Slums of Chennai: Vishalakshi Thottam

Murali and Mohandas, residents of the slum area. (Pic: Faraan Tarique)
Murali and Mohandas, residents of the slum area. (Pic: Faraan Tarique)

For the slum dwellers of Vishalakshi Thottam hope lies in political agency.   “We need to build local structures to help ourselves,” says the 25 years old Mohandas who heads the DMK’s local office. The youth of the area have fast learned the importance of political connections but they also understand that there is no  alternative to self- reliance.

From irregular water supply to clogged sewage lines, the problems are plenty and of such a nature that requires multiple and periodic interventions. “We cannot always run to some political leader. For our problems we need to rely on our own strength,” says Murali M who is in the process of getting his NGO “Vyir Ihuzi” registered. “For long we have worked without an organization. But symbols are important,” he says referring to the advantages of formal structures.

“Last year there was an acute water crisis in the area and it was really difficult to get in touch with the municipal officials. Just carrying a crowd along does not always help,” says Ramakrishnan a resident of the area. The young people have decided to pool their energy and resources to come up with a youth based local organisation to vocalise the problems faced by the people of their locality.

First on their list is to get rid of the liquor shops. “In a radius of around four kilometres, there are at least six liquor shops. You will find hardly a single one in the nearby posh areas.” says Murali. Every few months somebody dies in the locality due to the problems related to alcoholism which is a major problem in age group of 40 to 50 years in this locality. One such victim of alcoholism,  P Alanivd, 35  died last month. A number of posters can be seen with his picture informing others about his death.

“Every once in a while there is an alcohol related death and it seems only the face on the poster changes,” says Venu R, a civil services aspirant who lives here. “Last July I saw a dead body of a person who had fallen in an open gutter in a state of drunkenness. Only his legs were visible while the upper part of his body had sunken deep in the filth,” he recalls with a shudder. “Why the administration has issued licenses to these many shops here? There are many schools in the area. They seem to be thinking that slum dwellers are sort of target market due to the stressful lives we have.” he says.

Despite express legal prohibition, manual scavenging is still in practice in Vishalakshi Thottam as there are many houses with dry latrines. “In December, a person died while cleaning the sewage. We tried to get compensation for his family by organizing a protest and a few of us even had to face arrests in the process,” says Suresh R who is often involved in addressing local issues.

The sewage should be cleaned once in two weeks and the visible non adherence to  this requirement has given rise to a huge mosquito menace and a host of infectious diseases in the locality. “Malaria and dengue are quite common here,  says Venu.

Most of the people are drivers of auto rickshaws and other vehicles in this area while women work as domestic servants. The numbers of graduates and those opting for professional high paying careers is increasing however at present majority is illiterate. “Our challenge is to build awareness and also to educate the people here about the importance of self help,” says Murali.

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