Tamil Nadu

When home has not been welcoming enough

Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates of Amman Nagar near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu.

Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates of Amman Nagar near Coonoor in Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

Repatriates from Sri Lanka live in near-squalor conditions in The Nilgiris with the younger members of the community frustrated by lack of opportunities, many decades after they were settled in the district

The road that leads to Amman Nagar in Coonoor, a small colony of repatriates from Sri Lanka with 81 houses, is a long, narrow stretch with a steep slope. For the children of the colony, the road is more than just a makeshift playground. It’s often more inviting than their crummy houses with tin sheets.

The repatriates, who lived in another place called “Vijayanagar Palace” for long, moved to the present site about 10 years ago. There, they were considered encroachers, not here.

The repatriates, who were given Indian citizenship under the 1964 and 1974 India-Sri Lanka bilateral agreements, have been assigned 1.5 cents of land each and given pattas (documentary evidence of right over land), thanks to a scheme of the State Adi-Dravidar and Tribal Welfare department. Two of the 81 houses stand out. With walls and roofs made of cement concrete, these two houses have benefited from the Chief Minister’s Solar Powered Green House scheme.

Unlike in other districts, a large number of these repatriates, who once lived in the hilly region of Hatton-Nuwara Eliya-Kandy of Sri Lanka, continue to be poor. An official of the Rehabilitation Department says that the degree of integration with the local population in the rest of the State is much higher than in The Nilgiris.

It’s been several decades since around 4.6 lakh Tamils of recent Indian origin were repatriated to Tamil Nadu. A majority of them were settled in The Nilgiris. Several generations later, many of these repatriates have not yet been able to find a firmer footing in life. Amman Nagar may be among the most deprived of their neighourhoods, but others are not too better off. There have indeed been a few success stories, of sons and daughters progressing in their lives through education. By and large, however, systems that have been put in place for their rehabilitation have not delivered in full measure.

The community of repatriates appears to be at a crossroads. Younger, educated members of the community have great aspirations. Though most of them come under the Scheduled Caste category, historical factors have bestowed on them several handicaps that make them lose out on benefits when they compete with the relatively better off sections of SCs in the State. Yet, one sees a glimmer of hope for the community when one comes across a little girl at Amman Nagar saying that her ambition is to become a District Collector.

Left out of development

“Ours is like Athipattu gramam,” says S. Pavalarani, a resident of Amman Nagar, referring to a ghost village. She says few in the neighbourhood got benefits from schemes such as free cooking stove-gas cylinders, mixie/wet grinders. “The school-going children do not get free bus passes,” she goes on to complain.

Located in the vicinity of a reserved forest, Amman Nagar is often visited by bisons. “The threat from wild animals is real,” points out K. Balasubramanian, another resident, adding that his community has learnt to live with it.

Like many localities in Tamil Nadu, Amman Nagar is no stranger to the problem of alcoholism. Nearby is a retail liquor outlet.

Ms. Pavalarani and Mr. Balasubramanian, both in their 30s, talk of various other issues that affect the residents of the colony. But the fundamental problem, they say, is lack of housing. They say cement concrete walls would shield them against landslides, as their locality has been identified as one of the vulnerable hotspots. However district officials have told them that structures made of cement concrete are likely to cause further damage.

Not very far from Amman Nagar are the residential quarters of repatriate employees of Tiger Hill Estate factory belonging to the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited (TANTEA), a State government undertaking.

When home has not been welcoming enough
 

Located at a height of around 1,800 metres above the mean sea level, the houses, made of mud with tiled roofing, are at least 35 years old. “They give us five kg of lime during Deepavali. That’s all,” says Nedunchezhian nonchalantly, even as he is engaged in changing tiles on the roof of his house. The pathetic state of common toilets needs no elaboration. But, the employees and their families are more concerned about the access road.

“Even ‘108’ vehicles [ambulances] refuse to come to our place. We have to physically carry patients up for some distance,” says B. Rajendran, another resident, complaining that neither the organisation nor local bodies are keen on meeting even the minimum requirements of the people in the area.

Officials of TANTEA stonewall demands from employees saying the firm has been making losses – amounting to ₹25 crore over three years. A senior official of the firm acknowledges that the company was created for a “social purpose” but says the losses are a concern.

Bhagya Nagar, which comes under Kothagiri taluk, is slightly better off compared to the two colonies. Accessibility is not an issue here. Some of the houses are in better shape too.

Out of around 200 houses in the area, 10% are covered by two government schemes on rural housing. “All other houses are made of locally available materials, asbestos sheets and tiles. Since pattas have not been given to most of the houses, we are not able to avail ourselves of the housing schemes,” says M. Kathiresan, a repatriate and a former councillor, adding that the pattas have been given for 68 houses. A library is another long-felt need of the residents.

