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Samathuvapuram: miles to go to attain equality

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A view of Melakottai ‘samathuvapuram’ near Thirumangalam in Madurai on Tuesday.
A view of Melakottai ‘samathuvapuram’ near Thirumangalam in Madurai on Tuesday.

D.Karthikeyan

Effort pays off but ...

MADURAI: Liberty is a practice; material and legal changes can never guarantee liberty or equality- Michel Foucault

The Samathuvapuram (Equality Village) housing scheme, which is aimed at creation of spatial equality among all things is an unparalleled effort in the history of the Post-Colonial State. Initiated by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, the first Samathuvapuram was established at Melakottai village in Madurai district on August, 17, 1998. This effort, in fact, was preceded by a series of caste clashes that rocked the southern districts over the naming of a transport corporation after Dalit leader Sundaralingam.

The Samathuvapurams are all named after social reformer E. V. R. Periyar and called Periyar Ninaivu Samathuvapuram. At Melakottai, 100 beneficiaries occupy the village in which 40 houses are allotted to Adi Dravidars, 25 to backward classes, 25 to most backward classes and 10 to people of other communities.

After almost a decade, the much publicised effort to create spatial equality and foster social harmony throws up larger questions on the idea of equality and the production of property of life or locality and neighbourhood.

The effort has ensured mutual coexistence but does this guarantee changes in the deep rooted constraints associated with culture, tradition and questions of purity and pollution. When enquired about the every day life in the Melakottai Samathuvapuram, one of the inhabitants said that no structural change had happened over the years like inter-dining or inter-caste marriage.

A woman resident said that caste animosity was not there but a sense of stiffness remained “Homes were provided to us but literally no attempts were made to foster a sense of harmony.” Even on the socio-economic front there was no case of strong upward mobility and the village does not have a single graduate and the economic conditions largely remain deplorable.

Mahatma/National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has been helping them to look after the every day expenses.

Bureaucratic apathy in the Samathuvapuram is tangible -- defunct library hall which remains empty for many years, waterless tanks, locked television room, playground full of bushes and thorns and a dilapidated community hall. The noon meal centre which has no kitchen here has to cook food for children in the open.

Hugo Gorringe, Lecturer, University of Edinburgh, author of Untouchable Citizens: The Dalit Panthers and Democratisation in Tamilnadu, who has done ethnographic study in Madurai, says that the idea evades the multiple processes of negotiation and discussion that go into the production of locality. He says, “Community feeling through proximity is a misguided effort.” It stands as an important space of symbolism and you cannot change things by building structures. For the concrete space to become more than just a symbol you need that space to transform into social action. Samathuvapuram does not really have space for the coming together of communities. Probably the State could promote events like common Pongal celebrations.

A few Dalit writers and intellectuals also see this effort as more of a symbolic one. Dalit writer Stalin Rajangam says, “Samathuvapurams both as an idea and structure stand as signs of social justice on the surface level and also provides with an opportunity for the DMK leader to claim lineage to social justice through spatial symbolism.”

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