Kannagi Nagar: On the Periphery

Arkatapa Basu, Archita Raghu


Kannagi Nagar paints a very different picture from the IT companies on the so-called OMR or Old Mahabalipuram Road.

In just a few kilometers, tall glittering towers that reflects India’s new vision of itself, gives way to low rise neighbourhood with small, identical buildings with faded paint and moss growing in patches on the walls. 

Even the air here smells different.

The smell of food, where some kids were cooking a meal in front of their school, mingles with the raw smell of overflowing garbage and sewage running on the streets.

It even feels hotter here, just a few kilometers from posh south Chennai.

Kannagi Nagar is the name given to the area housing those evicted from slums within Chennai. Some 78, 280 living people live here, in 15,656 small government subsidized tenements, in small apartments (typically 195 to 310 square feet) on plots of land that once used to be a marsh.

There are people affected by the 2004 tsunami that ravaged India here. In some sense, Kannagi Nagar is a microcosm of Chennai with people from Mylapore, Mannady, Teynampet, Saidapet, Tharamani and other areas of the city.

Certain houses have marble floorings and air conditioners, while the by-lanes are flooded with sewage. By-lanes as well as empty plots of land have also become dumping grounds with cattle grazing on it. Almost every building has a green water pipe with a hand pump attached to it. Some houses have aluminium vessels filled with murky water kept on the low boundary walls. Multi-coloured clothes hang on these walls, railings of staircases and clothesline to dry.

 In another part of Kannagi Nagar, a bunch of children play with marbles. In turns, they use a pebble to scatter the gathered marbles. The furthest reaching marble becomes their next starting point. Their school is closed for the last ten days as teachers’ have asked the students not to come. 

Though there are four schools in the area, some students do not get admission in the government school. Families who cannot afford gas stoves or cycles get first preference here. However, there are very few such families.

An original re-settler from the slum eviction of 2000, N. Neelu says that Kannagi Nagar’s name came the political way. Karunanidhi set up these buildings and as a fan of Tamil writings; he named this area after Kannagi.

According to a Tamil epic “Silappatikaram”, Kannagi’s husband, Kovalan, was wrongly accused of stealing the queen’s anklet. He was put to death without trial.  Seeking justice for the wrong done to her husband, Kannagi cursed Madurai to be burned down.

Neelu laughs and says it does not matter whether or not she likes the area, but she likes the name very much.

Kannagi may have become the symbol for justice over the years but as Kannagi Nagar’s police station shows, even people tasked with maintaining order do not have a permanent place.