Living conditions apart, most of the repatriates in Bhagya Nagar and Amman Nagar are daily wage earners, working in private tea estates. This holds good in other areas such as S. Kaikatti Sunshine Nagar, Kasturibai Nagar and Anna Nagar, coming under Kothagiri taluk or Chinna Karumbalam, Keezh Bharathi Nagar and Indira Nagar, all belonging to Coonoor taluk. “In my locality, Mel Bharathi Nagar, young graduates and post-graduates do the same work that people of my generation or earlier generations did,” says Santhakumari, who is like a leader of women in the area.

When home has not been welcoming enough

She refers to Balasubramanian and Mayakrishnan, who leave their home around 2 a.m. to work in the forest area as daily-wage earners tugging carrots and return home by 9 a.m. These two qualified youngsters, of whom one has a post-graduate degree in commerce, say their educational qualifications have not helped them get the jobs they want. So, they have chosen to follow their elders.

Like many economically vulnerable sections of society in the State, these repatriates have also been affected by the problem of the vicious cycle of debt, especially at the hands of informal, private lenders. Sivalingam and Selvaraj of Mel Bharathi Nagar explain how the formal institutions have not been of much use to them. Their neighbours have a litany of complaints against the Repatriates Cooperative Finance and Development (REPCO) Bank, an institution that is meant to serve the repatriates. One of the residents recalls how the Bank, in the early 1990s, had refused to provide financial assistance for his son’s higher studies.

Success stories

Notwithstanding various accounts of the woes of the repatriates, there is another side to the story. R. Christodas Gandhi, former civil servant who worked as Commissioner of Rehabilitation in the early 1990s, says many belonging to the second or third generation have come up well in their chosen careers and migrated out of The Nilgiris district.

M. Chandrasekaran, former director, REPCO Bank, and general secretary, Malaiyaga Makkal Maruvazhvu Manram, which was active till about 15 years ago looking after the interests of the repatriates, points out that “apart from lawyers and doctors, you can also find a handful of civil servants among my community.

Ever since the tea industry faced a severe crisis nearly 20 years ago, many Badagas who owned tea estates left The Nilgiris and several repatriates have taken, partially or fully, their estates on lease. This holds good in parts of Kothagiri and Coonoor taluks.”

When home has not been welcoming enough

Talking of his experience, Mr. Chandrasekaran, who lived in Badulla of the Uva Province in Sri Lanka till his repatriation, says that, originally, he had wanted to remain in Badulla but the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 made him change his position. “While one of my sons, a post-graduate in business management, works for the BHEL in Tiruchi, another is a degree holder in mechanical engineering and looks after my business of a travel agency. I have no regrets for having come here,” he says, a view similarly held by Veeramma of Amman Nagar and Muniyamma of Chinna Karumbalam.

An account of the sociological side of the migrants can be seen from an article published by the Economic & Political Weekly of February 24, 2018: “Today, the repatriates are scattered all over Tamil Nadu and beyond. They marry partners from their ancestors’ villages or from other repatriate communities, often within the same caste, but marriage beyond the limits of their own community, religion, and language group is not considered a violation of norms.”

When home has not been welcoming enough

Housing problem

Both Gandhi and Chandrasekaran point out what has gone wrong. The former says that in general, the housing conditions in The Nilgiris have not seen much change. The same is the case with the working conditions in the tea estates. Mr. Chandrasekaran is bitter about the way several rehabilitation programmes were implemented. “Those who were not provided jobs with TANTEA or any other government agency were given a sum of ₹3,000 each as business loans. But, no guidance was given to them on how to make use of the money constructively. The purpose behind the move of giving the loans was not served,” he says.

Officials of the REPCO Bank, both in The Nilgiris and Chennai, concede that much remains to be done, even though their organisation’s coverage has increased in recent years.

The number of beneficiaries, through the 11-year-old Repatriates Welfare Trust, has grown from a few thousands in the beginning to 38,000 in 2017-2018. On the complaint that the Bank does not give loans for starting any business venture, its Executive Director/Managing Director in-charge R. S. Isabella replies that credentials of applicants are scrutinised before extending such loans.

Though assistance for the community of repatriates from different quarters has gone up over the years, Mr. Chandrasekaran says several youngsters are finding it difficult to acquire quality education and get government jobs, despite being SCs.

“As they now have to compete with better-placed sections of the SCs, the creation of a quota within the overall quota for the SCs in education and employment would go a long way in putting the people on a far more sound footing,” he suggests, citing the example of Arundathiyars for the sub-quota provision.

 

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 6:46:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/when-home-has-not-been-welcoming-enough/article23632104.ece

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