Chennai’s neighbourhoods during floods: Adrift together, divided by caste

Activists and residents of north Chennai say that they had to fight state apathy, along with a lot of disinformation, as it was deliberately portrayed that normalcy returned to Chennai when a part of the city was completely under water.
Chennai’s neighbourhoods during floods: Adrift together, divided by caste
Image Credit: M Palanikumar
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Beyond caste atrocities that often come to public attention, TNM seeks to take an in-depth look into instances of caste bias that go unnoticed in the larger picture. Who has access to water? Who gets help first in a calamity? These are questions we look at in this series. Besides investigating the reasons for the prevalence of caste discrimination in various spheres, Echoes of Inequality looks into the roles played by the district administration, civil society, and the media in enabling and perpetuating caste bias.

Several parts of north Chennai, especially Vyasarpadi, Pulianthope, Ennore, and Manali, were completely devastated after heavy rains on December 4. The disaster had a very different impact on these neighbourhoods compared to other, more ‘upper’ caste-dominated neighbourhoods in south Chennai. “Namakku naame (we stand for ourselves). There is nobody else in our pain and happiness,” a group of first-generation graduates in north Chennai’s Vyasarpadi told us, amidst relief activities post cyclone Michaung. Ironically, ‘Namakku Naame’ was MK Stalin’s rallying cry for the 2016 elections which established him as the heir apparent of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) stalwart Karunanidhi. 

The contrast in the way the flood was experienced by different neighbourhoods shows that even in a state with a strong regional identity – defined by Dravidian and non-Brahmin politics – there are still some aspects which tether it to the ethos of the larger Indian subcontinent.

With no network connectivity, power supply, or government workers on site, a group of nearly 50 Dalit youngsters were the only ones braving the rising waters to provide relief. The collective of these youngsters named Vyasai Thozhargal (roughly meaning ‘Vyasai’s comrades’), driven by Ambedkarism, worked relentlessly to ensure that those affected by the flood got food and shelter in and around Vyasarpadi.

Vyasai Thozhargal started as a tuition centre in 2017 on the terrace of a small house in their locality, intending to educate the children in their area. It was in 2019 that Vyasai Thozhargal started the Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai (rationalist school) in JJR Nagar of Vyasarpadi in a 2,400 sq feet vacant plot of land. 

Around 190 students study in this centre between 6 pm and 9 pm. In addition to school work, they are also taught kabaddi, silambam, chess, carrom, and photography. For close to a week from December 4, the 800 sq feet room built with blue-coloured asbestos sheets – in solidarity with  Ambedkarite aesthetics – served as a shelter for more than 40 residents during the flood.

Inside the Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai tuition centre
Inside the Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai tuition centreImage Credit: Azeefa Fathima

Built at a considerable elevation from the other residences, the tuition centre stood like an island for the residents, who were also instrumental in Vyasai Thozhargal’s relief work, helping them cook and parcel food that was distributed to nearly 1,500 persons per day in areas nearby and surrounding Dhamodharan Nagar, MGR Nagar, and Ezhil Nagar in Vyasarpadi.

Food being prepared outside Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai tuition centre
Food being prepared outside Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai tuition centreImage Credit: Azeefa Fathima

“We had little money at the start of the floods, which we used to buy groceries and necessities. We ran out of money on the second day itself, and we started getting help from others,” said Sarath Kumar (29), an advocate and member of Vyasai Thozhargal. He added that they had to consume rice porridge and pickles on the second day of the flood, as they had only rice and water.

Vyasai Thozhargal members undertaking a relief operation in a flood-hit area
Vyasai Thozhargal members undertaking a relief operation in a flood-hit areaImage Credit: Instagram/Vyasai Thozhargal

Staying afloat in the face of governmental apathy

Sarath said that compared to the floods of 2015, this time, they were experienced in how to handle the situation. “We were sleeping inside our huts. Past midnight, we felt a chill in the air and woke up drenched in water. That is when we knew that water had been released from the Puzhal reservoir. By the time all of us came to our senses, there was ankle-deep water inside our houses,” he told TNM. 

Recalling how they were left to fend for themselves back in 2015 also, Sarath elaborated, “Though we are not professional flood rescuers, at least now we are organised and we know what to do. In 2015, we were very young and had no clue. One night, we realised water entered our houses and started rushing out to help those residing in low-lying areas. With that experience at hand, we are prepared for a flood every year, and we were ready this year also,” he said. 

