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Urban poor pushed into deeper crisis

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Two sides: A slum at Kallukuzhi in the heart of the city. –
Two sides: A slum at Kallukuzhi in the heart of the city. –

K.V. Prasad

Kallukuzhi, a slum with close to 500 families in the middle of the city, makes an ideal case study of the urban poor’s struggle to survive in the face of inflation. This is a typical city slum where a surplus of Rs.10 at the end of the month is a princely sum for savings. But, even this amount is wishful thinking now. Three ramshackle grocery shops that measure hardly 15 sq.ft. are proving to be too costly to visit for these families. The cost of items at the shops is double the once possible saving.

Kallukuzhi is located off Puliyakulam Road where land sells at more than Rs.15 lakh a cent. Occupying a defunct quarry and surrounding areas are these families whose earnings are dependent on the needs of the lower and upper middle class. For instance, income is hit if the inflation-affected middle class decides to stop hiring a maid servant.

Grim picture

Located less than half-a-km from Coimbatore city’s most elite area – Race Course – this slum with about 3,000 votes presents a grim picture of humans forced to live amid filth and squalor. But, what hits them harder now is the price rise.

“So what if prices are not rising as sharply as they were a month ago,” asks A. Veerasamy (48). “They have not come down to the level that prevailed before all the trouble began,” he argues. A push cart labourer, he gets Rs.100 a day or even Rs.200, depending on the kind and amount of load he has to draw.

“But, I do not get it every day. Only because my daughter in Standard IX gets free education, my dream of getting her educated is getting fulfilled. My wife used to work as a maid servant. But, she does not work now because of poor health.”

Pointing at a shop within the slum, Mr. Veerasamy says it sells all essential items – from rice to soaps. But, everything is costly. “I could buy an entire month’s requirements at Rs. 15. All these cost me Rs. 25 now. And, that has taken away the Rs.10 that used to remain as savings.”

Mr. Veerasamy says he is borrowing heavily to meet the cost of treatment for his wife who needs an injection costing Rs. 20 and tablets every day for 10 days. “I had saved Rs. 8,000 in a postal savings account opened for my daughter. The rising prices and the medical treatment have taken it away. My house rent has been increased from Rs.180 to Rs.200.”

Costly suburbs

The daily wage earner says it is a Catch-22 situation for people like him. “We cannot afford the costs in the city. At the same time, we cannot shift to the suburbs. We need to be close to our places of work. Besides, the rent is not much less in the suburbs,” he says.

E. Rangarajan, an autorickshaw driver living in a low-income group colony at Selvapuram, agrees with this point. Though he pays a house rent of Rs. 800, he says moving out of the city will prove costlier. “I will have to spend more on fuel for my vehicle, compared to the rent. This is the case with all the drivers. They have to operate from their stands in the city. So, there is no way we can escape the price situation.”

Rice scheme

Many dwellers at Kallukuzhi say they are saved by the Rs. 2 a kg rice supplied through ration shops. But, Pushpavalli Palanisamy (43) is angry and in tears as she does not have a family card despite a six-year struggle to get it. “I was born here and I grew up in this place. Yet, officials say I am not eligible for a card. I do not know how I cannot be given one when others in the same area get it.”

The woman, who has a physically disabled son to be looked after, says she does not enjoy even that cushion provided by the Rs.2 a kg rice scheme.

Lakshmi Devi (27) says she cannot cut the daily quota of a litre of milk for three children. This impacts the other requirements.

M. Sundaram (28) gets around Rs.180 a day for painting work. But, this is only for three to four days a week. Sometimes there is no work for days together during monsoon. “I am not sending my daughter to school. I cannot afford it. My wages have not gone up to match the price rise.”

Mr. Veerasamy laments that this is the situation in every colony where the city’s poor live, symbolising the plight of the unorganised sector whose wages are not even remotely connected to the cost of living.

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