On a scalding hot afternoon, a petite, dainty woman stands at a small shop in R A Puram, counting the change she has to return to her customers. Her bangles clink as she swiftly wraps some eggs and then hands it over to the customer along with the change. With her saree pallu tied at her hip, she toils to the sound made by the jangling of her armlets. “I had sold bangles like these to buy this shop. They were made of gold. It has been 10 years now, but I don’t regret it,” says Ponnarasi, recalling times past. “Those were the days, you could do anything—watch movies, play and just enjoy life. Now the whole day, I am busy with work.”
In the ‘right of way’
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Ponnarasi’s shop on Elango street is part of a long line of houses dotting the banks of the Buckingham Canal in Govindswamy Nagar in RA Puram. Labelled as an illegal settlement on what is considered ‘right of way’ (ROW), it is one among the many residential colonies that has come under the scanner under the Tamil Nadu government’s canal restoration project.
“We will not move from here. This place is my entire life’s investment — my shop and my house. I am ready to protest, even lie down on the ground if need be,” says Ponnarasi or ‘Ponnu,’ as her customers call her. She might be a slender little figure, but her tenacity is formidable. Her shop, painted in blue, is the only grocery store in the area, built on plots allotted to them by the Public Works Department back in 1982.
“We pay house taxes, water and electricity bills. We are like any other citizen of the country; then why do we always have to face the burden of displacement?” she asks angrily.
After the Chennai floods of 2015, which affected mostly those who lived near canals, the government issued eviction orders for houses within the 500-metre area alongside the canal, termed ROW. This turned even the legal (concrete) houses allocated under the Madras Urban Development Programme four decades ago, into “encroachment.”
Hurriedly wiping sweat off her forehead, Ponnu refills the candy jar, as small children swarm around her shop to make their usual purchase. “Build a wall around the canal, if you really want to save us from floods. We promise to keep the area clean,” Ponnu says. “No woman would want to shift to that crime-infested Kannagi Nagar. I have two daughters to care for. It will not be safe to live there.”
Resettlement and uncertainties
Kannagi Nagar and Ezhil Nagar in Thoraipakkam are the two resettlement colonies where people from Govindswamy Nagar have been forced to move. Ponnu, like many other women of her community, is reluctant to concede to the demands of the government.
Ponnu is aware of the rampant unemployment there, leading to delinquency among the youth. According to a report in The News Minute, the lack of jobs for the youth in Kannagi Nagar has forced many to adopt unholy means to earn a livelihood. Concerned for her young daughters, she remains resolute in her decision. “Petitions have been filed. Let’s see what happens,” she says.
The Supreme Court has, however, ruled against the petition of RA Puram residents; yet, they continue to resist all attempts by the government to relocate them. They are anxious, their concern emerging from a failure of the government to deliver on their promises of skill development, health and education to those moved to the resettlement colonies. According to residents, many who relocated from Mandavelli to Kannagi Nagar, have already returned due to lack of employment opportunities, while others brave an hour-long (or longer) commute each day to RA Puram to work in their old jobs.
Nevertheless, The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) has refused any compromise, citing that ‘right of way’ overrides their land rights. Officials at TNSCB defend their action stating, “First time settlers always have to suffer for the good of the coming generation. It is for their own well-being.”
A rough life
Ponnu, a convent-educated woman, is rare among the largely uneducated urban poor that live in her neighbourhood. She works two jobs, while also managing her household simultaneously.
When there’s a lull in business at the shop, she can be seen hemming blouses. “I like designing blouses, giving them interesting patterns, but I never get enough money for the effort that I put in this work.” Snipping threads with scissors, her hands move deftly, cutting out patterns across the cloth. “For this reason, my shop remains my most important source of income,” she says taking a long sigh after her work is done.
Soon the sun begins to set, and the light of the day fades as does the scorching heat. It’s October 2nd, a national holiday. But the work doesn’t stop for Ponnu and many others like her. Women from across the streets can be seen coming back home, following a long day of work as domestic servants for the affluent societies in the neighbourhood.
One by one they come to buy provisions—wheat, flour, rice, and oil for dinner preparation. Vatsala, one of Ponnu’s customers explains in broken English, “Our ration cards have been blocked by the government. It has been done to dissuade us from living here. We have to buy food grains at retail prices now.” They are grateful that they have Ponnu to provide them with supplies, so close to home.
Ponnu, on her part, hopes that the matter will be settled soon. “I want to raise my daughters here, where I have grown up. To see them go to college and live my dream. No pressure from the government can stop me from doing so,” she asserts.
Hopping on to her Avon cycle, she pedals home for dinner. Her glass bangles jingle as she bids farewell.