Burnt huts, hours before resettlement to Kanagi Nagar.

Nirmala Murali, Neten Dorji

Kanchana Periaswamy, a 62-year-old mother of two and a grandmother of five has to pedal two hours everyday to get to work as a mover in Mylapore. 

Periaswamy was moved from her house in a slum in Mylapore to Kanagi Nagar —-, a government- mandated place to house the urban poor living illegally in slum sprawls—- some 22 years back. And now she may have a somewhat more permanent roof over her head but she doesn’t have anywhere to work and so she cycles everyday. 

“Even people with a degree can’t get jobs.” said Peraiswamy stirring a vessel in which she was cooking chicken gravy in a makeshift firewood stove on the road outside her house. Her house is a one room that functions as a bedroom and a kitchen in a two-floor structure in Chennai’s Kanagi Nagar. 

In south Chennai, Kanagi Nagar is known for apartments with murals, depicting the lives of the people in Chennai. Artists from around the world along with the localities have turned giant, plain walls into beautiful, eye-catching canvas boards. Every wall, every mural is an untold story of the non-elite class. One wouldn’t cross the apartment without taking a look at the murals.

An area of 0.46 square kilometers on the outskirts of Chennai city, Kannagi Nagar is the biggest in the city’s experiments to house the urban poor and has a population of around 1.25 Lakh. Some 50,000 families living illegally in squatter settlements around the city were given tenements, ranging in size from 250-357 square feet.

Each house here has just one room and a kitchen that is separated by a thin wall. Two houses share one toilet. The area has one police station, one primary school, one higher secondary school, a ration shop and few other grocery shops. The people that now live here previously lived in Mylapore, Adyar, Royappetah and other parts of Chennai.

Houses in Kanagi Nagar, Thoraipakkam

The Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu, V. Irai Anbu said that the Government is working on Kannagi Nagar to improve their living conditions. He said, “The Chief Minister has taken a special interest in Kannagi Nagar, he is working closely with local officials. We have set up NGOs that take classes in the evening apart from the curriculum.”

He added that he knew that the area lacked good quality of water and that he had appointed officials to tackle the situation but wasn’t aware that few residents didn’t have their ration cards yet.   

Director of Kanagi Nagar Marialaya Social Service Society, Nirmala.S said that the livelihoods of slum people in Kannagi Nagar had been badly affected after their resettlement. “They have been brought far away from the city and they can’t go back to their place to earn a living. Earning is impossible for them since they have to spend a huge amount to go back to the same place,” she lamented.

Most of the women work as housemaids.,The men mostly drive autorickshaws or work as manual labour.

Five houses down the street from Periaswami’s house lives Girija along with her widowed daughter and 8-year-old grandson. Her son moved away to Vellore after marriage. She says she wishes the children of thr locality move away to hostels. The children here are get addicted to drugs, alcohol and smoking. Often, young men in their 20s use the kids to buy stuff from the market. They end up sharing drugs with these kids, she says. Even five-year-olds smoke here, she says. “I know the source of drugs and how they enter the neighbourhood but I can’t name them. I wish no trouble for my family of all females,” she said.

“None of the children are healthy either physically or mentally with access to drugs and alcohol at a young age. School or no school doesn’t change much for the children. They pass comments on the teachers and sometimes even bully them. The teacher doesn’t have any other option to ignore the children, take classes for the sake of the salary”, Girija said.

Girija wants her grandson along with the other children to get out of the neighbourhood. She wants them to join a hostel facility desperately. She fears that her 8-year-old grandson has already got into bad company. She said, “My grandson lost his father, my daughter is 22-year-old and a widow. We both have to work to run the family. My grandson who is at home alone hangs out with children who are much older to him. He no longer listens to his mother or to me.”

Housing blocks. Pic Courtesy: CNN.com

Periaswamy cooking in front of her house, as she narrates her story.