Side-Street Senate

Inside a slum parliament in Chennai

A slum parliament in session in Chennai’s Border Thottam locality, in November 2023. Anuj Sahebrao Rayate
31 January, 2024

In a shuttered space located on a narrow road junction, the slum parliament of Border Thottam, a locality in Chennai’s Triplicane neighbourhood, convened a late-afternoon session. The meeting I witnessed in November 2023 was held in an office of a former sangam—a residents’ association—in the region. The parliament is made up of a committee and a council. While the committee is constituted by the residents of the slum, the council comprises representatives from the state government and the Chennai city administration, from departments such as engineering, conservancy and health.

Addressing the representatives of the engineering and conservancy departments, ES Reji, a resident of the slum and the treasurer of the slum parliament, posed a question, regarding their failure to comply with prior demands. “It was agreed to fill the potholes last month,” he said. “The delay has caused a great deal of inconvenience to the people, could we expect anything better this month?” The officials accepted the shortcomings and promised to deliver better in the coming fortnight.

The slum parliament in Border Thottam is one of two within the Chepauk–Thiruvallikeni constituency which is a result of a pilot slum re-development project undertaken by the architectural and urban-design firm Recycle Bin, the non-governmental organisation Cheer, and several state government departments. Recycle Bin focuses on projects concerning social and community matters. It came up with the idea of bringing parliamentary procedures in slums after visiting 48 of them in Chennai. “We did not create anything new, just reactivated the sangams after adding a governance angle to it,” Ganga Dileep C, the founder of the firm, told me. “Most of the sangams are dead or dormant, but they had space and registration. We revamped the space for our use.” The academic Adam Michael Auerbach, in his book Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India’s Urban Slums, records similar projects, including those in Bhopal and Jaipur, where development committees established by slum residents act as welfare associations and carry out activities such as mobilising and petitioning government officials for public services or spreading information about policies.

The parliament meets on a monthly basis, where the roadmap for the next month is laid down and the previous month’s work is reviewed. Besides community members, the onlookers also take an active interest in the discussions and give suggestions. Seeing the meeting take place, several young boys from the slum crowded in front of the block, generating a buzz. Women residents stopped multiple times to offer suggestions about the placement of a hand pump and repairs for potholes in the road, and raised other grievances. All points were noted down by John Ebenezer, the community development supervisor at Recycle Bin. He told me the members of the slum were extremely assertive when it came to making demands. The meeting also saw Reji strongly voice his disappointment over the delay in a road re-construction work. The officials replied that the delay was caused due to miscommunication among different Greater Chennai Corporation units. The potholes were repaired by the time the December meeting came around.