Expert Speak: Senior Deputy Editor of The Hindu, A. Srivathsan says, there is simmering anger on the part of citizens in Chennai on the poor civic conditions

Recently, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo were outraged against the rise in bus and Metro Rail fares. Istanbul took to the streets when the government tried to take over a public park to build a commercial centre. A couple of years ago, there were riots in Johannesburg and Durban against poor quality housing and non-delivery of services.

What about Chennai? If the readers’ response to The Hindu’sRight to Walk’ campaign is any indication, this city too is seething with indignation and there is a strong dissatisfaction about the delivery of civic services.

Chennai though has not staged anything on the scale of Rio de Janeiro or Istanbul, but it has come close to doing so a few times. It is worth recalling some of these moments particularly in the context of the ongoing ‘My Chennai My Right’ campaign.

First, a bit of history: one of the major public protests staged in this city was in 1884, when Governor Grant Duff wanted to move the capital from Madras to Nilgiris. Spontaneous strikes broke out, and swelling crowds gathered at the Esplanade Maidan. The governor had to reverse his decision.

Almost a century later, fishermen resisted their eviction from the Marina in the name of city beautification. A few died when the police fired at them. Public outcry saved DGP building in the 1990s and Queen Mary’s college in 2003 from demolition. A few neighbourhoods came together to fight the elevated road along the beach a few years ago.

In many of these protests, the city did not erupt in unison, and there is no immediate sign of it happening. This, however, does not mean all is well with Chennai nor has it remarkably improved over the years.

A host of readers, in the last two weeks, have complained they cannot get the attention of local Corporation officials to attend to even simple things such as putting the manhole cover back in place or removing garbage. There is simmering anger on poor civic conditions.

Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro are warning bells to Chennai city managers. As trust deficit mounts and patience wears thin, even a small civic issue could turn into a tipping point. As Engin Isin, a well-known scholar of politics, insightfully remarked, cities are no more backdrops for rallies and protests. They have become the battlegrounds to reclaim citizenship rights. If governments take public opinion for granted, ignore civic needs and implement ill-conceived urban projects, people will strike back.

What should the Corporation do? First, it has to remind itself that it is primarily a civic institution and a citizens’ corporation. Building bridges, issuing trade licences and approving building plans are important, so is servicing the city, and keeping streets safe and clean. Second, it has to acknowledge its governance structure is not working. This needs to be replaced by a creative system, which would hold officials and councillors equally accountable. If the Corporation can do well to bestow good attention on areas such as Boat Club Road, it can also do the same to other areas.

All it requires is commitment. Citizens must reclaim their rights and persist. Nothing works as collective public opinion does.

More In: Chennai | News | Columns