As youngsters flock the Udhayam theatre under the hoardings of Rajnikanth, unperturbed by the amount they have to spend to purchase a ticket, a locality of 1500 homes and 6000 slum dwellers hides itself silently opposite to the theatre equally unperturbed by the celebrations- be it release of a movie or birth of baby Jesus.
“Entertainment?” chuckles Oliamma, a 70 year old housemaker, glancing at her two granddaughters who immediately blush and run outside. “With Rs 4500 per month, we hardly can afford the basic necessities for six of us. Cinema is out of question,” she adds.
Oliamma lives with her husband, a son, a daughter and two granddaughters.
She has been living here for 26 years. Majority of the people settled here are from Salem and others are from Villipuram and Dindivanam. All of them are daily wage earners or contract workers who are into domestic and construction work.
Oliamma’s son is an auto driver, who like many others in the area has bought an auto for loan and is liable to a payment of Rs 150 as rent everyday. Her daughter is a domestic worker.
“I wish I could work as well,” Oliamma says. “No one wants to hire me because I am old,” she complains.
The house, measuring hardly 50*50 square feet chokingly accommodates one bed, a TV, a heap of clothes, buckets with water up to the brim now layered with dust, two school bags and steel utensils. The narrow space between the bed and TV acts as the study room, the kitchen as well as the dining room.
Oliamma sits down with two bunches of spinach and starts chopping the leaves.”The prices of vegetables and rice have increased so much,” she cribs. “What is the use of holding a ration card or a voting card. No one cares.”
After the fire breakout in August last year that left the slum in ashes, the families had to spend their own money to build things from scratch. The Government, they say, did not give them a penny.
The residents are neither aware of any Government schemes nor is there any representative appointed to question the Government for the compensation or subsidies they deserve. None of them has approached a slum Development Board yet regarding any queries.
Though the Government sets up free medical camps once in a year, the medical facilities in times of need is deplorable. This is evident from the sight of Oliamma’s husband curled up in the corner of the bed, deep in thought. He has been unable to walk for past three months.
There is a sense of rage and disappointment in those eyes. “They(ESI hospital) turned me away,” he says. “They told me to visit the Royapettah Government Hospital. How would I even manage to catch buses to reach there with this ailment,” he adds.
Getting a checkup done is a major challenge for the residents here. Many end up staying put at their homes instead of getting medical advice from the doctors.
Unmindful of the distance and the lack of comfortable transport to the Royapettah hospital, the staffs of the ESI hospital, which is right beside the slum, shoo away the patients. There is little clarity to the reason behind this.
Common cold and fever are rampant due to the poor maintenance of sewage flow. The sewage lines remain uncovered and the blockages present a nauseous scene rendering the stench unbearable.
While all this does paint a deprived picture, what is ghastly is the provision of toilets. There are four toilets maintained by the corporation for 6000 people in the slum, two for gents and two for ladies. With the shocking ratio of toilets to the strength of people, the fight for the use of toilets can be expected. But, the toilets remain unused most of the time, sometimes ever for days together.
A charge of Rs 5 per head for one time use of toilet explains this mystery.
“I have never used the toilets even once,” says Oliamma defiantly. She has innovatively extended her house a bit to have her own private washroom. So have other households. The young ones do not have to restrict themselves even to this space. They defecate in any open space available.
Oliamma’s two granddaughters are each 10 and 12 years old. They go to a nearby corporation school which has classes up to twelfth grade. The school charges Rs 359 per year exclusive of the learning materials. The mid day meal scheme does not function here. The uniforms handed out to students are hardly their size and are usually faded or torn.
The standard of education is poor. Children are taught subjects which are much below the syllabus they ought to learn.
But, for Oliamma it’s not the expense which bothers her. It is the stretch which her kids have to walk from her house to the school. Though the distance is meager, the children find it hard to cross the busy main road to get to their school. They have to wait for hours as there is no signal to stop the vehicles at this point. Nor is there a provision for pedestrian crossing.
There have been cases of accidents in the past. The risk however, has been constantly ignored by the government.
Despite the challenges, the two kids at Oliamma’s place seem to like their school. The younger one says that she wants to become a doctor and the elder on, a teacher.
Like every child grown in the slum, their aspirations would stay alive till they complete their schooling. The financial crunch in the family would either force them to get married or find work to support their family.
A marriage here is equivalent to taking a plunge in the sea of debts. The total charges for a marriage come to Rs 50000, which a family acquires by taking loans. Unable to pay, this burden gets carried over to the next generation.
With the new set top box norm, Oliamma had to spend Rs 2500 to set up the sun direct. Now she regrets her decision.
“The next day after I installed the set top box, it began to rain and TV stopped working,” she says. The thatched roof does not help keep their house rain proof. A single rain doubles their expenses as all the electronic items are destroyed and so are the books and the bed.
The free electricity provided to them is then of little use.
One thing which the residents here are thankful for is the supply of water. There are seven tanks around the place which supply clean metro water.
Oliamma, however, has not lost faith in the future. She makes it a point to visit the church every Sunday. There are two churches and two temples in the vicinity which never lack worshippers.
The faith they have, more than the Gods, is towards the Government itself – to hear their grievances and address their problems.
“Who else will we go to,” sighs Oliamma as she walks away to wash the vessels.
PS The slum which is written about is located in KK Nagar, Chennai, right opposite to the Udhayam theatre. Around 500 houses were gutted here by the fire last year in August.