Sixty-eight-year-old Uma Gandhi still remembers that day vividly: It was a few days before Christmas last year and she was going on about her daily routine. Suddenly, she felt dizzy and fainted in her house. However, her ordeal did not end there. Uma had to walk over a kilometre in her weak condition, because a gate, installed around three years ago, prevented an ambulance from reaching her house.
“Since we don’t have a car with us, we had to make her walk till the gate though she was in a precarious position,” her son Rajkumar recalls.
This has been a problem for around 15 families who live in Thulasingapuram, near the Officers Training Academy in Chennai. Their houses were built on their own land, for which pattas were granted to their ancestors in 1919. But for the last few years, they have been facing a challenging situation around their own homes.
The Officers Training Academy (OTA) was set up in 1963 near St Thomas Mount to train cadet officers for the Indian Army. Spread across 750 acres, the OTA’s compound surrounded the Thulasingapuram settlement as well. For years they had easy access to their homes but three years ago, OTA installed a gate for ‘security purposes’ and residents began to feel the strain.
The gate is located around a kilometre from the Thulasingapuram settlement and has security personnel guarding it round the clock. OTA hasn’t just installed a new gate. It’s also closed an easy access path used by the residents of Thulasingapuram, restricting their mobility.
The access path which was used by Thulasingapuram residents now closed by the OTA/Image: Megha Kaveri
‘Seems like house arrest’
“Life has become very difficult for us here since that gate was put in place,” says Senthilkumari. The 39-year-old woman was born and brought up in Thulasingapuram, and now lives with her extended family.
“We are not able to bring items from the ration shop in an auto because those at the gate ask the Aadhaar card of the auto driver for identity proof. So we are forced to carry things from the gate till our homes. It is the same problem with the man who supplies the gas cylinders. How can we bring the cylinder back to our houses from the gate when it is so heavy?” she asks.
Even the postman, the staff from the electricity board who takes meter readings and ambulances can’t enter through the gate due to the restrictions imposed by OTA security personnel.
“Most of us youngsters have moved out of this area, leaving our own houses and are staying in rented houses nearby just for the ease of mobility,” says Dinesh Kumar, 34.
“When we were here, we had to lose a day's job if a gas cylinder was being supplied that day or if we had to buy ration items for the family. It is extremely restrictive,” he explains, adding that they have been paying all the necessary tax to the cantonment.
Dinesh recently moved out to a rented house, where he pays Rs 7,500 a month. “It is expensive for us to lead this life since that rent is an avoidable expense if things were normal here,” he adds.
Though residents have made multiple requests to the OTA to restore their access prior to installing the gate, Dinesh Kumar says that there has been no response from officials.
“They don’t even tell us whom to go and meet. The OTA is completely closed for us to even ask for contact numbers or persons whom we can approach with our grievances,” says Senthilkumari. She adds that despite a few media houses writing about their situation, not a single officer has visited them or called them to talk.
MSD Thenraja, the Vice President of the Cantonment Board, tells TNM that the OTA did not heed to the residents plea to not close the access road and not install a gate. “We told them when they set the gate up. But they (OTA) didn’t listen to us. Now we are discussing getting another piece of land elsewhere so that these families can live at peace at least there,” he says.
But for these families, an alternate piece of land is only partial solace. “Our ancestors served in the military and were given this land around 100 years ago. Why should we think of moving? OTA came much later and developed around us. Aren’t we entitled to at least access roads like how we had before? This is unfair,” rues Senthilkumari.