They are ineligible for the 100-day job scheme, and government group housing projects
Roti, Kapda aur Makaan was the promise of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the poor of India. But, the promise of food, clothing and shelter she made in the 1970s is yet to reach the poor villagers of A. Vallalapatti near Melur in Madurai district.
While a section of these residents, mostly belonging to Valayar community, have reconciled to their fate, the younger generation has been cursing themselves for living in an urban local body. The essence of town is only in the name of the local body. But there is no semblance of an urban standard of living for these people.
The urban nature of the local body has denied them jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. It has also made them ineligible to get good houses under any of the government group housing schemes.
The landless farm hands have been destined to live in thatched roofs for generations together. The huts have three to four feet high walls. One must bend to enter these huts. There are 600 such huts.
The huts have four pillars of either timber or stone over which timbers are arranged to put up a thatched roof with palmyrah fronds. The walls are predominantly made of mud.
One of the villagers, Vellaichamy, explains: “If the walls are higher, the roof will be blown away in strong wind. That’s why we do not mind bending our bodies to enter into our houses,” he said. The mud flooring is maintained by regularly applying cow dung paste.
An earthen oven, few aluminium utensils for cooking and mats are all the household things inside most of the huts. Television sets, — most of them given by the government, and almirah are the only luxurious things in these houses.
Some of the students have free laptops given by the government.
Outside every house one can find three to four stainless steel or plastic pots filled with water. These pots have to be kept outside as otherwise there will not be enough space for the inmates to move around. Many houses do not have power. “The government has not given any free electricity connections in our area,” says Vellaiyammal.
Many men — irrespective of their age and education —- are employed in sugarcane fields and that too is confined to two to three months in a year. Every morning at least a dozen vans come to their locality to ferry them to the fields. “We earn Rs. 250 to Rs. 300 a day. We have to save and spend the money earned in this season throughout the year,” says S. Mandhi, a youth.
The people, both men and women, would have got some employment had the paddy cultivation was on. “This year we did not receive Periyar waters for irrigation. With no cultivation, we have no jobs,” says Mr. Vellaichamy.
The free rice scheme has been of help to these people. The old age pension supplements the meagre income for some.
Few houses have been damaged in the recent rain. Either the earthen wall has collapsed or the roofs have caved in.
“We have to spend around Rs. 10,000 to repair the roof once in every four or five years. With a hand-to-mouth existence, we have no money to have the houses repaired on time. Much of our savings or borrowings go for this periodical repairs,” says Mr. Vellaichamy.
Whenever they do not find sufficient funds to repair the house, they buy ‘samba pul,’ a variety of reed and strew them over the roof to plug the leaks. Some others have covered the thatched roof with the flex sheets of advertisement hoardings.
The thatched roofs are a breeding ground for mosquitoes. An official said that when door-to-door fogging was carried out during the anti-dengue operation, thousands of mosquitoes were seen flying away from the palmyrah fronds.
When dengue hit the district few months back, the worst affected were the hut-dwellers. “At least 200 of our village were admitted to hospital during the dengue season last year. Doctors from many districts kept visiting us for two months,” V. Gangaiammal, an aged woman, said. Two persons succumbed to dengue, the people claimed.
“These huts have remained in the same status for the last three to four generations. We have not seen any major development in the last 100 years. Our life has been stuck in poverty. Our men and women are ready to work. But except for agricultural work, we have no other scope for getting employment. People of nearby villages go for the 100-day work, but since we are in the town panchayat, we are denied jobs,” Mr. Mandhi said.
Sarcastically, he said that the huts were only cattle sheds that were good enough only to keep goats and not even cows,” says Mandhi.
“During every election, the political parties have been promising to make our lives better with good houses, but nothing has happened in the last 10 years,” says Chinnammal, an old woman.
The enumeration of huts carried out by officials gave hopes to the people, but nothing much has happened so far.
The Centre and the State governments were contributing for urban housing project under the ‘Basic Services to Urban Poor’ scheme under which huts in slum areas were being converted into houses with concrete roof in Madurai Corporation limits. Similarly, assistance under the green house scheme announced by the State government was given only to rural villages.
“Since this is an urban local body, the people are not eligible for any housing scheme. During a recent visit of our Director (town panchayat), we have made a representation to convert the huts of BPL (below poverty line category) families into pucca houses to prevent mosquito breeding,” the town panchayat’s Executive Officer, K. Sundari, said.
The Chairperson, A.K. Umapathi, said, “As there is no definite funding for housing projects in town panchayats, we have been pressing the officials to get some special funds to cater to the poor.”
The fear for Chinnammal is that they may be forced to go back to the Alagarmalai to fetch firewood for their livelihood. When the National Cooperative Sugar Mills at Alanganallur was locked out few years back, the men, women and children used to go to Alargarmalai to fetch firewood. The people spent most of their daytime to walk to the hills and carry the firewood as head-load back home.
In the evenings, they take the firewood to Melur for selling them. Two padi (measure) of maize or rice is all they could buy to make porridge.
The re-opening of the sugar mill has given them some hope, but it has not been a permanent solution for their round-the-year livelihood.
When asked about any loan assistance from banks, the women say in a chorus that no officer will give loan to people with unclean clothes.
An aged man, P. Chinnakaruppan, rues that though many of the youths of their community had studied up to 12th standard, none got a government job.