‘Aren’t we voters?’: Chennai’s Semmencherry residents fume over apathy during floods

Residents of the innermost parts of the Semmencherry slum resettlement colony were forced to move there from within Chennai by the government. They now say they had to brave floods on their own, with little state support.
A Semmencherry resident washing dishes by a lake
A Semmencherry resident washing dishes by a lakePhotograph by Nithya Pandian/TNM
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Hundreds of Chennai residents, who were forced to move from slums in the central parts of the city to its fringes in Semmencherry over the years, are among the worst affected citizens after the recent floods. On December 8, five days after their homes and streets were first flooded, TNM met many residents of the Semmencherry resettlement colony living by the Thazhambur lake, who were deeply upset with the state government. During the 2015 Chennai floods too, Semmencherry was among the worst hit areas, and relief was delayed then too as they live far away from the city. This neglect has now become a recurring phenomenon, the residents said, and while some of them are seeking solutions, some of them simply want to leave the government tenements too, where they have been experiencing many other problems too, from loss of livelihood to poor quality of life. 

Maheshwari, a resident of Street 9 of the Semmencherry resettlement colony, lost all the food grains and utensils in her kitchen in the floods, after the extremely heavy rains induced by Cyclone Michaung on December 3 and 4. Since then, she has been forced to buy basic commodities like milk and water at inflated prices. Half a litre of milk, which usually costs about Rs 35, now costs Rs 70. With no relief available, she said her family had to wade through floodwaters to buy a 20-litre water can for Rs 100, spending from their pockets. “We were charged Rs 50 to use the rescue boat arranged by the government,” she alleged, fuming at her local MLA, Sholinganallur legislator from DMK S Aravind Ramesh, and other local leaders. “The MLAs and councillors who visit Semmencherry go straight to the Ettaduku Housing Board [ignoring us]. Aren’t we human? Didn’t we cast our votes during the election? Why do they neglect us now?” she asked. 

Semmencherry is located about 30 kilometres south of Chennai, on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) in the Kancheepuram district. People who live here in tenements built by the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB, formerly Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board) have been demanding to know the whereabouts of their MLA, alleging that neither Aravind Ramesh nor his party cadres had reached out to them as of December 8. For three to four days, most of them had to go to sleep without electricity or drinking water. As they continue to suffer the aftereffects of the floods, they allege that politicians of both the ruling and opposition parties, as well as government officials, have ignored them.  

Semmencherry after 2023 Chennai floods
Semmencherry after 2023 Chennai floodsNithya Pandian

Residents complained that the little relief material that was distributed in the area was given only to people living near the colony’s entrance, and that the water tankers and vehicles carrying food and water did not go anywhere near Streets 9 and 10, which are located farther inside. “We were told that if they tried to reach us, their vehicles would’ve got stuck in the water. So they wanted us to wade through neck-deep water to get a bottle of water and a food parcel,” said Selvi, a resident of Street 10 of the colony. Many of the residents have fungal infections between their toes from wading through floodwaters multiple times for their basic needs. 

The toilets in the colony were also flooded, and sewer lines overflowed. Snakes and insects invaded the homes, as they remained in darkness for six consecutive days, said a resident named Uma Maheshwari. “Without power, how could we save ourselves and our children from the venomous snakes? It was very scary to live inside this house these past few days,” she said. Most residents said they had to brave the floods without any help from the government. 

Semmencherry after 2023 Chennai floods
Semmencherry after 2023 Chennai floodsNithya Pandian

On Streets 9 and 10, rice grains once stored in kitchens – now ruined by the rain – are strewn on the road along with damaged furniture, fridges and other electronic appliances. With floodwaters reaching every corner of their homes and damaging most of their possessions, when TNM visited them on December 8, the women of the colony were washing utensils and clothes at the lake nearby while the men cleaned the homes and stress, sweeping out debris and attempting to restore normalcy, even as they call such distressing situations a “very familiar experience.” 

Several residents said that they were tired of living in the government tenements built next to the Thazhambur lake, as the entire neighbourhood is submerged every time there is even slightly heavy rain. They said that every time there’s flooding, the lake brings water inside the houses along its shoreline, and the water only recedes when it can flow back into the lake again. But this time, it took days for the water to recede into the lake on its own. Residents alleged that no Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) workers were deployed to drain water from their streets. 

Semmencherry after 2023 Chennai floods
Semmencherry after 2023 Chennai floodsNithya Pandian

Nithya, a resident of Street 10, shifted to the Semmencherry resettlement colony in 2006 from her previous place of residence near Mambalam railway station. She said that while the rest of Chennai was experiencing such massive floods for the second time since 2015, this is the fifth such flood for the people of Semmencherry in the past eight years.

“In the last five days, we got no relief material from either the government or from NGOs. Many children and elderly people are living in these two streets (9 and 10), but nobody bothered to visit us to even give us candles or biscuit packets,” she said. 

Nithya said that while the ground floor-level houses in the colony were inundated, water seeped into the floors above as well, making the houses nearly uninhabitable. She demanded that civic officials unclog the septic tanks in the area soon, to put an end to leakage from the septic tanks during floods. She also urged the state government to provide alternative TNUHDB tenements for Semmencherry residents grappling with recurring floods. 

Watch: Chennai's Semmancheri struggles without power & water days after deluge

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