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HomeFeaturesChennai will soon have a Dalit woman mayor. Its symbolism is unmissable

Chennai will soon have a Dalit woman mayor. Its symbolism is unmissable

Social activists in Tamil Nadu are concerned that reservation for the oppressed castes in mayoral positions will not bring in any real change, and only play into political parties' vote banks.

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Chennai: In less than a month, Chennai will have a woman mayor from the scheduled caste community, a historic development that has ignited political competition and conversations around the most coveted urban governance position in the state. The reservation for the mayor post, announced by the Tamil Nadu government on the recommendation of the State Election Commission, is in line with the existing policy. But what is potentially transformative is that this change will now be in the state capital, which has been bruised by floods and crumbling infrastructure in recent years.

“In politics, real estate is everything. And Chennai is the capital city. Usually, such measures are rolled out in rural areas,” said Tara Krishnaswamy, founder of Political Shakti, an organisation which advocates for more representation of women in public offices.

The Chennai mayor post was earlier held by current chief minister M.K. Stalin from 1996-2002. Stalin was credited for revamping the roads in the city and building flyovers, as well as waste management.

However, some also think it may be too good to be true. With a history of the self-respect movement also known as the Dravidian movement, which fought for the emancipation of women and grant of property rights to them, the state’s politics is still male-dominated. Those cynical of this change are fearful that this is just a move to have a female face at the centre and that men will continue to be involved in most of the decision-making. What also concerns some is that reservation for the oppressed castes will not bring in any real change, and will only play into parties’ vote banks. Some development activists said that citizen grievance and redressal processes need to be reformed first for any real change in Chennai’s governance.

In the past, two women have held the post of mayor of Chennai – Tara Cherian (from 1957-1958), and Kamakshi Jayaraman (1971-1972). However, this is the first time an SC woman will hold this post.

Speaking to ThePrint, D Ravikumar of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), an anti-caste activist and MP from Villupuram, told that in 2006 the VCK had filed a petition before the Madras High Court after the AIADMK government refused to reserve the post for woman from the SC community. The reservation did not come in to effect in 2011, and post 2016, no elections have been held. “It definitely makes a difference since Chennai is the capital of the state. Currently, they are only following the rules as there is a legal compulsion to reserve the seat. Going forward, there should be more such measures for true representation,” said Ravikumar.

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The Chennai challenge

Among the issues that plague Chennai, the incessant flooding after rains is the most pressing one — as seen in 2021 when roads turned into rivers, and boats were required to commute. In 2015, the metropolis was flooded and on its knees after 1,049mm of rainfall. That year, more than 400 people had lost their lives across the state due to the floods. Floods also bring the challenge of water-borne diseases such as dengue and diarrhea, health secretary J. Radhakrishnan had acknowledged in the past.

Speaking about the issues in the metro that need immediate attention, Chennai-based writer and researcher Nityanand Jayaraman, who heads the collective Vettiver Koottamaippu that documents environmental abuse by corporates, said that the first order of things should be to put correct processes in place rather than focussing on issues.

From bottom-up, policy making needed to be resolved to account for people’s aspirations and their voice, said Jayaraman.

“How does someone’s concern reach the mayor systematically is what needs to be the focus. Ward-level processes need to be strengthened,” Jayaraman said. Pointing at the collateral damage being done, he said that the cost of urbanisation was being paid by a few communities who anyway had to bear the brunt of floods and Covid.

“One needs to focus on their voice and their rehabilitation before focussing on any plans of expanding the city.”

The election for the post of the mayor used to be a direct one. However, this was changed in 2020 when the AIADMK government did away with the Tamil Nadu Municipal Law – 2018 enacted in 2018 and reverted to Jayalalitha’s indirect election plan from 2016. The current DMK government headed by M.K. Stalin has chosen to continue with the indirect election.

Tamil Nadu will soon go to polls for its urban body positions on 19 February. The councillors elected in the urban body polls, will then vote for the mayor.

Besides the capital city, even nearby Tambaram has the post reserved for a woman from the SC community, while the mayor of Avadi, a Chennai suburb, will be a man from the SC community. The post of mayors of Cuddalore, Madurai, Coimbatore, Kancheepuram, Sivakasi, Vellore etc have also been reserved for women.

Speaking to ThePrint, Tamil Nadu health minister Ma. Subramanian, who is also overseeing the ruling party’s urban body poll campaign, said that the reservation was done on a rotation basis according to the population, on the recommendation of the State Election Commission (SEC).

“This is the first time a woman from the SC category will be mayor of Chennai. As the position is reserved for women, it will give greater importance to female candidates and that’s great. In the DMK, from the post of deputy secretary to different sub-organisations within the party, many positions are reserved for women. So this is just an extension of that,” he said.

Former minister and AIADMK leader C. Ponnaiyan said that the reservation was only being done due to recommendation from the SEC that was based on the percentage of the population of people from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities.

“State government has nothing to do with this. Currently it is too premature to talk about whether we (AIADMK) have a candidate in mind.”

DMK officials too said that, as of now, they had not thought of a potential candidate for the mayor’s post and would decide once the urban body polls concluded.

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Risk of empty optics and false promises

Out of the 21 Corporations in Tamil Nadu, two are reserved for SC (women), one for SC (general), and nine for General (women).

But Tara Krishnaswamy doubts whether women representatives will benefit from these quotas. “In the past, we have seen this happen many times, that the male members are leading the public meetings and gatherings.”

To prevent this, she asserted, the state administration should ensure that the female elected representatives’ powers were not usurped and there was more female representation that was truly inclusive.

Prashanth Goutham, volunteer at Arappor, a people’s movement that works towards bringing transparency and accountability in governance, said he believes the mayor should be elected from within the ruling party, else it would lead to much tussle and differences in power. Which was the rationale used by the AIADMK previously as well, that if the mayor did not belong to a party that enjoyed majority in the municipal council then development work would be impacted.

Goutham seemed less optimistic. He doubted this would bring any real change as candidates would just be planted to cover an additional vote bank. A better representation, he said, would be possible if change comes from the grassroots.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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