I shifted to Chennai in the summer of 2016. In a short span of time, I have visited the marina numerous times. I have always seen the place abuzz with different activities – whether it be a lazy Sunday afternoon or the day of a chief minister’s funeral.
This time, however, I saw a very different side to the place.
I went to the marina again on a Sunday. I was looking for Nochi Kuppam, an urban slum for fishermen, situated along the Bay of Bengal, directly across the foreshore of the Marina Beach.
As I was searching along the marina, the pungent smell of fishes marked my entry into Nochi Kuppam. I was well aware that Nochi Kuppam had been severely affected by the tsunami in 2004, and also by the floods last year. Therefore, I wanted to know whether the government had done enough to secure the livelihoods of the people living in this fishing hamlet. I also wanted to know if the people had been resettled in a safer place.
I was expecting tales of agony, dissatisfaction, distress, discrimination and unemployment. However, the reality turned out to be different.
Nochi Kuppam is an age-old settlement. The place has improved in terms of providing basic amenities like sanitation, providing education for girls and minimising crimes against women. However, a few things still haven’t changed. Alcohol abuse, housing facilities and communal violence continue to be matters of grave concern.
After the tsunami in 2004, the government (along with the World Bank) had started constructing tenements for the slum- dwellers. However, the Slum Clearance Board could only construct 628 flats in Nochi Nagar, which is right next to Nochi Kuppam.
The number of people living in the slum has been increasing and despite the promises, they haven’t been rehabilitated. A few families have been shifted to Nochi Nagar, but the ones who are left behind narrate a tale of caste-based discrimination.
The people who were involved in fishing activities were shifted to Nochi Nagar. However, the ones not involved with fishing have not been given houses in Nochi Nagar.
I met a 55-year-old Dalit leader, Swapna Sundari, who now lives with her family in the government-allotted flats in Nochi Nagar. However, this resettlement came at the price of protests and the involvement of the police.
“I wrote to the police commissioner and he sent four vans full of police personnel to control the situation. As soon as the police came, the fishermen quietly went back to work and the protest was suppressed,” she said.“The fishermen protested when the Dalits were being shifted to the newly constructed houses. They didn’t want to live near the Dalits and they staged a three-day protest,” Swapna added.
The Dalits living in Kochi Kuppam are not allowed to go for fishing. They are often coerced to do menial jobs like net-picking and pulling out fishermen boats. As a result, they have had to take up other jobs like tailoring and constructing gates, amongst others.
Due to this oppression, the people of Nochi Kuppam want their kids to study, take up better jobs and not end up working for or as fishermen. All of the children in Nochi Kuppam are sent to school, irrespective of their gender.
I met a 14-year-old girl, Ebrolia. She was riding on her bicycle to the ration shop. She stopped to speak to Swapna, and somehow, we started talking. She told me that she wants to be a chartered accountant. Her father is a driver, while her mother is a house maid.
Ebrolia is enrolled in a Tamil medium government school. Although both private and government schools are present in the area, her family cannot afford to send her to an English medium private school.
She mentioned that a lot of dreams remain unfulfilled due to the financial crunch they suffer from. Despite this, her family is very supportive of her dreams and goals. In fact, it is encouraging that the slum has schools, colleges and all the other necessities that the people need for their daily living.
Ebrolia stated that the slum is safe for children and women. She can go wherever she wants without any trouble. Police continuously patrol the area, even at night. This is the main reason why the people of the area do not want to shift to any other place, apart from Nochi Nagar.
Swapna Sundari did speak about a few incidents that had happened in the past. She narrated an incident that happened four years ago while the slum dwellers were being shifted to Nochi Nagar. An eight-year-old girl was molested, but the police were extremely efficient. She added that even the authorities took measures to address the issue. In fact, street lamps were fixed for vigilance at night.
When it darkened, I hurried back – but not before realising that we often have preconceived notions regarding the ‘inevitable’ sufferings of slum-dwellers. Definitely, there are issues that haven’t been addressed, especially those related to entitlement.
However, there has also been significant progress on the social front. Almost all the persons in the slum proudly spoke of improved sanitation facilities, education amongst the girls and women empowerment.
While there may be some reasons for distress among the slum-dwellers (which may require government intervention), I have also realised that by unnecessarily victimising these people, we are marginalising them even further.