Slums of Chennai: Kannagi Nagar

Poster of Yezhumalai (Pic: Faraan Tarique)
Poster of Yezhumalai

At least in his death Yezhumalai stands tall. Recently, the entire side wall of the building where he lived was covered by a huge poster with his picture on it. On December, 12 last year this 23 years old  married and unemployed youth  got drunk and hung himself to death. The poster was installed in his memory by a group of local youths. He was a resident of Kannagi Nagar in Chennai, a massive township of sorts planned by the Tamil Nadu government to relocate the slum dwellers from different parts of the city in order to deliver on its promise of making Chennai slum free.

Murugumma, the 20 years old widow, works at the Municipal Corporation as a sweeper and may herself be at risk of taking some extreme step as in Kannagi Nagar suicides are happening quite frequently. In the month of December itself a 15 years old girl burnt herself to death while another committed suicide by hanging.

Behind the spark provided by the immediate causes such as marital fights or love affairs lies the cumulative stress of impoverished living conditions of this locality where everything which can go wrong with a slum is present and in copious amounts. Here a main street and multiple by lanes separate one  block of building from another with a few parks or rather  open spaces in between- which turn into mosquito breeding grounds with stagnated water – providing the breathing space to the residents.

“Water borne diseases are quite common so as dengue and malaria in this area”, says Nimmi, a local resident while she recalls the promise made by former deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu of turning Chennai into Singapore. “As a result, slum dwellers were driven out of the city because with them present the city would not have looked clean and modern”, she says.

The entire area was marsh land and water logged before the first construction to rehabilitate the 2004 Tsunami victims began. “The buildings not only stand on shaky grounds but the interiors too are not good….a nail just slides into the wall if you try to hammer it in”, says Nimmi pointing to the poor construction material used and also the lurking possibility of a few buildings collapsing.

Every building has around 18 houses, each around the size of 100 square feet. Rajeshwari, a domestic help for a household in Indira Nagar, Adyar bought such a house from a family which was relocated here for rupees 1.5 lacs. “I was greatly helped by my employer to arrange for the funds and so was able to avoid the debt trap” she says. A few people have taken loans to buy houses here. Loans are offered by a few local residents who are acting as agents for outside moneylenders. The whole transaction is done informally and the interest rates are around 15 percent of the principal a month.

Biggest issue is of livelihood. Most reliable occupation available to the residents is auto- rickshaw driving for men and domestic labouring for women. Quite close to beggary is the forever available employment for urban poor: sifting through garbage aka rag picking.  Out of city location implies reduced employment opportunities and high transportation costs to reach the places of work. Rajeshwari pays rupees 50 per day to go to her workplace and come back.

For every building there is one hand pump which supplies water so infrequently that often there is no water supply for two to three days. During summers, gaps in water supply can be as long as a week and residents then have to walk one or two kilometres  to fetch water. “Today the water has come, so you can see queues at every hand pump but they are not this patient during summers and often fight among each other over water” says Rajeshwari.

The ghetto like conditions appear more dismal in the four blocks inhabited by the people relocated from the slums of Puddupettai. Drug peddling and prostitution add to the burden of missing civic amenities and infrastructural deficits turning this area into an island of harshness within the infirmary of deprivation that Kannagi Nagar is. “There are no hospitals, our children regularly fall sick. Even at the only government school in the area the afternoon lunch is not given properly…. Young children of 10 to 12 years fall victim to drug addiction”, says Fatima a resident here for the last five years.

Drug addiction in the form of cannabis and prescription drugs is another menace destroying the youth in this locality. “You can buy a strip of 30 tablets of some post abortion pain killers for rupees 15 which is a very popular form of drug among the people here”, says N Dharma, 19, who works as a helper at the retail chain Spencer’s, earning rupees 6000 a month for loading and unloading articles from tempos, working nine hours a day, seven days a week. Due to Rheumatism he had to drop out of school after completing class ninth.

The locality now handles a relatively lighter burden of inter gang rivalry due to police crackdown. Two years ago, clash between two rival cable services providers resulted in the death of a youth though such fights have come down considerably in recent months. “The police have become the new gang for us. They are very harsh and even beat women” says Dharma, who claims that often young people are arrested on false charges. “If the local police is unable to nab suspects in some case, they come here and arrest youth and frame them”, he says.

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