When Gokul, Keerthika and Keertha moved into the Tsunami colony in Semmenchery, they were in their teens. After the devastating tsunami in 2004, many people living in the poor hamlets in the city were forced to move in to the settlements in Semmenchery. They were told that the new tenements would give them better lives and safety, never mind that they were thrown away far from the city limits, having to travel long-distances for work and emergency services.
It would be wrong to say their worst fears came true in the past few days, because the three siblings, now in their early twenties, never thought that a deluge would wash their mother away to death.
On December 1, when 50-year old Nalini was returning from MIOT Hospital where she worked as a house-keeping staff, the water which had been released from Thalambur lake swept her away as she walked past the Chettinad Hospital compound in Kelambakkam.
For nearly 5 days, no one knew she was dead and her body was floating in the lake. â€śOn Saturday, fishermen informed the police that they had found a body in the lake. One of the neighbours identified the body,â€ť says Vanilla, one of the neighbours at the Semmenchery colony.
Both the girls, Keerthika and Keertha, are still not over their motherâ€™s death. â€śOur father died in 2000 after a heart-attack, and we do not have any other relatives,â€ť says Gokula, Naliniâ€™s son.
The sudden release of water which came as a rude surprise to the people here has not just taken Naliniâ€™s life, but destroyed the homes of thousands of others.
Most of the streets in the area including the Tsunami colony still have water-logging and people in the ground floor have lost their possessions.
â€śOur television, refrigerator and other electrical appliances do not work now. The lake water is always released at night and in that I even lost my driving license and ration cards,â€ť says Srinivasan, a painter.
For several days, there was no help from the government. When help finally arrived, friends turned foes over the little relief material being delivered to them from private charities.
Stella Maris, a house-keeping staff says that all the household things have got spoilt in the sewage water.
For the past one month, people in the Housing Board have been living in darkness without electricity. â€śAfter 6PM we stay inside our homes in dark with house full of water. There were even snakes and insects outside our homes in the past week,â€ť Srinivasan adds.
People are struggling for basic amenities like food and water in the area, and not all the relief is reaching everyone. â€śMost of the food and water is provided by helpful people and it does not come inside the streets. So, we do not get anything,â€ť said Kotisari, a house-wife. â€śWe are living in the inner streets of the colony and do not get food here,â€ť said Sumathi, another resident.
â€śSometimes the government does send food,â€ť says class-12 student Yasmin, â€śbut it comes in garbage trucks.â€ť The drinking water too has got mixed with the water in the septic tank, and the whole place stinks.
â€śWe paid Rs. 100 for one can of water. The dealers say that they are incurring losses and have to pay fuel charges and take double the amount from us,â€ť says Selvam. â€śI paid Rs.100 for one litre milk one day. Most of the shops were shut here. So, dealers from outside come and charge high,â€ť adds Karnan.
Chennaiassemble.org, a group of volunteers, has been distributing food at the colony for the past two days. â€śSame people in this area are taking food again and again. So, the people living in the end do not get much food. Some people even snatch food from others,â€ť says Mani, a volunteer. But they are trying to provide things to the people living in the end streets and go out and give food in all the streets individually.
People in the area have also been suffering from various health problems.
Nitishri and Arini, two children of class 8 and 9 respectively, have been suffering from fever for the past two days. Yashoda, a 65-year-old woman has also been suffering from fever for one week.
Athleteâ€™s foot seems to be common problem in the area flooded with sewage water. Mohammed Riyaz, an auto-driver has white patches between fingers on his legs and said that it also causes pain. S Karnan also had red patches on his foot.
The worst part of their ordeal, activists point out, is the fact that most of these people were forced to be shifted from different settlements over the past years. Both the DMK and ADMK governments have shifted poor people to Semmenchery in the pretext of better living conditions, safety from natural calamities and beautification of Chennai city.
â€śTo shift people away from the city to hydrologically sensitive places in the pretext of other reasons is plain stupid. Their idea of urban planning is to attract global capital, not a better city,â€ť says Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist.