Kalyanapuram is a slum located on the banks of the Buckingham Canal in the northern part of Chennai. Stagnating water and mountains of garbage surround it. With a population of 1,000 families, each living in 150 sq. ft houses in narrow streets, it does not have an inch of free space.

At the entrance of the slum is a toilet complex. Thenappan G., a 57-year-old coolie worker, pays 2 for using the toilet, which was refurbished in June. “You don’t know what you were missing until you have it," he says, smiling.

The toilet complex, which has 50 cubicles, used to be cleaned irregularly. People had to carry water as there was no running supply. Now, the complex is well-lit, laid with pink and white tiles, with iron doors that can be latched from inside. There is running water in each cubicle and they are cleaned every night.

Though the slum has five toilet complexes, four of them (with three cubicles each) are dilapidated. The refurbished toilet, the largest, was in a similar condition until the intervention of Transparent Chennai in 2012.

Transparent Chennai, a non-governmental organization, uses the right to information law to gather Chennai-specific data about neglected civic issues in the city, and presents it to the local ward officers. Their public-toilet mapping initiative, which helps identify unusable toilets in the city, aims at using data to empower not only citizens but also the government machinery to create change at the ward level.

Since there is little quality data available on toilets at the ward level, Transparent Chennai collects data by filing RTIs and making visits, zone by zone. Then they map the toilets based on their functionality. According to their latest data, Chennai has only 714 public toilets for a population of 4.6 million, which means that each seat is used by around 6,442 people—the National Urban Sanitation Policy sets a limit of 60 persons per seat.

“We are collecting and using information that was previously unavailable to empower citizens to push for change, and also increase accountability of government officials in the process," says Nithya Raman, director of Transparent Chennai, which was set up in 2010. “We don’t create the change, we are the vehicle for it. At the end of the day, the implementation of the findings is entirely in the ward councillor’s hands who chooses what he wants to do with the data," says Satyarupa Shekhar, researcher and in-charge of the public sanitation project at the NGO.

To ensure that accountability rests in citizens’ hands and to enhance public participation, Transparent Chennai mobilizes the community to conduct public meetings with their councillors. They say that people don’t trust councillors easily but after the first few meetings, when people see that the councillor is serious about change, they become eager to take part in the process. This is what happened in Kalyanapuram. “The meetings made us believe that our vote was bringing us results. Just because we live in a slum, Transparent Chennai has taught us to not sit quietly and instead claim all that is entitled to us," says Saran, a resident of Kalyanapuram who goes by one name.

“We are trying to hand over the process to the residents now," says Priti Narayan, a research associate. This would make the community directly accountable for change, making it a self-sustainable activity, she adds.

The ward councillor of Kalyanapuram, Aavin R. Arulvel, appreciates Transparent Chennai’s assistance in civic governance. Elected in 2011, he says he has 117 streets in his ward to monitor. “It takes three months just to survey them all. We are short-staffed, so it is difficult to address the specific needs each community has." Transparent Chennai’s surveys helped in setting the priority, says the councillor.

Transparent Chennai believes the solution to administration lies in data. By providing useful and relevant information, the NGO helps the ward councillor direct his limited resources to address the pressing needs of the people, says Raman.

For Arulvel, this process makes identifying problems easier as people collectively voice their needs through a community meeting.

In a span of six months, Kalyanapuram built drains in every street, put in place a garbage disposal system, erected a wall to protect the burial ground premises and built a fortified area for women to wash clothes. In future meetings, the residents want to discuss water connections for every house, refurbishment of the other toilets, and a way to clear out the garbage completely.

Shekhar says having achievable goals, and not aiming at instant results, was important.

After its success in Kalyanapuram, their first live project, Transparent Chennai wants to map 30 wards by the end of this year, and collect data on the state of the toilets there. It has mapped a total of 134 toilets in 27 wards till now—of these, 78 toilets were mapped in 13 wards this year.

Having learnt that the success of such a project depends on the councillor’s ability to carry out the work, the NGO hopes to bring together more communities with their respective leaders through data on civic amenities.

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10,000 can help them to

• Create apps for mapping zones.

• Collect data.

• Hire 100 volunteers.

If you volunteer, you will

• Help in surveying wards and collect data.

Recent donors

• The Asia Foundation

• International Development Research Centre

• Ford Foundation

To contact Transparent Chennai, visit www.transparentchennai.com.