It is pertinent to note that at no point did seeking the government’s help cross their minds. Among the top 50 wards housing a higher share of the Scheduled Caste (SC) population, Vyasarpadi has the highest percentage (68.9%) of people belonging to SC communities, according to Census 2011.

Taking us through the contingency arrangements they have designed for themselves, he further explained that there is always a stock of 100-200 bed sheets in Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai. “As soon as we realise that the rains are extremely heavy and may not stop for a while, we go to each house and distribute bedsheets and additional clothes. We try to seal the leaks in the roofs, and once the water starts stagnating inside or outside houses, we start asking people to come and stay with us at the tuition centre. If they refuse, we inform them to come anytime and assure them the doors will always be open. If the rain continues, we start collecting liquid cash from our members and others and buy groceries. If there is a flood-like situation, we start cooking and distributing food,” Sarath said.

Though the state government had a list of helplines and designated officers and workers for different parts of flood-affected Chennai, none of these reached north Chennai. “We had no network, no power, no connectivity with the outer world. We were not informed of the flood either. How are we supposed to contact the helplines?” Sarath asked.

North Chennai’s long history of marginalisation

The Scheduled Caste, Christian, and Muslim majority part of the city that is now called north Chennai was once the nucleus of Chennai, from where sprang the entire 1,189 sq km that is today called the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC).

The area that lies north of the Cooum River was once a small fishing hamlet (Kuppam) where about 20 fishermen families lived. Seeing the potential for a port at this junction of the river, the British East India Company decided to build a town in the area.

The land inhabited by the fishing community did not, however, belong to them on paper. The two chieftains from the Velama caste who lorded over the property – Damarla Venkatapathy Nayak and his younger brother Aiyappa – offered the land to the British. This land lay between the Cooum at the point where it enters the sea and the Egmore River, inside the existing Madrasapattinam port.

The British felt that this was a good spot to build a port because the land was at a perfect elevation and location to allow passage and docking of ships. Within one year of the land transfer in 1639, the British transformed it into the famous Fort St George. The area which had around 20 huts until then grew in size to have nearly 80 houses, with weavers, painters and others moving towards the business hub. 

This settlement around the fort was named ‘Chennapatnam’ in honour of Venkatapathy Nayak’s father Chennappa Nayak. All traces of the fisherfolk who actually lived on the land have since been erased. This would later transform into Chennai, as we presently know it.

According to The History of the City of Madras written by CS Srinivasachari in 1939, several Europeans also moved inside the campus of Fort St George. The European settlement came to be known as ‘White Town’ and the area outside the fort campus that housed Indians was called ‘Black Town’ - deriving their names from the racist notions of the British, who considered Indians as ‘black’ and inferior.

‘Black Town’ was a bustling area of several businesses and was also densely populated due to its economic potential. Further, workers were taken from this region to parts outside India to work in plantations. During the French occupation in 1746-1759, this ‘Black Town’ was demolished and a new one was formed north of Esplanade Road.

In 1911, the name of the town was changed to ‘George Town’, and it served as the commercial hub of Madras City till the 20th century, after which it moved towards the south of the city which was at a higher elevation. It was at this point that the workers and labourers who built the city were left behind on the northern edge or pushed towards it. 

A strange feature of Chennai is that for a seaside city, the sea is barely visible from most of the posh parts of the city. North Chennai is different in that the threat of rising waters and the awareness of the Bay of Bengal always looms large for its residents.

North Chennai remains alienated by a glaring caste and digital divide

On December 4 and 5, while social media platform X –used as a medium to circulate SOS messages– was filled with cries for help and visuals of water flooding in several areas, there were almost no posts made from north Chennai. A few posts were made on the night of December 5, calling attention to the condition of north Chennai, following which several media aired shocking visuals of submerged residences. A simple look at the Greater Chennai Corporation’s (GCC) responses to calls for help on  X, exposes the glaring digital divide between north and south Chennai.

On the same two days - December 4 and 5 – with heavy rains and subsequent flooding, the focus of the media, government, and rescue workers was on south Chennai. Though there was help provided to certain parts of north Chennai like Manali and Thiruvottiyur, areas including Perambur, Pulianthope, Vyasarpadi, KM gardens, and Kannigapuram were largely abandoned until December 7, and some areas until December 8.

