From heart of Chennai to Perumbakkam slum: Women face the brunt of displacement

Apart from losing their livelihoods, the women also face lack of drinking water and non-availability of ration cards with no schools and hospitals nearby.
From heart of Chennai to Perumbakkam slum: Women face the brunt of displacement
From heart of Chennai to Perumbakkam slum: Women face the brunt of displacement
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The sky is everywhere. But in some places, it is broader – only in some places where lives are empty. If there is anything noteworthy, apart from the slum tenements in Perumbakkam near Chennai, it is the broad empty sky. When you look at the sky from among the houses, which remind one of the Nazi concentration camps, it creates a feeling of being abandoned.

When a bureaucrat, journalist or activist visits the houses on one of those rare occasions, the women surround the guest in large numbers seeking to vent out all their complaints and demand action. Demands pour like rains – lack of drinking water, non-availability of ration cards, no schools, no hospitals, no pension for widows, et al.

From Mackey’s Garden in Greams Road – the central part of Chennai – Amirtham was dragged to Perumbakkam in Kanchipuram district seven months ago, along with her family and other inmates of the slum there. In a matter of few months, she turned into a debtor. Her husband lost his job after eviction.

“My husband Amalraj was working as a welder. He would earn Rs 400 per day. I was earning Rs 6500 a month in the housekeeping department of a private company. As long as we lived in Chennai, we had no debts. But now our peace of mind is in debt. We have no means to live. Just because it is cemented, how can we live in a desert?” she asks.

Amirtham’s is not an isolated voice. It represents the voice of the deprived oppressed class. Perumbakkam, the third largest settlement after Kannagi Nagar and Semmenjeri, is 40 km from Chennai. Like Amirtham’s, 200 other families that lived in a slum on Greams Road for over four decades were shifted to Perumbakkam last November. When the December 2015 floods washed Chennai away, the people living in the slums on the banks of the Adyar were the worst affected. For the government which was already contemplating removing them from their habitats for urban development projects, the flood offered the perfect reason.

Perumbakkam tenements were allotted to those who lived on the banks of the Adyar. Of the 10,000 families, 3,634 were displaced in 2016 and 2,519 in 2017. Every family was displaced against their wish. Displacements can be heart-breaking for many reasons. For the women displaced to Perumbakkam, loss of employment opportunities adds to the pain.

“We have no land or savings. We have not inherited any properties. We neither have the support of the government nor of society. We live on hopes that we can come up if we work hard. But the government has snatched away even that hope from us,” says 27-year-old Anitha, another woman who was displaced to Perumbakkam.

According to a report by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) and the Housing Land Rights Network (HLRN), 15% of men and 19% of women have been rendered jobless after the displacement. Before being displaced to Perumbakkam, almost all the women were employed as domestic workers, housekeepers, cooks and saleswomen. They could take care of their families and still travel a few kilometres to their workplace. They managed to survive even if the husbands sometimes don’t earn. But now, the women are not able to step out of their houses.

“Listen to our men first,” suggests 55-year-old Selvi. “Only then you will understand the plight of women. My husband Baanabas was working in a private company nearby. He would leave by nine in the morning and return around six. Every day he would earn Rs 500 and every day he would hand over the wage to me. We have a son and two daughters. We educated them and got them married. But of the Rs 500 today, my husband has to spend Rs 150 on bus fare. He has to wake up at four in the morning, take three buses to reach his company commuting for three hours. He comes back only by 10 pm. Lack of sleep has led to the deterioration of his health.

“Now think of us women. It is still dark when we set out from our homes early in the morning and it is dark when we come back. What kind of protection do we have in this country? It is because of this that we have stopped working,” says Selvi.

A domestic worker when she was living in Chennai, Selvi earned Rs 3,000 monthly for 3 hours of daily work. But she says she does not have the energy to travel 30 km every day for Rs 3000 every month.

Despite living in slums on the banks of a river populated by mosquitoes, the people were better off in Chennai. There were people around. Everything was accessible. There were hospitals and schools nearby. There were private schools too like Church Park Convent that gave representation to the poor. There were places that could give them work. The women were raring to go. They were determined that their children should not undergo the same suffering that they did.

It was just when Anitha’s daughter was enrolled in Church Park on Anna Salai that they were evicted to Perumbakkam.

