With wide, neatly laid roads and multi-storied apartments, Kannagi Nagar, off Chennai’s Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), gives the illusion of a well-laid out residential colony. But under this veil is the raw life of its marginalised residents – ‘resettled’ here from various slums in the city between 2000 and 2010. The 1.25 lakh population of this neighbourhood is forced to turn to criminal ways to meet their daily demands, as their address has been denying them employment for the past 17 odd years.
The neighbourhood, which has more than 150 listed criminals, is seen as the home of all crime in Chennai – which means employers refuse to hire anyone residing in Kannagi Nagar, be it for white-collar jobs or menial ones. With no means of livelihood, the of Kannagi Nagar and neighbouring Ezhil Nagar are now stuck in a cycle of poverty and crime.
“I was working as a housemaid in five houses in Teynampet when the government pulled down my house and forcefully shifted us to Kannagi Nagar in 2000. Now I sit at home with no work and am struggling to make both ends meet. My husband, who is an alcoholic, spends all the money he earns on liquor,” Prema, 45, one of the residents of Kannagi Nagar says.
It is not that Prema did not approach the neighbouring localities to find work as a housemaid, but as soon as she told prospective employers that she hails from Kannagi Nagar, she was shooed away.
“Nobody wants to hire us even after we provide four photographs, copies of our voter ID, Aadhar card and ration card. They don’t want to employ people from Kannagi Nagar and Ezhil Nagar,” Muniamma, 50, another resident says.
While Prema and Muniamma, too weak to travel to and fro to the city daily for work, decided to remain unemployed, many other women are still travelling to places like Nungambakkam and Arumbakkam to the houses where they worked as housemaids earlier.
“If we make Rs 6,000 per month, Rs 2,000 goes towards travel expenses. From Kannagi Nagar, we have to pay Rs 20 for a shared auto to go to Adyar, and Rs 15 to Sholinganallur. If we choose to go by bus, we have to take two to three buses to reach our destination,” Vasanthi, 38, another resident says.
Some major multinational IT companies on the Old Mahabalipuram Road are offering housekeeping jobs for women from Kannagi Nagar at a meagre salary of Rs 6,000 per month.
“But the timings of these jobs never suit us,” says Maria, 40, another Kannagi Nagar resident. “We have to leave our house by 6am and can return only by 10pm. If we opt for this job then there will be no one to take care of our children. When we were housemaids there were no such issues as we could finish work in three or four houses at our convenience,” Maria adds.
How Kannagi Nagar came to be
Michael M Cernea, an American-Romanian social scientist who was the senior advisor for sociology with the World Bank, had once pointed out that being forcefully ousted from one’s land and habitat carries with it the risk of becoming poorer than before displacement. Kannagi Nagar proves Cernea’s observations true to the letter and spirit.
The residents of this area were previously living in slums across the city, from Arumbakkam to Saidapet, to Teynampet to Royapettah.
J Jayalalithaa started the eviction of slum dwellers in the city following ‘findings’ of environmentalists that encroachments on lake beds and water bodies need to be cleared for the restoration of such waterways, and the government was quick to shift the slum dwellers to far off locations.
What the government did not spell out was that the State was the single largest encroacher on water bodies in the name of ‘developmental’ schemes in the city. Government agencies like the Tamil Nadu Housing Board had listed out special schemes to use the ‘defunct’ lakes to create land for housing in the city. Then followed the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) and elevated expressways.
M Karunanidhi too continued what Jayalalithaa started, in a bid to beautify the city by removing the slums, seen as eyesores, and thus denying thousands their livelihood.
In the decade between 2000 and 2010, many of these slum dwellers were shifted to Kannagi Nagar in a phased manner – and with 37,149 houses of 250 sq ft each, the neighbourhood will go down as the worst planned resettlement model in the history of Tamil Nadu.
No conduct certificates from cops, no jobs
It is not just the womenfolk of Kannagi Nagar and Ezhil Nagar, but also the educated youngsters (though they constitute a miniscule percentage) who face the crisis of unemployment due to their address.
“When educated youths from our locality go for an interview, the employers ask them to get a conduct certificate from the police, and invariably the police refuse to give one. Many employers are not even ready to entertain applications from Kannagi Nagar residents,” says Narayanan Kutty, who hails from Ottapalam in Kerala and has been living in Kannagi Nagar for the last 17 years.
He says that more than 90% of the men, including youngsters, are addicted to alcohol and a large percentage to ganja. Where the women are unemployed, the family is forced to starve.
“Men spend all the money they earn on liquor and beat up the women. Most slum dwelling families survive because of the money earned by women in the family. In Kannagi Nagar, most of the women are forced to be unemployed and their families suffer,” he adds.
The successive governments have provided all the basic amenities like school, hospital and corporation e-service centre at Kannagi Nagar. However, the residents allege that the governments have done nothing to help them find livelihood.
“We had decided to live in slums due to the proximity to our workplace. We could not afford to rent or own a house in the middle of the city, and were forced to live in poor conditions. We had no choice as we had to struggle to live. Now in these cramped, leaky houses at Kannagi Nagar we are in no better condition. Our life is worse than what it used to be in the slums,” Shanthi, 38, another resident says.