When TNM’s Shabbir Ahmed visited the affected areas, being one of the first media persons to turn up in north Chennai, the primary complaint of the people was that no politician, media or government official turned up to check on them. “Forget clearing up the water and providing relief materials, nobody even came to see if we are alive or dead, they unanimously told me,” Shabbir said, adding that the stark difference in the attention provided to south and north Chennai was visible in the media coverage during the initial phase of the flooding.

Watch: Four days and no one from government has looked at us: Perambur residents angry

Dalit activist and writer Shalin Maria Lawrence said that on the first three days of the flood, which were crucial, “no politician, councillor or government officials came to provide help. We were left without water, food, and electricity.”

N Sakthivel (28) underlined that this has been the case during any crisis. “Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we did not get proper healthcare or other facilities. When there was a shortage of oxygen, we procured our own oxygen cylinders and took them to places in an auto. We were always left alone,” he said. 

Another resident pointed out that they were not only left alone but also marginalised. “As you know, north Chennai was earlier called Karuppar Nagaram [Black Town], which speaks volumes,” he said.

Deliberate discrimination

Sarath pointed out that this marginalisation of Dalits and other working-class people in north Chennai is a deliberate one. “When you see north Chennai, caste and class are intertwined so much that we cannot make sense of one without another. This area is not only densely populated but also low-lying and close to the river and the Puzhal reservoir where very heavy rainfall means flooding for us,” he said. Though the whole of Chennai is flatland that is not so high from sea level, the geographical location of north Chennai is such that it is at an almost equal level from the sea.

For instance, Vyasarpadi is just 7-8 metres from the sea level. In addition, the proximity of Puzhal Lake, Redhills Reservoir and other small waterbodies, make the place vulnerable to floods and water inundation. Health Secretary Gagandeep Singh Bedi, back in 2015, said, "In times of inundation, Dalit colonies are usually more affected since they are in low-lying areas." He was serving as the monitoring officer for disaster relief in Cuddalore after the 2015 rains.

Analysing the census data, advocate and Ambedkarite author AB Karl Marx Siddharthar said that 38 out of the 50 wards in Chennai have a greater share of SC population, and sewage/drainage basins (Buckingham canal, Otteri Nalla, Cooum river and Adyar river) flow across or encircle the settlements. 

These 38 wards house approximately 46% of the city’s SC people, which comes to a rough number of 3.5 lakh persons. This data is alarming because these settlements are flood-prone each time there is heavy rain, and the people are trapped inside by the long-standing inaction of government machinery.

N Balamani (60), a former corporation worker and resident of KM Garden, said that water inundation is a regular affair in the area every year. “Once when I was a child, there was 10 feet of water here. Last year it was hip-level and this year it is nearly seven feet of water. This area is a slope. So the more you go down this lane, the higher the water level,” she said.

Selvam (48), a resident towards the end of the street, showed TNM that there was water above his head. He pointed to the mark left on the walls of the houses inundated by the flood and said, “We were not able to step out to ask for help from someone. We stayed in our neighbours’ houses on the first floor. All our belongings were gone.” 

The water was pumped out only on December 9, nearly five days after the rain stopped. Though other parts of the city were cleaned and the water cleared immediately, it took days for the water to drain in northern parts of the city. Shalin said that they had to fight state apathy, along with a lot of disinformation. “It was deliberately told that normalcy returned to Chennai when a part of the city was completely underwater,” she said.

A person pointing at the watermark left by stagnant flood water, which was up to six feet
A person pointing at the watermark left by stagnant flood water, which was up to six feetImage Credit: Azeefa Fathima
Selvam, standing near his house, which was completely submerged under water
Selvam, standing near his house, which was completely submerged under waterImage Credit: Azeefa Fathima

The Anjaneyar Koil street in Demellows Road, which has houses on both sides, was filled with garbage that was washed from several parts of the city. “This used to be a canal but houses were subsequently built over the years. So when the flood water entered the area, it stagnated here along with the waste,” Jeeva, a Dalit social worker explained. 

Pointing to a backhoe trying to clear the waste, he said that people were left to their own devices all these days and only that day the waste was being cleared.

“They couldn’t even get a milk packet or water bottle, and neither did the government try to reach them. These areas don’t get help because the government wants them to move away from here but they don’t want to help them resettle because it will cost more money. If the government helps people during the crisis, they will continue living here, won’t they? This is a tactic by the government to force them to evacuate on their own,” he said.

