Fissures after the floods

visvaksen p | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 26, 2016

Do I count: Many migrants of Puttuma Nagar could not avail flood relief as they did not have the requisite identity proof. Photo: M Prabhu

The relief efforts after the Chennai floods have exposed the linguistic and regional fault lines in Puttuma Nagar, a corner of the city that many migrant workers call home

Beyond the bustle of the SIPCOT special economic zone on the Rajiv Gandhi IT Expressway, the neighbourhood of Kazhipattur in Vaniyanchavadi is little more than a blink-and-miss combination of bus stop and signboard. Entering Puttuma Nagar, a working-class settlement, along a muddy path leading off the main road, I am greeted by a battered statue of Ambedkar, the kind that typically adorns localities which other gods have forgotten.

Abutting a large waterbody that drains into the sea, the settlement was ravaged by the unprecedented rains that lashed Chennai and its surrounding areas in November and December. At first glance, the dwellings in Puttuma Nagar might appear indistinguishable from each other, a working-class griminess overhanging them uniformly. But it is, in some ways, as ‘cosmopolitan’ as some of the most affluent areas of Chennai. More than seven languages are spoken here as residents, mainly migrant workers, trace their roots to Bihar, Assam, Nagaland, Odisha and Jharkhand among other places. Immigrants from places closer afield in rural Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have also made home here.

As Tolstoy famously said, happy families are all alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The floods and the subsequent relief efforts have exposed the linguistic and regional fault lines within the community. A survey by a coalition of NGOs, which later submitted a report to the government on flood relief efforts, repeatedly encountered stories of deprivation and alienation among the non-Tamil population of the city. “We will not receive any compensation,” says Sunita Karri, a construction worker from Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh. “The officials told us we are not eligible since we do not have any local documents. Even when NGO workers came to distribute food in the area, Tamil residents tried to prevent us from taking it.”

When floodwater invaded Puttuma Nagar, the panchayat leader broke open the local school and residents took shelter in it. Several Hindi-speaking residents, perhaps due to the language barrier, either remained unaware or felt unwelcome to share this space. Forced to look for alternative safe space, they found few left once the waters rose to waist-level. “I spent a day with a neighbour who charged me ₹200. After that, a few roommates and I stayed in the common toilet and bathroom, which were built at a height,” recounts Sudhanshu Dash, a migrant worker from Odisha. He eventually contracted typhoid and had to be treated at a private hospital.

When the waters receded about five days later and people slowly returned home, they confronted newer problems. With the government largely absent, it was the residents from nearby high-rise apartments who arrived with rations and relief material. But even these did not reach large sections of the migrant population. Like most other migrants in this locality, Padma Korada too rents a house from a Tamil-speaking landlord. The construction worker from Andhra Pradesh hesitates to talk about the relief efforts, attempting instead to redirect my questions to her landlord, standing a few feet away. But she lets slip in hushed Telugu that many landlords, including hers, collected relief material on their tenants’ behalf and re-distributed them as they deemed fit.

Puttuma Nagar’s story is being played out across other localities of Chennai too. But this is not a simple, binary tale of the migrant versus local. Some like Renuka Selvam, who moved here over 15 years ago, have managed to secure a proof of existence and can hope to get compensation from the government. But there are also other Tamil-speaking people who moved here from interior regions who are being denied government benefits much like their non-Tamil counterparts. Rajathi had left Thiruvannamalai to work as a domestic help in Chennai nearly 15 years ago. She had to travel to her village immediately after the floods to perform the last rites for her father. “After we came back, we submitted our details for relief, but the officer said it was too late and refused to accept them,” she says. Some who had moved here from rural districts of Tamil Nadu said they were present during the enumeration but were still ignored as they did not have proof of local residence.

Volunteer surveyors have come across similar tales of governmental neglect from migrant workers in at least 20 villages along the IT Expressway. In sharp contrast, in many of the flood-affected middle-class localities in the heart of the city, government officials appear to have set the bar much lower — they are ready to accept any form of identification papers, irrespective of the place of origin. With elections fast approaching, clearly it helps to belong to a segment of the population that can either make a noise or cast a ballot.

The floods may have been instrumental in bringing people together in many parts of the city, but for the migrant workers of Puttuma Nagar and elsewhere, it is yet another reminder that they are second-class citizens in their adopted land.

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Published on February 26, 2016
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