Chennai floods: Student volunteers step in as officials fail to help the Irular community

Two Irular families from the Irular colony in Besant Nagar were already residing in make-shift houses before Cyclone Michaung triggered rains in the city. Now, they bear the additional brunt of being ignored by the government as they scramble for basic necessities.
Irular Colony flooded after Chennai rains
Irular Colony flooded after Chennai rainsSpecial arrangement
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Even as relief operations continue in full swing after heavy rains in Chennai, members of the Irular (classified as Scheduled Tribe) community in the city struggle for basic facilities. Two families of 11 people, four of whom are children, from the Irular colony in Besant Nagar, were already residing in make-shift houses before Cyclone Michaung triggered rains in the city. Now, they bear the additional brunt of being ignored by the government as they scramble for necessities. 

Speaking to TNM, Karthi (35), one of the affected persons, said that they had to seek shelter at a nearby government primary school as their houses became uninhabitable. “We are rag pickers by profession. The streets have been flooded and we cannot work now. We don’t have a place to sleep, and our children have no clean clothes to wear. Nobody from the government has paid a visit to date,” he explained.

Volunteers who were helping out at the Irular colony alleged that Corporation officials were reluctant to send help. One of the reasons cited was that the land the Irulars reside in belongs to the government and that there is an ongoing legal issue over it. The two families who continue to reside there said that their names were not included in the government’s list while the other members from the Irular Colony were relocated to Kannagi Nagar. Members of the two families believe that this reluctance from the government to clear their waterlogged streets and send relief material could be a ploy to drive them away and build a park on their land. 

Mahalakshmi (33), Karthi's wife, said that no politician or government official came to check on them. “We were not given food or other necessities as well. Only college-going student volunteers came with supplies yesterday and today. I could see people from the corporation visit neighbouring streets, but not where we live. Nine people are living in one small house here. There are four children – three of them are school-going and the other is a young girl. We have been living here with no electricity and surviving bugs and mosquitoes,” she said.

Even as the community was slowly gaining access to food, clothes, and sanitary napkins, it had been an uphill task to get the water drained from their settlement. With the help of volunteers, Mahalakshmi thought they could get private players to get the water drained, but they seemed to charge an exorbitant amount. “These people are asking Rs 500 per hour. Do you think we can afford that? Even if the pump has to run for 12 hours for three days, can you imagine how much it will cost us? If we could afford to pay such a high price, why would we still be living here?” she asked.

One volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous said, “Since private companies were charging a lot of money for pumping out the water, we decided to contact the Corporation. But we were asked to make multiple phone calls and were given reasons like this area does not come under their jurisdiction. They even suggested that we drop them [people from the Irular community] at a shelter in Tharamani, but we told them it was not required and it was too far as well. The Corporation  officials we spoke to claimed that the land belonged to the government and that we cannot order them to do their jobs.” 

Another volunteer told TNM on the condition of anonymity, “I have been actively organising volunteers and had shared a post on social media platform X about the situation in Irular Nagar. A DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] official messaged me saying that the water had been drained, so I shared that post as well. But volunteers on the ground told me that no such thing was done and today I saw it for myself. The water is up to the calf level.” 

Meanwhile, Sadayankuppam, an area in north Madras that houses nearly 50 Irular families continues to bear the brunt of the heavy rains. Pictures shared on social media show the streets being inundated with rainwater and indicate that no relief material, including food, reached the residents. 

After attention was brought to this via social media, DMK Minister TRB Raja stated that food was distributed on December 7 and that there would also be a large-scale distribution of relief material on December 8. 

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