Chennai Rain Relief and Migrant workers in Chemmenchery Thopu: Updates from the ground

Srividhya, Prathamesh, Thomas

The disastrous rains over the last several weeks have meant intermittent or no work for daily wage earners in Chennai. However, while many flood hit areas have been receiving at least food and water as relief, there are settlements/villages in the suburbs of the city that have received no attention at all. Settlements of migrant workers belong to this latter group.

About 150-200 families live in Chemmenchery Thoppu, OMR. The majority of these families are Telugu and Odiya speaking, and have migrated from Srikakulam, Vizianagaram, and Nellore districts in Andhra Pradesh and Gajapati district in Orissa to work in Chennai as coolies on a daily wage basis, mostly in construction work. Some families have lived in Chennai for only a few months, and others for as long as fifteen years.

These settlements sprung up during the southward expansion of the city real estate and IT corridor in the last decade or so towards Mahabalipuram, which brought in a huge number of migrant workers. Uneven expansion on real estate in the wetlands that lie between Chennai and Mahabalipuram along OMR meant that some of the land was diverted for real estate development and manufacturing units and some of the land is lying unused with a potential eye on real estate development.

The migrant workers are left with little choice to but to build their settlements around marshy flood prone lands which were of little interest to the real estate sector . The settlement is inundated with thatched huts which sometimes used tin sheets and basic concrete, which were most probably left over material from the construction projects. The number of houses that might qualify as pucca would be negligible. Neither did the dwellers ever obtain pattas for this land. On either side of the settlement, one could find housing projects under construction or lower middle class dwelling. A stone’s throw away was a gated community equipped with a club. Right across the settlement, one could find swathes of unutilised land, which virtually turned into a lake during the floods. Across these lands one could spot an odd high rise apartment.

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In the week before the flooding, many families had decided to go back to Andhra in an attempt to escape the already escalating rains. Several people were, instead, stranded at the railway station when all trains were cancelled. Since then, it has only gotten worse and most families have remained in Chennai as they have had no other choice.

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Currently, many houses in Chemmenchery Thoppu are being shared by two-three families. Some houses have collapsed and others have been destroyed by water.

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People reported that there was three feet of water that had entered their houses.

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There are still pools of stagnant water in each of the rows/lanes inside the settlement.

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Government and other relief has reached only the corporation school near the main road in Chemmenchery. The school is still housing tamil residents from nearby who cannot go back to their houses yet. There is food and water, and even a supply of blankets and medicines available to these tamil families, though there are more people than the small school can handle. No material has come past the school, according to everyone we met. However, we also met many Tamil migrants who had also not received any help. We didn’t have time to speak to any of them.

The most immediate problem in for these families of migrant workers is a shortage of food. Since there has been no work, they cannot buy any rations. They have access to drinking water, but have been eating once a day to save any food they have left, or sharing amongst themselves.

Five to ten adults complained of having sustained fevers and body pains. One child has a skin allergy. Chemmenchery Thoppu has about thirty children below the age of five. A medical camp is urgently required to contain the illnesses that are spreading because of the flood and its aftermath.
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There are at least twenty other similar villages along the OMR that have not received any help.

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