Relocation site lacks even the most basic facilities, report Sowmiya Ashok and Lavanya M.
“I won't be able to work here anymore,” 40-year-old Kanamma Jothi, who works as a domestic help, informed her employer of many years at the latter's house in Nungambakkam. Two years ago, her life – her home, her belongings and her children – was uprooted from the banks of the Cooum and transported 25 km away to a 158 square feet cement room in Semmencherry.
Evidently, rehabilitation of slum dwellers from the city to faraway tenements in the outskirts is not just about uprooting them from their traditional homes, but also about severing ties that have been in existence for many years.
M. Saraswathi, who collects garbage in Semmencherry, laments that life has taken an unhappy turn. “Earlier, a monthly income of Rs. 500 as domestic help was enough to support the family. My employer used to give us food and pay my children's school fees when required,” she says. “Now, my husband drinks all the time and my daughters have dropped out of school.”
There is nothing in the vicinity of Semmencherry – a dusty road off Rajiv Gandhi Salai takes you to what looks like a ‘gated community' for the poor, away from the heart of the city. A recent survey conducted by Thozhamai, a resource agency for human rights, found that the area is home to an equal proportion of displaced persons from both North (58 per cent) and South (42 per cent) Chennai.
While world over, in-situ development is being considered ideal, the lack of space within the city to rehabilitate the slum dwellers is often cited as the reason for it not being implemented in Chennai.
K. Shanmugavelayutham, co-ordinator, Chennai Slum Dweller Rise Movement, says a similar resettlement project in Kannagi Nagar is considered a failure since many have come back to the city, leaving behind the houses allotted to them.
“Those who continue to live in the resettlement colonies, face stigma and often do not find employment in the newly emerging companies in the vicinity.”
Many have clearly lost their livelihood in making this transition, while others have had to change professions. Of the 750 families that were surveyed, 76 per cent of them said their main problem was travelling long distances for employment and 34 per cent said they travel between 21 and 30 km to work.
What about school-going children? “I am planning to shift to a school nearby,” says M. Rekha. For the last two years, her journey that begins at 6 a.m. to her current school in Chetpet every morning, is taking a toll on the 13-year-old. Parents say that children are so exhausted that they sometimes fall asleep on the bus, missing their stop and ending up in places such as Kelambakkam.
Others like A. Suganya tried to break the long commute by enrolling in the local school but were unhappy with the quality of education imparted. “When I studied there, students of classes IX and X were combined, benches were inadequate, and teaching was mediocre,” says the dropout, who now works in a theatre nearby.
The stories shared by the residents of Semmencherry's tenements are similar to of people in Kannagi Nagar – bad roads, poor healthcare facilities, irregular water supply, overflowing sewage, erratic power supply and an insufficient graveyard.
Since moving out is not an option for residents, some have decided to make the best of their situations. “I work in an industrial park nearby,” says A. Revathi, who along with five others from her neighbourhood, travels every day for housekeeping work at I.T. Companies and industrial estates. “We get paid Rs. 4,500 per month which was more that what I used to earn in the city,” she says.
Others have tried their hand at entrepreneurship. Desamma Kabali and 42 other women, members of a self-help group, have chosen an eco-friendly way to make a living – manufacturing organic manure and earn Rs. 3,500 a month.
As the city gears up for another resettlement drive in Perumbakkam, where 16,000 families are to be relocated, government agencies may want to take some lessons from the experiences of residents in Semmenchery and Kannagi Nagar.