Around 6 p.m., a small water truck makes its way through a narrow street into the settlement of Dr Radhakrishna Puram. Located across the Buckingham Canal from Greenways Road station in RA Puram, most houses here are stacked together with paint and plaster coming off the walls , with asbestos sheets on the roof. All of this lends an all-pervading sense of impermanence in the air.
Before it can come to a halt, women rush out of their homes equipped with fluorescent-coloured plastic pots and gather around the truck, jostling until an orderly queue begins to form. They fill their pots – some as many as six – which will meet their needs until a ‘tanker’ arrives next morning, the only other time they get water on any given day.
Chennai has many Thideer Nagars. The name itself is emblematic of the nature of these neighbourhoods filled with small houses with paint peeling of the walls and streets barely wide enough for a car to pass. This is one of them.
Google Maps and some residents call this Thideer Nagar although the postal address is Dr. Radhakrishnapuram or RK Puram. Perhaps the name stems from the meaning of the Tamil word Thideer. Thideer means something happening very quickly or all of a sudden.
At first there was nothing….
Madhuram Beniwal, who has run a pawnbroker’s shop in the neighbouring settlement of Govindswamy Nagar for overthree decades, concurred with Ganeshan. “After the labourers first arrived, their children grew up and now even their kids are living here. Some of them have opened shops along the canal, selling vegetables, plastic items – things like that,” he said.
“Previously, they used to come visit my shop but now there are other pawnbrokers in that settlement as well,” he added.
FROM THERE TO WHAT?
The other Thideer Nagars are somewhat more famous. The one on the banks of the Adyar river at Saidapet and the one on Greams Road in Central Chennai (?)Conditions are worse in Saidapet on the banks of the Adyar river, rightbelow the bridge on Anna Salai. Unlike Dr Radhakrishna Puram, there are no two or three-floored concrete houses on the peripheries of what is otherwise a cluster of crudely built structures.
“The tanker lorry from the Corporation comes only once a day. Five years ago, there were talks of us getting piped water in our houses but since then there has been nothing,” said 62-year-old Sayyed Hussain, who sells “fancy items” on the footpath and feeds his family of six.
In the Thousand Lights area where Greams Road and Anderson Road intersect , only eight houses and a temple remain of what used to be a full-fledged settlement along the Cooum river till November 2017. Here too, women play the waiting game with plastic pots in hand, though the lack of people translates into a lack of chaos.
“Around two years ago, they demolished everything and relocated everyone to Kannagi Nagar and Perumbakkam. Only our homes survived, because we had the temple right next to us,” said one of the women who stood there waiting forthe waterto arrive any minute.
Apart from their respective locations on the edges of Chennai’s three major waterways, there’s one thing that binds these three settlements.All three are locally known by the same name– Thideer Nagar.
What is a slum? Under the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act of 1971, the state government candeclareany settlement to be a slum if the same is found “unfit for human habitation”, oritcan harm the “safety, health and morals” of people who live in and around such settlements. Other indicators include dilapidated buildings, overcrowding, narrow streets and the lack of ventilation, light and toilets.
The word ‘Thideer’ in Tamil means something happening very quickly orall of a sudden. It explains whyThideer Nagar is called so, since itrefers to a settlement that sprouted out of nowhere.
Whether the ThideerNagars in Chennai are certified as slumsor not, the fact remains that thousands of people continueliving in filthy conditions for years.Over five decades in the case of Dr Radhakrishna Puram, according to social activist S. Ganeshan.
Ganeshan, a resident of RA Puram for the past 20 years, has worked closely with the adjacentMylapore Taluk office – the sub-divisional office that the settlement falls under. According to one official, he “represents the people to us, and us to the people.”
“At first, there was nothing here. As Chennai started to become a modern city, people from various parts of Tamil Nadu came and settled here in order to earn their daily bread,” he said.
On the people who live here,Ganeshan said, “Most of them started working as construction labourers. Some became auto rickshaw drivers, some flower merchants. A few even took up fishing.”
A lot of things changed after the 2015 Chennai floods. In Dr Radhakrishna Puram, the land belongs to two government authorities. The Public Works Department (PWD) owns the land along the banks of the Buckingham Canal and the Adyar river, whereas the rest of it belongs to the MundagakanniammanKovil Trust, which manages the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore.
“Those living on PWD land were evicted and resettled in Kannagi Nagar. But those who occupied Trust land are still here. No one wants to lose their means of livelihood,” said Ganeshan.
“The 2015 floods were a major disaster. So, the state government wants to move all of these people for their own benefit,” he concluded.
A September 2019 report in The Hindu mentioned riverfront development at Dr Radhakrishna Puram as part of the Adyar eco-restoration project. This includes the construction of a floating dock with an adjoining parking lot on the river bank.The recent presence of bulldozers and workmen clearing the land along the riverpoints in only one direction.
American novelist James Baldwin once wrote that home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition. But for the residents of ThideerNagars, it is a constant state of being uprooted and treated as perennial outsiders.
The knowledge that any day might be their last in these shanty towns has not deterred their quest for survivalin the metropolis. Therein lies a possible answer to the omnipresence of Thideer Nagar and the people within – the will to live and fight another day.