Procedures for petitions need to be tightened to prevent forged ones going out

Beware of forged petitions. The culture of petition-writing is well established in our part of the world. Since governments don’t engage in serious administrative reform and would like to keep bottlenecks in place, they ensure that people are busy writing petitions about various grievances. Pressing work can then be taken up at a leisurely pace. Many petitions are about civic issues — people usurping public space in front of houses, on footpaths, and of course, matters concerning individual problems relating to ration cards, water supply and so forth.

The petition phenomenon can be used in the most diabolical of ways. One city resident, serving in the committee of his residents’ welfare association, received acknowledgements from the Chennai Corporation and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, for a petition concerning violation of building norms allegedly committed by a neighbour.

It also mentioned theft of electricity from a street pole. The resident was shocked to receive such acknowledgements, because he had not filed any petition against his neighbour in the first place!

Evidently, someone who wanted to have a ‘discussion’ with the promoter of the new building found this a convenient method to initiate the process. What better way than to make an allegation in the name of the neighbour, and present this to the builder? It is not difficult to imagine how the ‘discussion’ would have proceeded. The episode ends with a further communication to the ‘petitioner’ that there is no merit in the complaint.

Obviously, the petition was forged, and since it was addressed to the Chief Minister’s Cell, from where it was redirected, there needs to be a review and tightening of procedures. An acceptable form of verification must be introduced for petitions, such as inclusion of two names with contact information, as references.

This brings us to another question: how can the construction of a building be carried out in a crowded city such as Chennai, without falling afoul of the law? There is a need to store material, including sand, bricks, gravel and provide space for concrete mixers to work. Can we have a normative system of doing this, by specifying how it can be done?

Naturally, it is easy to prohibit people from doing things — we love to ban — but it would be a lot more helpful to make positive, enabling provisions.

Introducing a system of containers for storing material in an orderly manner is one way of avoiding vast mounds of sand and tall of stacks of bricks on the roads, which obstruct people and vehicles. Such a system is found in some developing countries.

Today, the construction of even a small house for one’s own use (no profit involved) invariably involves paying ‘protection money’ to lower officials of civic agencies. These people in public service are, ostensibly, keeping our roads and footpaths obstruction-free, and preventing building plan violations. The condition of T. Nagar tells us what actually happens. Ultimately, regularisation of illegal constructions comes to the rescue.

Can civic agencies that constantly pester and harass citizens in this manner stake claim to legitimate decentralised governance? Corrupt officials, and equally, citizens who bend the law to suit their purpose, only strengthen demands for the removal of additional layers of local government which function as no more than rent collectors. Alarmingly, the rotten eggs in the system have seized upon petition writing — resorting even to forgery — to feather their nests.

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