“I enrolled her in Church Park so she would learn English. At Perumbakkam, the private schools ask for an admission fee of Rs 18,000. Where will we go for that kind of money? So we sent her back to Church Park. She spends close to three hours on travel and is always sleepy. On most days, the buses are not available. Shouldn’t the government keen on displacing thousands of people also ensure that we have access to schools and hospitals? And that we get proper ration cards? How can they merely construct some buildings and stuff us inside?” she asks.

As Anitha says, many families are yet to get their ration cards. Single women dependent on widow’s pension or old age pension are forced to starve.

60-year-old Prema is one of them. She used to run a small shop in Mackey’s Garden and earn around Rs 500 per day. But here she is unable to be an entrepreneur. For her survival, she sells chocolates and biscuits to kids at her home itself. “My shop had shrunk, so has my life,” says Prema.

For many families, getting a loan or pledging their jewels is the only option to keep things going. Men from many families go to other states to seek job opportunities.

With debts to the tune of Rs 8 lakh, Pushpa’s husband has left for Andhra Pradesh for work. He has to work harder than ever to clear the debts. Pushpa used to earn Rs 10,000 before being sent to Perumbakkam. She has managed to pull herself together and start a roadside vegetable shop. “We hope the shop will help sustain our family. All my husband’s earnings goes towards clearing our debts.”

The poor are as dependent on cities as the cities are dependent on them. From painting to carpentry, from scavenging to domestic work, from labour for construction to drivers, the oppressed people have always rendered their physical labour to develop this city. How could they work so hard amid such exploitation and for such low wages? Displacement has pushed the lives of the oppressed from zero to darkness.

“It is so suffocating to live in this building,” says Mary. “We are not able to move around. We can’t work. All I can do is walk around this building. I was not as depressed even when my husband passed away. I brought my kids up doing domestic work. Domestic work was inherently humiliating. We would never be paid well and ill-treated. But the best part was if I don’t like someone’s attitude, I could just stop working at their place. Work was easily available. There was always demand for domestic workers. In some houses, we became part of their families. We have been uprooted from the places that were our own for 40 years. The government should send us back,” she says.

Classified as urban poor, the women’s families migrated to cities a century ago looking for work. Most of them were Dalits – with no land of their own. They were either agricultural labourers or doing menial jobs. They came to Chennai to escape not just poverty but caste atrocities too.

To protect the interests of the people who lent their physical labour to develop the city, the government set up the Slum Clearance Board in 1967 that offered them places to live, basic amenities and rights. Under the Slum Clearance Board Act, they would build concrete houses in the same places that they have lived for many years and the houses will be owned by them.

But the national and international urban development projects that came up after identified these people as those who ‘spoiled the beauty and the health’ of the city. The Cooum restoration project, the Adyar expansion project, the Metro Rail project, the Express Highway project are some of the development projects that sought to make victims of slumdwellers. It started in the 1990s and is yet to end. Devanayen, an activist with Thozhamai organisation that works with slums, says the government creates urban slums outside cities and practises modern forms of untouchability.

“In any society, the women suffer more than men. Typically, when displaced, the women suffer more. For women from oppressed communities, it is important that they earn in addition to taking care of their families. Their economic contribution to the family is as good as a man’s. When a man is unwell or turns drunkard, the woman has to shoulder the entire responsibility. It might be physical labour that they have to do, but for them the places they were living in were the only livelihood option. This displacement has hit their livelihoods,” he says.

Since girl students cannot be sent to far off places, they are married soon after they attain puberty. The government is aware of the fact that child marriages are rampant in these places. “This place is deserted. The government has a police station and a TASMAC shop to serve the people. From those who sell ganja to those who work as mercenaries, the place is populated by all kinds of elements. People naturally feel it’s an unsafe environment for their girls. A survey by some NGOs has revealed how even young girls are often subjected to sexual abuse. The parents have no choice but to get the children married as early as possible. The dropout rate among male students is high and they turn into anti-social elements,” says Isai Arasu, an activist working for the rights of slum dwellers.

The women are tormented more by the loss of future for their kids than their own oppressed lives. It is hard not to come across a pair of eyes that don’t betray this sadness.

(Translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan)

The story is part of GAATW fellowship on women and labour.

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