Spatial re-ordering has turned Sakkimangalam Ambedkar Colony into a case study of poverty

A detour on the Sivaganga Road near Karuppayoorani leads to Sakkimangalam. A rusting metal sign board reads ‘Relocation Site’ of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board. It also carries Dravidian icon C.N. Anna Durai’s famous quote, “In the Smile of the Poor I See God.”

Sakkimangalam assumes significance for the shifting of a huge population of Dalits from the Vaigai river bed. Named after the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr.B.R. Ambedkar, the colony was meant to be an abode for the community of rag pickers and conservancy workers. But it has become a case study of concentrated poverty.

The Dalits who are part of the unorganised urban economy, are now forced to travel long distance to earn a livelihood or even avail of medical facilities, which were earlier available to them more easily when they lived in squatter settlements within the city. Says D.Malin, founder, Puthiya Kalam (New Ground), Madurai, “The Government Rajaji Hospital’s services have become inaccessible because of the distance given the State’s policy to relocate them. Their resettlement not only has curbed spatial mobility but also restricted the access to health services.”

Women and men wake up at 3.a.m daily and lumber off from Ambedkar Colony to Goripalayam from where they spread out to clean the city, sweeping and picking rags. They unclog sewers by plunging their arms up to their elbows in human waste without protective gears, says Pappammal (65).

Most of the Dalit women engage in rummaging through waste from 3 a.m. to 10 a.m., sorting and separating bottles, cans, glass and plastic items. They look through trash that includes medical waste from used or discarded needles and blood bags. Day after day.

Urban/territorial stigma

The creation of Dr.Ambedkar Colony is a by product of inequality and marginalisation based on caste and class. These trends are reinforced when communities and sections of the population are segregated into colonies. The inhabitants there are also stigmatised.

The relocation of these Dalits happened in 1993, following a flood. To ensure a safe passage for these “illegal occupants” living on the fringes of the Vaigai riverbed, the State relocated them to Sakkimangalam.

However, a prominent Dalit party in Madurai, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) (Dalit Panthers) says the resident neighbourhoods forced this action. It was perceived that the Dalit settlements had become breeding grounds for crime and other anti-social activities and, therefore, as part of a cleansing process they were shifted to the outskirts of the city.

VCK member Chithiraivel believes such an action was initiated to divide the Dalit vote bank, which, however, remained intact. It was also to get rid of the “visual pollution” in the heart of the city. But this relocation did not wipe out the stigma attached to the residents. Three caste clashes have occurred between Other Backward Castes and Dalits since the relocation.

The social stigma impacts on their employability. It hampers the search for jobs as inhabitants of the area encounter additional distrust and reticence among employers as soon as they mention their place of residence. A few Dalit women from the colony work as domestic help, but must conceal their identity or address to get hired.

Arul Raj (31) laments that basic amenities are still a dream for the colony people. The colony houses more than 500 families without any bathroom facilities, which is particularly stressful for women. Factional feuds break out among the Dalit youth which stands in the way of becoming organised around a common platform. The relocation of the population has actually ended up excluding them from the urban economy. The living conditions have worsened over the years. The State has failed to provide safety, health, education, housing and justice, Arul Raj says.

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