Surrounded by magnificent mountains and blessed with a beautiful coastline, Visakhapatnam is a place that one can’t help falling in love with. Tourists frequent the place and residents swear there isn’t a better Indian city to live in. With equal doses of city life and scenic natural beauty, it is no surprise that Vizag is also known as the ‘city of destiny’.

Close to the shoreline of Vizag, lies the posh locality of Lawson’s Bay Colony. But beneath the flashy exterior is a guarded secret; the colony is also home to one of the biggest slums in the city, Pedda Jalaripeta.

A unique slum

Situated behind the Waltair bus depot in Lawson’s Bay Colony, the slum is home to nearly 8000 people who reside in roughly 1900 households. Pedda Jalaripeta is essentially a fishing community; the primary occupation is fishing but a small percentage of people are engaged in other occupations like painting, carpentry, construction work, household help and office errands.

A walk through the streets reveals that the community is an unusual mix of development and neglect. Small mounds of garbage line the streets and the stench of dried fish is overwhelming. While the lack of cleanliness is appalling, it comes as a surprise that there are a small number of thatched roofs in the vicinity. Most of the houses are made of bricks and cement and the incidence of huts is negligible.

“Only two per cent of our population lives in huts. The rest of us are fortunate enough to live in brick houses,” says Srinivas, a fisherman. He adds that there are paved roads in almost every street.

Finding it difficult to believe his claims, I check several streets and realise that he had indeed spoken the truth. There are small, yet distinct tar roads everywhere I turn.

Some insights

I enquire about the community elder and am directed to a modest dwelling where an old man, Poalrao is seated on a tiny cot. He is forthcoming with answers as I shoot question after question at him.

After a brief chat, I am armed with some interesting as well as disheartening insight about life at Pedda Jalaripeta. It is a tough life that people lead here, though occasionally peppered with some comforts and small pleasures.

Availability of water is scarce during harsh summers, but otherwise government supplied water is available for an hour every morning. The residents have to fulfil their daily needs with the water they have collected and stored during that period.

Residents find space constraints a major issue in the slum. The incidence of a large number of migrants from nearby villages and districts has resulted in a lack of enough space for people to live in. The average living area is approximately 60 sq. ft and around five people live in cramped conditions in each house.

Most of the household have bathrooms, but no toilets and have to make do with the two public toilet complexes in the area. Each complex has 24 toilets (12 for males and 12 for females), making it a total of 48 toilets for the population of nearly 8000.

Corporation cleaners visit the slum and there is a proper drainage system in place. But the absence of dustbins and lack of awareness among people leads to a lot of garbage being piled on the streets.

Electricity is available 24 hours a day except during the summer when there are power cuts and people live by the light of a kerosene lamp or stove.

There is a vegetable market and there are a few fancy shops, all of which charge five rupees above the market rate. But major shopping needs are not met and people have to travel outside to far away markets for the same.

While these issues are just the tip of the iceberg, there are two other issues that are of prime concern in Pedda Jalaripeta – education and healthcare.

Pressing problems

The educational needs of the community are met by a primary school, , which is an undertaking by HSBC from the government. There are 450 registered students and nearly 380 attend classes regularly. No fee is charged to the students. Around eight qualified teachers work here and there are approximately 75 students to a classroom.

While this presents a seemingly rosy picture, the fact is that school-age children in Pedda Jalaripeta are nearly double the number registered in the school. So, half of the children do not go to school. Almost all of them have attended school at some point of time but have dropped out due to various reasons, ranging from parental pressure to lack of interest. While the little girls work as household help along with their mothers, the boys learn the family occupation, fishing.

There are bigger government schools in the nearby colony, which charge approximately Rs 250 per month for a student. The few, who complete primary school in the slum and can afford further education, study up to class 10 or 12 in these schools. Those who move on to complete a degree are few and far between. The distressing part is that most of them are boys. The girls hardly get past class five.

The literacy rate of the older generation is very low when compared to the younger ones. Most of the older people have never stepped into a school. But the problem is likely to be resolved in the distant future. The bleak situation is gradually improving as the people are realising the value and importance of education.

The healthcare needs of the community are barely met with two private clinics within the slum. These clinics are rarely operational and when they are, it’s for a few hours. There are three small medical shops which barely suffice and do not have enough medicines to cater to the needs of the large population.

Furthermore, the prevalence of a large number of wine shops has resulted in more drunkards who abuse their families, creating rifts in otherwise peaceful homes. It has also lead to a large number of people being diagnosed with kidney ailments.

There is no primary healthcare centre in the slum. But there are hospitals in the nearby areas. The most frequented and preferred one is the TB hospital at Lawson’s Bay Colony.

For minor ailments, people visit hospitals in nearby areas like Pedda Waltair and Chinna Waltair. Most people prefer private hospitals since they believe and have experienced that there is a lackadaisical approach at government hospitals.

For major ailments, residents visit the hospital near Jagadamba, which is 10 km away.

But transportation and connectivity to the city is not a problem in Pedda Jalaripeta, due to its proximity to the bus depot.

A major health problem in the community is that 90 per cent of old people are paralysed. This condition begins to manifest itself from the age of 40 and above. “This is an occupational hazard due to harsh conditions of fishing and irregular meals,” opines Achiamma, a resident.

Improper waste disposal methods and lack of awareness about cleanliness has resulted in the rapid spread of contagious diseases in the slum.

The government introduced a scheme in 1984 wherein Rs 7000 was given to each household in the slum to help them have basic amenities. But this scheme made a hasty exit for reasons unknown.

“NGOs tried to help and improve our living conditions, but they couldn’t do much, thanks to the attitude of many of the residents,” says Poalrao.

The need of the hour is to ensure good education at least for the present generation. In addition, establishment of a primary healthcare centre in also crucial. The government and NGOs can work together for the betterment of the people. This will gradually lead to a brighter future for the residents of Pedda Jalaripeta as well as other slums in the country.

(Deepika did her MBA from SSN Institutions, Chennai, and worked for one-and-a-half years before joining the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)

(This article was published on January 23, 2013)
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