Shalin noted that while usually slums are located in unusable lands on the periphery of the city, in Chennai, they are located in the central part of the city albeit in low-lying areas. “Take KM Gardens or Vyasarpadi or Purasawalkam, they are in the main areas. If there is constant water inundation and floods with no help at all, the people will start moving out and they will take the land. It is not that the government or workers are inefficient or they did not have enough resources. The city and those in power are highly efficient, they have manpower and other resources, but they don’t want to use it for us. This is a deliberate attempt intended to cause distress migration,” she further added.

‘We are there for ourselves’

Sakthivel said that no matter what happens, they would work for their community and the people around them. 

“We started off to make sure that the children here get educated, which was our only aim. This piece of land was a dump yard. We cleared everything and raised the land by using construction waste. We used to wait in the dump yard in Kodungaiyur, where construction debris would be dumped at night. If we request those people, they will bring the waste here instead. That is how we made sure that this place is a safe zone in times of floods,” he said. 

The tuition centre was constructed within eight days and for Rs 10 lakhs, which was crowdfunded by the residents of the area.

However, due to spatial constraints, Vyasai Thozhargal can only shelter a limited number of people inside their tuition centre. Sarath said that though they cannot house thousands of people, they try to ensure that all of them are provided with food and dignity. “There is a perception that north Chennai residents are short-tempered and “dangerous”. But we should realise that this anger comes from a place of self-respect. If you throw the food or water bottle at them, they would not even touch it and starve instead. That is how important dignity is to us. All our efforts - this education, sports, social service - is to uphold our dignity, self-respect and autonomy that has been snatched away from us,” he said.

A wall painting made inside the campus of Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai
A wall painting made inside the campus of Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu PaadasaalaiImage Credit: Azeefa Fathima

A resident living in Dhamodhara Nagar said that on December 7, they were brought food in a cart that is used to collect garbage from the area. “We don’t know who it was but it was some party person. They are bringing food in garbage carts. It makes me wonder if we have really fallen so far,” she said. Repeating the same question, another resident said that they refused to receive the food and it was sent back.

Jeeva added that this mistreatment of Dalits, especially in times of crises, is to drive home the feeling that they are ‘inferior’ and to make them believe that they need the help of someone. “This is a psychological manipulation. A person who is suffering and is in need of help will start feeling helpless. After a point, they will start believing that they cannot function without the help of the government. This belief is crucial for those in power because that is when the oppressed will remain oppressed, out of fear and helplessness,” he said.

Palani Kumar, a Dalit photographer and cinematographer, reiterates the same point when he said that there needs to be at least an ounce of privilege and safety even to stage a protest. “All of us saw the farmers’ protest that went on for months. Have you ever seen Dalits staging a massive protest like that, even for a few days? They are the most oppressed and exploited community. Hundreds of them died in sewers and septic tanks, and hundreds of them were attacked and killed due to multiple issues, including structural problems. But they are not in a position to mobilise or even sustain a protest. This is because they have neither economic nor social privilege to do so,” he said.

Read: Floods in north Chennai through the lens of its youngsters

“Our whole lives are designed in such a way that we cannot organise and agitate. To break that chain tying our hands, we should understand what is going on around us; and for that, we need to get educated,” Sarath added, coming back to his initial point about how important education is for the community.

Transforming anger into action

Some members of Vyasai Thozhargal recalled how the casteist behaviours by dominant and ‘upper’ caste communities have changed throughout the generations. “Our grandparents were victims of the landlord system and ostracism; our parents were treated as slaves and were not allowed access to public places, including water bodies and temples; we face psychological and subtle discrimination, in the forms of not getting help in times of need and being treated differently,” they said. 

Sarath said that these types of discrimination and structural oppression come with its anger. “But we remain calm because we are already labelled as short-tempered rowdies. We are responsible for removing this stigma and changing the public image. All the pent-up anger is our fuel to work for a better future,” he said.

Nameboard of Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai that was fell down due to floods
Nameboard of Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai that was fell down due to floods Image Credit: Azeefa Fathima

Pointing to an image of BR Ambedkar on the tuition centre’s name board inside the campus, Sarath said that they derive their strength and ideas from him. “I don’t think anybody has faced as much pain and insult as Ambedkar. He took it all in and grew up in stature to reach a position that influences generations of people. We want to take his legacy forward by educating the children and show everyone that love, hard work and morality (aram) are the founding pillars of north Chennai,” he said. 

Sarath also added that the well-being of Dalits and the people of north Chennai can perhaps be conveniently neglected, but the people cannot be dispensed with, for they are the ones who built this entire city and several others.

With inputs from Shabbir Ahmed

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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