Beyond the Floods: Discrimination and Distance Take a Toll on Dalit Families in Tamil Nadu's Perumbakkam

Now situated far from the heart of economic activity, many residents have seen their livelihoods crumble, plunging them into distressing living conditions.
The resettlement, which involved uprooting families from their homes in Chennai slums and relocating them 40 kilometers away to Perumbakkam, has compounded the struggles of these marginalized communities.
The resettlement, which involved uprooting families from their homes in Chennai slums and relocating them 40 kilometers away to Perumbakkam, has compounded the struggles of these marginalized communities. Image Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

Chennai- The Tenements are beautiful, but unfortunately lives of the people living here are not. The upheaval caused by Cyclone Michaung and the subsequent flooding has taken a severe toll on the lives of residents in the Perumbakkam Resettlement Area, particularly those from marginalized communities, including Dalits. Comprising manual scavengers, auto drivers, vendors, mechanics, painters and fish sellers, among others, these families, totaling 40 thousand, have faced considerable challenges in returning to normalcy following the floods.

The resettlement, which involved uprooting families from their homes in Chennai slums and relocating them 40 kilometers away to Perumbakkam, has compounded the struggles of these marginalized communities. Despite their concerted efforts to recover from the aftermath of the floods, fundamental issues persist. Notably, the predicament of young girls being married off at tender ages due to the unattainability of higher education remains unchanged.

Fearful for the safety of their grown-up daughters commuting long distances daily to schools and colleges, parents opt for marriage as a means to alleviate their responsibilities and protect their children.

Isaiyarasu, an active member of the Ambedkarite community and a resident activist, articulated in detail the dire circumstances faced by these marginalized communities, shedding light on their ongoing plight in conversations with The Mooknayak.

File picture-Chennai slum demolition
File picture-Chennai slum demolition Image Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

"The inception of the Perumbakkam project dates back to 2010, a period marked by the clearance and demolition of slums within the Chennai metro city. In the initial phase, approximately 15 thousand families were relocated, followed by an additional 35 thousand families in the second stage by 2013," shares Isaiyarasu Ambedkar. "It has been a challenging 13 years since these individuals were uprooted from their original homes and resettled 40 kilometers away, a distance that separates them from what was once familiar terrain."

Isaiyarasu, a prominent voice in the community, emphasizes the enduring impact of this displacement on the lives of the approximately 2 lakh residents in the resettlement area, with a staggering 70 percent belonging to Dalit and remaining from the marginalized and most backward communities. He highlights the diverse occupations that once sustained the community, including auto and cab drivers, fish and vegetable vendors, tiffin delivery services, and various small-scale enterprises.

Now situated far from the heart of economic activity, many residents have seen their livelihoods crumble, plunging them into distressing living conditions. In Isaiyarasu's poignant words, "Now that they have been located 40 kilometers away from the main area, many of them have lost their livelihoods and are enduring miserable conditions."

Image Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

"Despite the presence of an aided school with a daily school bus service for children, a disconcerting issue persists in the form of high dropout rates, particularly among girls," remarks Isaiyarasu. "Parents, understandably concerned about their daughters commuting long distances daily, hesitate to let them undertake the journey to and from school. Consequently, after completing 10th or 12th grade, many girls are unable to pursue further education. Instead, they find themselves married off at tender ages, shouldering the responsibilities of raising children and managing households."

Child labour emerges as another pressing concern in this community, driven by the loss of livelihood that compels families to send their children to work. Isaiyarasu sheds light on the harsh reality, stating, "Most adolescent boys find themselves delivering water cans, handling tiffin deliveries, driving autorickshaws, or working as mechanics—occupations undertaken to support their families in the face of economic hardships."

Perumbakkam Resettlement Area
Perumbakkam Resettlement AreaImage Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

Two weeks ago, the Perumbakkam area faced severe conditions, grappling with a lack of drinking water, food, and essential medicines. The crisis reached a critical point as floodwaters entered the first floor, compelling residents to relocate to upper floors with their children until the water subsided. The Perumbakkam resettlement colony, situated on marshland near the banks of Buckingham Canal in flood-prone low-lying zones, has historically been vulnerable to such challenges. In 2015, during a previous flood, occupants of the 8-story buildings had to be evacuated.

This time, the situation exacerbated as timely assistance was not extended, leaving people stranded without power supply, drinking water, food packets, or even milk for children. Distressingly, residents report that when food packets eventually arrived, they were placed in garbage bins before distribution to homes—a scene unimaginably disheartening for the community. The delayed response and inadequate provisions during this crisis have heightened the hardships faced by the residents of Perumbakkam.

Residents find themselves grappling with many challenges, contributing to an overall sense of discontent and hardship within the community.
Residents find themselves grappling with many challenges, contributing to an overall sense of discontent and hardship within the community.Image Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

Crime Surge and Inadequate Safety Measures in Perumbakkam

Activists point out a concerning increase in crime rates within the area, with a notable rise in cases of atrocities. Compounding these challenges is the absence of a dedicated police station building, with only a room in one of the blocks serving as the office for the Perumbakkam resettlement area.

Healthcare facilities in Perumbakkam also fall short, particularly given the size of the population. With only two urban health centers available, the nearest Raipetta government hospital is located 30 kilometers away, and the Rajiv Gandhi government hospital is even farther at 40 kilometers. This scarcity of medical resources poses a significant challenge, particularly in cases of suicide and accidents, where delays in reaching hospitals often lead to tragic outcomes for the victims. The pressing need for enhanced safety measures and healthcare infrastructure in Perumbakkam becomes evident in light of these limitations.

Image Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

Economic Fallout After Relocation: A Closer Look at Employment Loss

A comprehensive study conducted by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) and the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), both based in New Delhi, highlights the post-relocation challenges faced by the residents. The assessment underscores the economic repercussions of the resettlement, revealing that a large number of people lost employment following the relocation and remained unemployed at the time of the survey. Alarmingly, only 46 percent of the respondents had secured new jobs.

Furthermore, the study reveals that women, particularly those heading households, were significantly impacted, with 44 percent losing their livelihoods after relocation and remaining unemployed. Persons with disabilities also bore a heavy burden, as 40 percent of them lost their sources of income after resettlement and continue to face unemployment.

Building numbers instead of street names, resembling a Jail-like format at Perumbakkam.
Building numbers instead of street names, resembling a Jail-like format at Perumbakkam.Image Credit- Isaiyarasu Ambedkar

Delving into specific professions, the assessment discloses that among the men who lost their livelihoods after resettlement, 15.2 percent were painters, 13.9 percent were daily-wage workers, and 11.4 percent were involved in fish vending.

The study by IRCDUC and HLRN delves into the specific challenges faced by Perumbakkam residents post-relocation, revealing stark figures on employment loss and its disproportionate impact on various groups within the community.

The overarching reality in Perumbakkam is characterized by a lack of planning, insufficient funds, inadequate security measures, and a dearth of essential facilities. Residents find themselves grappling with these challenges, contributing to an overall sense of discontent and hardship within the community.

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