Over 56 dalit households and 26 irula households had to flee their homes in Panchanthiruthi as a breech in manamadhi lake inundated their homes at midnight of December 1st. The flooding reached 3 feet high and flooded even the local school where they went to stay. While these families found sanctuary in the roofs of upper caste households, the settlements of irula tribals and dalit colony, both situated away from the main village and in low lying areas, underscore the structural inequalities that expose vulnerabilities of the marginalized to environment and economy.
As we struggle to reach the village of Panchanthiruthi, the roads to this village and neighboring village Datchinapuram have been washed away leaving uneven mud and gravel path. The roads are laid higher than the ground on either side with no mechanism for underground water flow. As the water swept away the road, at one point, the road has a 10 feet gap which can be navigated only on foot. The ADMK functionaries who were visiting the village at the same time, chose not to navigate this stretch and decided to conduct the discussion with local panchayat leaders on the other side of the gap.
The irula tribals have settled here within last 5 years. Some of the tribal families were bonded labourers released from rice mills and have been rehabilitated by an NGO in this village. The village panchayat(comprising of one dalit ward member from DYFI, one ward member from CPI and one tribal ward member from neighboring village) opted to provide housing space for the tribal families in a poromboke, about 200 meters from the village. Some irula families have migrated from other villages. None of them have pattas. Some of the villagers even told us that they were asked to locate here as the public school in the village did not have enough number of students and would have closed down , and so now the children of Irula tribals were enrolled there.
All the huts were constructed using mud walls and thatched roofs. The rising water level have washed away the mud walls leaving the skeleton structure of the house for irula tribals. The tribals work as manual labourers in nearby agricultural fields and in construction work. The women are paid Rs 150 in agriculture and men are paid Rs 350. However, availability of work and day long work is not guaranteed, thus they may earn Rs 80 to 100 on a day. The immediate demands of the villagers is rebuilding their houses and compensation for massive losses that they have suffered. We did see some local officials doing a survey of the households in the village, but it is not clear exactly when the houses will be rebuilt.
The dalit colony is almost a half a kilometer away from the main village and is connected by a road. On December 1st, they had to navigate a waist high water on the road to reach the main village. Four members including women were almost washed away and had to be rescued by rope. The 56 dalit families were either landless labourers or marginal farmers with very small holding. According to locals, the village had over 350 acres under farming mainly as paddy cultivation(Currently only an estimated 10 acres are under production). Agricultural work was the main livelihood source for the dalits. Somewhere in 2000’s, most of these lands(both by dalits and non dalits) have been sold to private companies and real estate developments.
One such initiative which is already in operation is the Japan City, a 1500 acre township promoted by Ascendas and Japanese Consortium. Promoted in 2012, this township was to attract Rs 15000 crore investment and 40000 jobs. Three years since the project was announced, there are two companies established in this hub. Hitachi produces auto parts for Renault Nissan with an investment of 313 crore rupees employing 230 workers. Ajinomoto, the other company employs over 200 workers according to the locals. Both these companies are not employing locals in their production. The workers comprising both tamil and migrant workers are bused from elsewhere.
The only employment that has been given to locals include housekeeping and security, both of which are outsourced. One such dalit worker who works as security in a private contract firm for Ascendas and is paid Rs 8000 per month for 12 hours of work, will not be paid for the 10 days when he was stranded in the floods. The chief beneficiary, as told to us by villagers has been the Ascendas group which builds IT parks all across the country. As one villager told us, prior to the corporate invasion, the community was entirely self-sufficient. The 350 acres of paddy fields ensured that all the families had enough income to survive. No one from the village migrated. Now not a single villager has a steady job.
While these companies and other institutions(NGOs and colleges) nearby have provided basic relief for these communities(food, blankets, mats etc), the communities continue to be denied the basic right to livelihood in the larger pro corporate agenda of the state. The workers say that NREGA has been a source of income in an otherwise jobless situation they live in. With the fate of NREGA uncertain under Modi Government, the rains is not the only calamity that is unfolding in the lives of the dalits and irulas in this village.