‘Fear starvation more than virus’: Residents in a TN slum struggle amid lockdown

As Chennai’s flood affected and displaced urban poor rebuilt their lives, the pandemic has set residents of Perumbakkam back once again.

For two days, Sathya*, a single mother and her adolescent daughters drank only water. They were starving inside their slum tenement in Perumbakkam on the outskirts of Chennai until a neighbour shared rice which she had received from an NGO. Their free ration from the government had run out three weeks into the lockdown. “I was ashamed to ask for help with food and I couldn’t borrow money from anyone since no one has work here anymore,” says Sathya who is a housekeeper in a multinational corporation nearby. Her monthly salary was cut by half to Rs 4,000 due to the economic downturn brought by the COVID-19 crisis. As the lone breadwinner, she was able to restock pulses and vegetables only when the slashed salary was credited to her bank account mid-April. Her daughters, studying in classes 6 and 8 in a government school in Semmenchery waited without complaining. “They are big girls now. They understood our situation even though they were hungry,” she said.

These are distressing days inside the dense and dingy slum tenements for thousands of families like Sathya’s, who were displaced to remote localities such as Perumbakkam, following the catastrophic floods in December 2015. The pandemic and lockdown has exacerbated their existing problems of being uprooted from a source of livelihood without access to standard healthcare, education and transport. Though they are untouched by the novel coronavirus so far, their fears are contemporaneous to the humanitarian crisis that has unfolded across India since the country went into lockdown from March 25. Without jobs or savings and their meals stretched out, they rely entirely on the government and charity. 

“We are scared that we will end up starving more than being infected by the virus,” says Alamelu Bhaskar whose photocopying shop is shut due to lockdown restrictions. She uses her time to drive a community initiative along with a dozen other women. They distribute food given by donors to the most vulnerable living amongst them in the 27 tenement blocks--senior citizens, women headed families, and people with disabilities and mental illness.

‘Eating less so we don’t run out food’

Families confirm that they have received the dole of Rs 1,000 but say that there has been an inadequate distribution of free rice, pulses, cooking oil and sugar which the state government announced as part of its COVID-19 relief measures. “How will six Public Distribution System (PDS) shops be sufficient to provide for 18,000 families in Perumbakkam on time?” asks Vanessa Peter, policy researcher, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities calling for an efficient grievance redressal system to be formulated. On April 3, it was reported that the fair price shops failed to provide 5 kg of wheat leading to chaos. Around that time, a resident, J Kavitha took home some free ration for her six-member family including her three children. A week ago, she fainted inside her house. “We have been eating much less than what we usually do so that we don’t run out of food,” says Kavitha who holds a BBA degree and used to work as a supervisor in a private company in Kotturpuram. After resettlement, several women like her dropped out of the workforce as there is a dearth of job opportunities and no child care support among other factors. Whenever the lockdown in Tamil Nadu is lifted, dire needs will demand that these women are economically productive again but their hurdles are unlikely to ease. “I will look for a cooking job or housework to earn something,” says Kavitha whose husband is an autorickshaw driver. The uncertainty is particularly acute for daily wage workers who have had no source of income for more than a month. 

“The pandemic creates an additional rupture which not only makes these families’ immediate survival difficult but sets them back even further in terms of livelihood recovery,” says Karen Coelho, urban anthropologist and associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. “So it is not just a matter of providing rations, although that is important.” 

These are families who lived in slums along water bodies for generations, in the heart of the city and were economically active members in the unorganised sector working as househelps, drivers and painters and painstakingly rebuilt their lives. “In areas like this where urban poverty is concentrated so massively, numerous issues arise,” says Coelho. “There is a huge amount of alcohol dependence, domestic abuse and drug abuse. Now that schools are closed, what is happening to children for whom food was provided at anganwadis? Special attention should be paid to these settlements during crises of this kind,” says Coelho, adding that an IAS official must be appointed to oversee colonies of relocated families. 

Cramped living and poor sanitation

“We are aware of all the issues,” a senior official from the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) in charge relief work, seeking anonymity, told me. “We reach 30,000 families everyday in these resettlement colonies to ensure that nobody struggles without food even if they don’t have ration cards.” Besides Perumbakkam, TNSCB has been implementing relief measures for relocated families in Gudapakkam, Kannagi Nagar, Navalur and AIR Land which will go on until the end of May. The Board along with Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) has also partnered with NGOs and corporate companies to provide cooked meals. “In addition to that, every morning from Koyambedu, assorted vegetables priced at Rs 250 a bag are packed on a lorry and mini van to go to Perumbakkam and Kannagi Nagar,” he said. “We sell it for a subsidised price of Rs 50 per packet. If we do this for free, it will be impossible for us to control the crowd.”

Image credit: TNCB

The space crunched tenements are not constructed for social distancing or isolation. Less than 7 kilometers away in Sholinganallur-- the southern tip where Chennai city’s corporation limit ends-- two people reported positive for the coronavirus, making those in Perumbakkam anxious. Since even chickenpox spreads rapidly amongst them, they are being careful because their cramped living combined with poor sanitation is a ticking time bomb amidst a pandemic. The TNSCB has been disinfecting the tenements once in three days and playing audio messages to increase awareness. Chennai has the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases (1082) in Tamil Nadu (2526) as of May 1. 

The increasing clusters in Chennai and the steady spike in the number of positive cases is impacting neighbouring districts of Chengalpet, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram. Perumbakkam comes under Chengalpet’s limits which was also under intense lockdown for four days. The district has 86 cases. "The restrictions only seem to be tightening further. I'm scared and confused about the future," says A Karthi who runs a mechanic shop earning less than Rs 750 a month and picks up odd jobs. Karthi couldn’t avail the free ration as his card is still registered in his previous address in Kottur where his home was damaged in the floods. “I went back to Kottur and received Rs 1000 but I was asked to come back later for ration,” he says. “Later, the police did not allow us to leave the area. I requested the local fair shops to make an exception but they didn’t.” His mother and him have been getting by with help from donors. “We don’t know when all this will get over while we are forced to sit idle inside for days without earning any money."

*The name of the resident is changed as she requested her identity be protected.

Divya Chandrababu is an independent journalist based in Chennai.

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