Faces of Kannagi Nagar

Apoorva Sudhakar

Jasmin Nihalani

One half of Kannagi Nagar is shadowed by tall 3 BHK apartments while the other half by Ezhil Nagar. While they have a lot in common with the residents of Ezhil Nagar who too were relocated from differs parts of the city, their aspirations are no less than the ones living in the high-rises.

Navenedham sits on a pavement which is covered with goat pellets, washing jasmine flowers while a woman next to her takes a siesta. The sullen silence is occasionally broken by goats bleating or a group of children playing.

Navenedham is one of the Tsunami victims rehabilitated to Kannagi Nagar from Mylapore. According to a 2014 report by Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), Kannagi Nagar is one of the largest resettlement sites in India. Located on Chennai’s Old Mahabalipuram Road, in Okkiyam Thoraipakkam, it was built in a phased manner from the year 2000, when the first 3,000 houses were constructed. Today, Kannagi Nagar is still under expansion and construction and has about 15,656 tenements housing a population of 78,280.

Ezhumalai, another resident of Kannagi Nagar says, “It wasn’t the same 15 years ago.” There were 25 houses and a big maidhanam (ground). Earlier, the nearest police station was in Thoraipakkam but due to a surge in crime rate, the settlement received its own police station. “This police station now is full of noise, it is like a Chathiram (a marriage hall),” adds Ezhumalai, who now prepares stages and mics used in functions.

Navenedham, who was previously a meat seller, remarks “When Amma assumed power, the roads were not proper, buses did not come to our area and power supply was not there.”

Ezhumalai who used to construct makeshift tents for the workers who built the buildings, says “Slowly they developed it, brick by brick, step by step, building by building, house by house.”

Anjalai sitting outside her house

Anjalai, another first settler of Kannagi Nagar, sits outside her one-room house, waiting for customers of her daily ‘tiffin’ service. A container with soft puffy ‘idlis’ and a vessel full of ‘sambar’ lines the road as. It’s not just the residents, even the goats; chickens and crows take their turns to feed themselves directly from the vessel before being shooed away.

Lack of rains and a drought-like condition in Cuddalore forced her to come to Chennai. She took refuge in shanties in Rajaji Salai only to be evacuated five years later to Kannagi Nagar. She says, “Kannagi Nagar was a very big area at that time and then the buildings started coming up slowly. Every now and then buildings were coming up.” Despite that, she preferred her ‘Reserve Bank area,’ because it was her ‘own’ house and had more facilities. Kannagi Nagar, on the other hand, had no electricity or water.

Before they were relocated in January 2000, she’d earn around 400 per day with her idli business in Rajaji Salai. Now she earns around Rs. 100 – 150 per day which is barely enough, she says.  She also adds, ‘Kashtapatta pat rupa sambadikiraun’ (you have to work really hard to earn even Rs. 10).

Though she has a gas connection at home, she still uses the firewood for her business. This helps her save gas as she lives alone and has to cook just for herself.

Kalyani, who is also from Rajaji Salai and among the first settlers, was forced to shift here after a massive fire broke out in their makeshift huts– built with coconut leaf thatched roof­– the military decided to occupy the lands.

Kalyani’s tea stall

She says that Kannagi Nagar was an agricultural land before and everything that is present here now had been specifically built on their needs and requirements. The prevalence of delinquency did not deter her from raising her two kids safely. “My kids are not involved in any problems. I do not allow them to do any problems,” she adds.

When questioned if she likes her area, she is quick to add, “So what if I like it or do not like it, I have to eventually live somehow. I was born in a poor household and If I say I do not like this area, where else can I go?”

An additional 2,048 tenements were also constructed under the Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project (ETRP), following the 2004 Tsunami.

However, Selvarani, one of the resident does not know about the recently built tenements. When told that the new buildings have a room and a kitchen, she looks confused and confirms with a boy who was playing in the area.

She came to Kannagi Nagar after her marriage to Vinodkumar in 2013. They now live in one of the oldest buildings of Kannagi Nagar, which have smaller houses than the ones built later. The water scarcity is, however, common. In this area too, 12 houses share a corporation pipe. Some of the houses here do not have a proper door, instead, have a thin metal door.

Her husband Vinodkumar works as a Spares Executive at Hyundai and earns Rs 12,000 per month. He has been in Kannagi Nagar since the resettlement began in 2000, says Selvarani. Their three-year-old daughter goes to Hope Foundation. When asked why Hope, Selvarani replies “oru chinna aasai” – a small desire to see her daughter in the uniform of one of the best schools in the locality.

She says her life in Villupuram was easier as she could work and earn at least Rs 50 per day. Before getting married at 21, Selvarani worked in fields during the harvest seasons, sometimes cleaned offices, or sometimes stitched footwears in different factories.

Though she had saved almost no money before the marriage, Selvarani now talks about saving up for her daughter’s marriage in the faraway future.

The HLRN report titled, “Forced to the fringes- Disasters of Resettlement in India” says that resettlement process in Kannagi Nagar was a deliberate act of dispossession and ‘ghettoization’ of deprived urban communities.

Each building here has eight houses with one room, a kitchen. Two houses share a bathroom. One corporation pipe provides water for 12 houses, once a week for around five hours, starting around 5 a.m.

Sanjana and Sadhana outside their home

Sashikala, who lives in one of the newer buildings, runs down the stairs lined with grow bags when she hears goats bleating outside her home in Kannagi Nagar. While her five-year-old twins, Sanjana and Sadhana play with two teddy bears bigger than them, she rushes to chase away the goats. Examining the plants that the goats were trying to eat, she remarks that with the limited water that Kannagi Nagar receives, it is difficult to maintain her little garden.

She came to Kannagi Nagar from Thiruvannamalai in 2013 after marrying Mahesh, a driver. The walls of her house are painted pink and her two kids have separate tables for their books, and an LCD television.

The twins point to their trophies kept on top of a steel ‘almirah’ in their pink living room-cum-bedroom. They go to Hope Foundation, where education is free of tuition fees. An expense of Rs 1000 each for the twins gets them a uniform and books.

Kannagi Nagar may not be perfect but residents believe there is no use in complaining about it. They say one should be content with what one has and one can afford. A man complains when he has “unnecessary” desires.