citizenship is the consideration,” said C.V. Krishnan of Virugambakkam. Instead of refraining from voting, under Rule 71 of Urban Election Rules, voters can register in Form 21 at the polling booth. This is similar to the 49(O) option.

The turnout during civic body elections has been generally lower than during Assembly or Parliament elections. In 1996, a total of 45.75 per cent of Chennaiites cast their votes; in 2001 it was 36.11 per cent, and in 2006, 55 per cent.

Political commentator Gnani said one reason for lesser voter turnout in local body election is that residents do not hold councillors, municipal chairmen or Mayors as being responsible for their areas. “They are not seen as the true representatives of the people. It has been established in the minds of voters that MLAs and MPs are representatives of their constituency. That can be changed if proportional representation is brought in. In proportional representation people vote for parties and based on the votes polled the parties depute representatives.”

Councillors are the voice of the residents in the civic body. They ensure that basic infrastructure is put in place and maintained. They also use their influence to reach social welfare measures to the beneficiaries.

However, some councillors are allegedly misusing their authority. A councillor on condition of anonymity said, “Not many councillors really want to serve people. Some councillors do not concentrate on peoples' issues but have become a burden on the public. Such elements demand money from contractors and even from the public, who construct houses.”

Residents call for appointing an ombudsman to prefer complaints about errant councillors. “In the last five years there have been instances of the State government removing councillors and municipal chairmen. Anna Hazare has been demanding [a grievance redress mechanism] in various stages… if that comes it will help,” Mr.Gnani added.

How NGOs help

Though awareness of their councillor is high, many residents choose to approach civic body officials to resolve civic issues. Residents feel that councillors lack patience or seek bribes to resolve issues. Sometimes councillors are unable to solve certain issues.

Non-governmental organisations such as Exnora International and resident welfare associations have stepped in to bridge the gap between councillors and residents. K. Varadhan, president of Secretariat Colony Residents' Welfare Association, Ambattur, said: “We regularly interact with ward members for civic problems. Sometimes, councillors ask us to submit representations to officials to lay emphasis on the significance of the problems.”

Uma Kannan, a councillor in Ambattur Municipality, who regularly attends residents' association meetings, said: “It makes our job easier as we get to listen to local issues at one spot and meet many residents. Residents call me regarding problems including dog menace and even seek my help to approach police and solve domestic problems.”

While candidates are wooing voters, the Chennai Corporation is gearing up for elections on October 17. “We will ensure the conduct of peaceful elections in all the 4,876 booths. Around 1,900 booths have been identified as sensitive. Steps have been taken with police coordination,” said Corporation Commissioner D.Karthikeyan.

(With inputs from K.Lakshmi, Aloysius Xavier Lopez, Deepa H Ramakrishnan)

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