Driving down the IT corridor of Chennai on the OMR, it’s a Saturday morning, December 12. We are heading towards Egattur village near Siruseri SIPCOT IT Park, to see how the migrant workers colonies are coping in the aftermath of the flooding, and whether they have received any support from state or private agencies. Everywhere we look, we see concrete of all sizes from the gleaming sleek buildings of the IT companies, to high end retail shops, to luxury high rise apartments. To understand the cause of the recent floods and destructions in Chennai, one perhaps needs to drive down this six lane highway, through dense urban sprawl that only recently replaced vast marshland stretching over 80 square kilometers in area.
As we drive, it is difficult to see what lies beyond the masses of concrete. We come to a big college on our right that had made national news ten days back with students being ‘boated’ out of the flooded hostels. Nearing Siruseri SIPCOT, we catch glimpses of water and reeds.
At the entrance of the Egattur village, we come across the flooded Muttukadu Panchayat school. It doesn’t seem like anyone is bothering to drain out the knee-deep water, therefore it will be a while for the kids here to come back to school. Both sides of the paved village street are lined with small haphazard buildings selling sundry items–predominantly food. These small businesses are a necessary evil or as the economists and state growth planners call them ‘ancillary economic activity’ that inevitably spins off from the ‘major economic activity’ such as industrial or commercial complexes.
As we walk past these ‘symbols of growth’, we come across a few thatched huts in clusters on one side of the street and a few more a bit inside. We find out that these huts are mostly of Telegu and Tamil workers. Most of the houses are locked. Either people have gone to work since the rains stopped a few days back, or they had locked up and left when the water rose menacingly ten days back. As we negotiate a small puddle on the street, a slim medium height man crosses us. He doesn’t ‘look’ local. Hemanth from Rajasthan (whose name has been changed for this story) is returning from the Reliance Networks construction site where he has gone to ask for his pending wages which he hasn’t been paid for over a month. He is returning empty handed as the concerned site supervisors aren’t there.
Hemanth is a setter of marble flooring and has worked at the Reliance site for three months. Now he works at one of the sites of Chennai Metro Rail in Guindy laying the floor of the platform under construction. He gives us a little tour of the area and says that the whole place had waist-high water and even shows us a college where water had reached the first floor. We can still see some big patches of water-logged area. We can also see the new constructions in SIPCOT including the avant-garde TCS building that looks like the mast of a ship.
Hemanth tells us that most of the workers in SIPCOT lived in tin sheet houses at the site, and when the water rose during the rains they had all climbed up the building under construction. Now people are back at work. We can see open areas all around, some dry and some marshy patches. From a cluster of mostly locked thatched houses of Telugu workers we find out that about 40 households inhabited that place. They were all given food during the floods but were short of mats and bedsheets. Water had entered their thatched huts.
Hemanth takes us to where he resides in Semmenchery, in a colony behind Satyabama college. This area was under 8-10 feet of water and the Indian army had to drop food by helicopter after the rains in the first week of December. Hemanth and his relatives tell us that food relief was provided by the state and private agencies, and that people were also given sleeping mats. However, people like him who are on rent are not entitled to the Rs 5000 that each household is being given by the state, since they do not have ration cards. These flats, where Hemanth and his relatives and many other migrant workers live, are part of a resettlement colony where residents of Pattinpakkam near Chennai Marina beach were allotted housing as part of post 2004 Tsunami relief. Many of the flat owners now live in Chennai proper and rent out their flats for extra income. In Hemanth’s case, their Muslim landlord has told them he will share half of the Rs 5000 relief money with them.
Leaving Hemanth’s flat, we see the rest of the neighbourhood, which still has a disheveled look. Walls appear wet, and a dank smell permeates. Clothes are piled up on the corner of the street, women are putting out wet belongings to dry in the afternoon sun. Tall new buildings, mostly upmarket residential complexes, rise around us. Hemanth’s sister tells us she goes to the DLF complex to cook for five families but now the ‘madams’ have all fled after the floods. She says about 1500 or more Rajasthani families live in the area, although Hemanth said it would be more.
As we drive out of Semmenchery, we see a large line of clothes, bedsheets and mattresses which are being dried outside the road. One can notice a sari with the visage of Jayalalitha printed on it. Further ahead, we see people queueing up for a medical camp set up by Times Foundation and Apollo hospital. As we drive back towards OMR road from Semmenchery we can see the large expanses of the marshland surrounding the area.
Egrets, a black cormorant, and pond herons perch on the tall reeds of the marshes. Walls along the road, which were unable to withstand the force of the floodwaters, lie breached and broken. Young boys stand at the mouth of a culvert passing beneath the road, catching fish sucked through the gushing water. As far as the eye can see, the marshland is dotted with plots marked for allotment and big buildings at various stages of construction.
Our last destination is Vanniyanchavdi, an Oriya settlement in a private construction site. We are greeted by squalid living conditions, toilets and bathrooms washed away in rains and flood. The workers are living in small tin sheds which heat up drastically on warm days and provide absolutely no ventilation. We meet with an Oriya school teacher of Rural Development Trust, who tells us her rented house was fully flooded and she had to move to the terrace till the flood water receded. But when the government and local councilors came to distribute relief material and money, non-Tamilian residents like herself were not given dry rations or monetary relief as they didn’t possess ration cards.
The schoolteacher tells us there are many Oriya, Bengali, and Bihari workers in her area, who along with their families have been impacted by the floods. While they have received occasional cooked food (often from non-governmental groups), they continue to be denied other forms of relief. According to her, it is dry rations, plastic mats, sheets, and monetary compensation that are most needed by the migrant residents.
The cruel irony of workers living in squalid conditions under tin sheets while constructing tall skyscrapers and gated communities is hard to miss. The advertisements for these real estate ventures dot the whole stretch of the Old Mahabalipuram Road. While elites and the powerful continue to play with the speculative real estate development by creating islands of delusion in outskirts of large cities, the neo-rich and the middle classes are kept busy chasing these delusions. Working classes are made to pay for the havoc caused by the consequent environmental destruction. More often than not.