‘Our life by the Cooum was better’: Chennai residents forcibly moved slam govt

Power cuts, piles of garbage, no transport system, no shops or hospitals nearby – these are just some problems facing residents who were moved in the Cooum beautification project.
‘Our life by the Cooum was better’: Chennai residents forcibly moved slam govt
‘Our life by the Cooum was better’: Chennai residents forcibly moved slam govt

‘No plague shall approach your tent’ reads the tiny sticker pasted on the door of her small house. That is the only time 34-year-old Bhavani Senthil Kumar’s face lights up with a smile. “If there is something that keeps me going, despite this drudgery that we have been thrown into, it is this,” she says, pointing to the image of Jesus Christ. “My belief in him.”

Bhavani’s is among the thousand-odd families relocated from the banks of the River Cooum in Chennai to Gudapakkam in Thiruvallur, to facilitate the Cooum restoration project.  It has been over a year since the families were relocated and ‘left in isolation’. “There has not been a single day where we have not had problems since we came here,” she rues. Almost every day, the locality suffers power cuts. “Normally from 5.30 to 7.30 in the evenings when the children come back from schools. They just cannot do their homework” Bhavani says.

But power cuts are just one of their many problems. Ever since they relocated to Gudapakkam, the inmates allege that their children have been falling ill ‘too often’.

“Even when we lived near Cooum, we were healthier. But we live amid filth at Gudapakkam and our children often fall ill,” says R Revathi, who had relocated from Maduravoyil. The Gudapakkam locality has 32 blocks and each block has about 32 houses making it a total of 1,024 houses. But only two women have been appointed by the local administration to clean the entire locality.

“It is worse than the Cooum. You can see the garbage just piled up here. We have petitioned many times to clear the garbage, but nothing is happening,” Revathi says.

Relocation also means loss of jobs for both men and women. Selventhiran, 38 years old, works at a lathe workshop in Padi, Chennai, and comes home only on alternate days. With a two-year-old kid, his wife Vimala herself finds it difficult to travel to the city in search of a job.

Vanitha Balaji, 37 years old, who worked as a housekeeper in Chennai, was forced to sit at home after being relocated to Gudapakkam. “It simply doesn’t work. I will have to spend all the money I manage to earn on transport alone. And I will come home very late, which means I will be missing out on my family duties” says Vanitha.

Nagomi has managed to find herself a meagre source of income – she has converted the front portion of her 300 sq.-feet house into a shop and sells stuff through the window. “Stuff you would need for your daily chores. I get them once a week from Poonamallee. If it is perishable, like milk, I buy every day,” she says.

But does she manage to make any profits? “Not every day. On certain days, the milk doesn’t sell. Also I buy stuff on loan – what we call thandal. Which means the interest I pay is exorbitant. So I actually make very little money.”

It is not uncommon to spot posters that offer eatables, from soup to chicken pakoda, within the locality. “Since we need to walk at least 2 kilometres to buy anything, some people have set up stalls within this complex. But not many are able to make ends meet with such innovations. After all, those who buy are also among them” says Vimala.

For students, it is an entirely different set of problems. The nearest school is 3 kilometres away and the students have to walk it on most days, due to a lack of proper transport. “By the time we come back from school, we are too tired to do any of the homework assigned to us,” says 11-year-old Arun.

But Preethi, studying in Class 12 in a school at Egmore, faces a unique issue. “The relocation came when I was in Class 11. It was difficult to change schools then. So these days, I leave at 6.30 am, with my mother who works as domestic help in the city, and I come back home well past the evening.”

She’s also mortally terrified of being asked to stop going to school if ‘anti-social elements’ in the locality harass her. “Till date, there has been no problem,” she says. “But I dread the day they do something that could make my parents rethink the idea of sending me so far away to school.”

Residents complain that men often sit in the lanes that run between the buildings and drink booze late into the nights, limiting their mobility. “There are houses which procure liquor and sell it at slightly higher prices to men living here, because you will have to travel several kilometres the nearest TASMAC shop. We have also complained about this, but there has been no action till date,” says a resident pointing to the empty bottles strewn on the roads.

But what agonizes them collectively is the fact that they have been removed from the banks of the Cooum River because the ‘state can afford to remove them’.

“There is a college still functioning in the very same place from where we have been evicted. If we had to move away to allow Cooum to be beautified, why is the college still there? Does the government think we are an eyesore in the city and the college is a cynosure of all eyes? Isn’t the law the same for all?” fumes Bhavani.

G Sangeetha, of Pen Thozhilalargal Sangam (Women Labourers Union), who has been working in Gudapakkam for months now, says the residents have been wronged in more ways than one.

“They have lost their livelihoods and the compensation given to them was meagre. Also, they have been moved to a very isolated place. To reach the main road, they will have to walk for about 10 minutes and it is dangerous because this place is otherwise isolated. There are no proper transport facilities or security. Also, they have been promised houses, but the facilities here are really bad. The displaced people, like the ones in Gudapakkam here, suffer a new, modern form of untouchability,” she says.

Bhavani couldn’t agree more: “They say they have put up concrete roofs above our heads. We were far better off living under the thatched roofs along the Cooum.”

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

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