A Story from Chennai, India

By Divya Siddarth

Politics in Tamil Nadu have always been colorful. Colorful, and corrupt. Well, let’s give credit where credit is due - Tamil Nadu is one of the most well-educated and literate states in India, has a robust healthcare program for its people, and has instituted a wide array of excellent welfare policies that do truly benefit the poor and working classes. (I’m not trying to trash talk my beautiful and bountiful ancestral home in this article). That being said, a thread of corruption does go through the government, and it is now ranked among India’s most corrupt states.

Recently, I met with Jayaram Venkatesan, the co-founder of an extraordinary group that aims to change that. Arappor Iyakkum (meaning: the good fight) is an organization - nay, a movement - that hopes to stem the tide of that corruption, to ‘establish transparency and accountability in governance, and to build participative democracy to solve people's issues’. An entirely volunteer-based organization in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, the group works on hyperlocal and regional instances of corruption, bringing awareness, education, and change. It also has a shocking number of incredibly positive Google and Facebook reviews, which I would advise you to check out if you’re looking for some hope and optimism in your day.

So what do they actually do? Right now, their work is in four categories, that they’ve determined to be most important to the people of Chennai: anti-corruption, citizen rights, public health, and waterbodies. In each, they are willing to do the dirty work of change. For example, they noticed discrepancies in contracting payments given by government hospitals, and followed the thread until they discovered a scheme of bribery for essential services within the hospital. They filed a case against the hospital to expose and remove the institutionalized bribery - but, as we know, it’s never that easy. So they followed up weekly with every government body involved, conducted their own audits so the courts couldn’t postpone for lack of information, and pushed the case through until it was finally heard and won. And they bring this level of commitment and tenacity to every small battle they fight against corruption - they try not to give up any ground, in order to eventually win the war.

In the realm of citizen’s rights, Arappor takes two tactics - a combination of strategic protest and education initiatives. In the latter category, for example, the organization runs a ‘Know Your Rights’ workshop every month in a different Chennai community. This is a brilliant move - they are able to build a robust, truly grassroots organization in every locality, while simultaneously educating citizens on how to actually use the Right to Information act for practical grievance redressal and citizen audits.

Protest and rallies are also key parts of the Arappor strategy - parts, not the whole. Jayaram was very clear in our conversation that the goals of Arappor are not simply around mass mobilization against the government, which he finds important but not productive on its own. That isn’t what he means by a ‘people’s movement’. As he says: ‘Our principles are anti-corruption, fairness, nonviolence. This is how we build trust and credibility. We fight the government only to change them, so that we can work with them and use their resources better. This is the way forward.’ In addition, the focus in rallies isn’t just around holding a space for anger against the system, but also mixes with the goals of education and positivity - at the rally I had the honor of attending, dance performances, chants, and poetry were all used to point out not just ills of the community but also the pathways to change.

What particularly inspires me about Arappor is their focus and commitment - focus on solving the problems of Chennai before taking their rhetoric to the state or national level, and commitment to each and every issue they address. In a time when it is far easier to capture numbers and views and likes for a movement through social media than it is to sustainably grow a grassroots organization, Arappor is an incredible example of what a true people’s movement can achieve.