For the women by the women

Campaign poster of Priya Rajashekhar in Besant Nagar, Chennai.

With most women candidates ever in the fray, local body elections in Chennai saw focus on women’s safety

By Rishika Singh

For Priya Rajashekhar (55), a candidate for the urban local body elections in Chennai due on February 19, a recent event illustrates why the reservation of seats does not necessarily translate into meaningful change for women.

Rajashekhar recalled the wife of a local politician, a “dummy candidate”, who had contested from a reserved seat. When asked who she would vote for, she had responded with her husband’s name, forgetting that she was the one contesting the elections.

“That is why our appeal has been that give us a chance,” she said.

The 2022 urban local body elections, due on February 19, will see women candidates contest at least 50% of the total seats for the first time. This is due to a 2016 law on the reservation of seats passed by the Tamil Nadu government. 

Independent women candidates like Rajashekhar want to make a mark, with a focus on local issues of sanitation, garbage collection, water stagnation during rains, etc.

However, along with these issues that differ slightly ward-to-ward, women candidates are mindful of the need for improving safety for women in public spaces for their own areas.

Rajashekhar has lived in Besant Nagar for around three decades. Of late, a cause of concern is men who loiter at night near the residents’ houses. She said that men come from outside the area in a drunken state and harass women.

“We need CCTV cameras installed, and their maintenance needs to be done. We have only 48 cameras here so far. Police patrolling needs to be strict because while a police post exists right here, they are ineffective in addressing this problem.”

She has been a member of the Residents Welfare Association also and is adamant about getting work done, regardless of whether she gets elected. Her campaigning so far has involved building a social media presence and going door-to-door.

“Most parties have money behind them, so they give voters 500 rupees and make them vote for themselves, but if I do the same then what is the difference between them and me? I tell the people that I will do the work worth that much and more, over the next five years,” she said.

The last day of campaigning witnessed autos hired by the big political parties blaring campaign songs on loudspeakers, flyers being tossed into houses, and walls covered with stickers and posters of various candidates. 

But another independent candidate, the 94-year-old Kamakshi Subramaniyan from Besant Nagar, was not too bothered about the noise and focused on what she liked this time around.

Subramaniyan’s campaign material.

“I think it is a very encouraging thing,” she said, of the fact that more women than ever are contesting the polls. “But at the same time we will need to see how they work, and they should work.”

Subramaniyan has built an active presence in the neighbourhood as a social worker over the decades. The oldest candidate in the fray, her campaign has been mostly done online. For the possibility of campaigns like hers actually emerging victorious, the candidates face a basic hurdle: having the citizens vote. 

“Back in 2011, the voter turnout from my area was quite low, around 19 to 20%. It should be at least 55 to 60%,” said Rajashekhar. She blamed the “agenda-driven” approach of established political parties for people’s disinterest in local body elections, where political parties capture urban local bodies and do not concern themselves with local civic issues that come under a councillor. 

Subramaniyan agreed, saying that the low turnout was discouraging for candidates like her who are working to fix local issues and hoping to get elected for a greater say in the system.

Meera Ravikumar, an independent candidate from Thiruvanmiyur, is similarly hoping to win. For her own area’s issues, she said public places like waiting rooms and toilets must be well-lit, and CCTV cameras must be installed at vulnerable spots.  

“We need at least 30% trained women force in police to deal with women’s safety. More women force must be assigned with Police patrolling during odd hours,” she added.

Focus on police and CCTV cameras is often discussed by many in power too, as a potential tool for women’s safety. However, experts say it is not a one-stop solution to the fears women face in a public space

“Police and CCTVs help in identifying the perpetrator of a crime, but they are not actually solving the problem,” said Mallika Gupta, Communications Associate at Safetipin. Safetipin is a social organisation that works with urban stakeholders to make public spaces safer and more inclusive for women.

“The distinction between safety and security has to be understood. Security refers to the provision of a service that ultimately increases the chances of conviction. Safety is a broader, more intangible concept,” she added.

Safetipin works on solutions such as increasing the number of streetlights in an area, and giving women information about how crowded or open a space is, through technology like mobile apps. Multiple indicators can be looked at by app users in an area to gauge the level of safety.

“Indian cities were not planned, but just developed, so a lot of the solutions that are applied now are retrofitting. More awareness needs to be generated among policymakers and politicians about how women use spaces differently than men,” said Gupta.

She added that while infrastructural changes that may be required to develop cities in an inclusive manner would incur some cost, they would be more effective in generating a safer space. “It is about understanding the problem, and not top-down approaches,” she said.

“Whatever we do, we would like to involve the residents,” said Subramaniyan, of her plans to tackle the problems that residents will bring up to her, including women’s safety. It is perhaps in this statement that the promise of a genuinely democratised local-level governance gets reflected.