R Priya will be the first Dalit woman to hold the post of Mayor of Chennai. Prior to the recently concluded urban elections in Tamil Nadu, the state government passed an order reserving the post for a woman from a Scheduled Caste. After Tara Cherian and Kamakshi Jayaraman, Priya will become Chennai’s third female mayor. She is also one of many young candidates who won a councilor post in the Chennai Corporation, the youngest being Priyadarshini (21) of the CPI(M), an ally of the DMK. Priyadarshini won the election from ward 98 in Teynampet. DMK announced on Thursday, March 3 that Priya will be the party’s mayoral candidate. Since the DMK has majority in the Chennai Corporation, Priya will be formally elected as the Mayor very soon.
As the first mayor from North Chennai, Priya won the Mangalapuram ward – an area often neglected by administrations and incorrectly depicted in a majority of Tamil movies.
R Priya will take office as the councillor of ward 74, Mangalapuram, as well as the first mayor of North Chennai – a neighborhood too often overlooked by administrations, and too often wrongly portrayed in Tamil cinema as a place marked by rowdyism and violence. North Chennai still lacks basic infrastructure – from drinking water to electricity to connectivity to sanitation, issues that a new wave of films and independent music have highlighted. In this context, the appointment of the young councillor as mayor is a welcome and long overdue shift toward more representation for North Chennai.
R Priya has been a member of the party since the age of 18, but this is her first official post as a councillor. This reporter sat down with her at her home on Krishnadoss Street on the second floor of a bright pink building to talk about herself and her entry into politics.
Dravidian leaders, including Annadurai, Karunanidhi, and Stalin, are displayed on walls and shelves alongside wreaths in the party colors of red and black. While well-wishers come and go, her shy four-year-old sits in the corner with a colouring book.
Last year’s Assembly elections saw the DMK retake power in the state, which sparked Priya’s interest in politics. “I saw that the CM is trying to make a difference, I wanted to be a part of it. There are many issues that this neighbourhood faces. Water comes mostly only on alternate days, the roads need to be improved. There are electricity concerns,” she says.
DMK’s area co-secretary, R Rajan, is her father. When she is asked whether her family background influenced her to become active in student politics during her college days at Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Arts & College for Women in George Town, R Priya laughs and replies, “No, this is a recent development, though I was in the party. This seems like an ideal time to help this area, so I took the plunge.” In addition, she says that young people should get involved in politics: “They will have new ideas, new energy. They will have fresh ways of seeing things. This is needed.” The newly elected councillor also wants to remind young political aspirants to not lose sight of their priorities, which are always service and the people.
People in Her ward hope for change. “There are many issues here that need to be urgently addressed,” Says Amu, 36, who owns a small shop not far from Priya’s residence. “The water supply situation has improved a bit recently, but summers are hard. Some of us women have in the past had to take an auto to near Dr Ambedkar College (about 4 km away) to get the water lorries to come here. It costs Rs 100 to get there. We also have drainage and mosquito problems. R Priya is a local resident, she grew up here. I really believe she will improve things for our neighbourhood because she herself has seen these issues first hand.”
Amu adds, “I usually vote for a different party, but this time my vote went to Priya. Before the elections, she listened to the various issues we all have and has promised to take them up.” Amu says another issue that the neighborhood wants to raise is an open corporation ground that could serve as a playground for children in the area, if cleaned up. A group of young boys took this reporter to see the grounds, which are bordered by an e-savory center and a brightly colored state government-run crche. The land is littered with rubbish, debris and broken bottles.
“Men come here to drink at night and leave the alcohol bottles here,” one of the boys says. “If this place is cleaned up and fenced off, it would make a huge difference to us. There’s nowhere else for us to go play.”
Both the worker at the E-sevai centre and the creche helper agree with the boys. “Even the little children (between 3 and 6 years) can’t really play outside. There are about 30 of them, mostly from low-income families. We cook for them here, but the rubbish brings in rats. It’s hard to keep the place sanitary in these conditions,” the creche helper says.
With Priya winning the elections, these are some of the issues that will change the hopes of the Mangalapuram neighborhood.