HOME­LESS & NOWHERE TO GO, NTO KUPPAM TELLS TALE OF WOE

Af­ter bat­tling ris­ing sea wa­ter for years, peo­ple of fish­ing ham­let have been evicted & homes de­stroyed to make way for a high­way ex­pan­sion project. The houses promised by of­fi­cials ex­ist only on pa­per, and there are fears that chil­dren may drop out of sc

Sunday Express - - SUNDAY STORY - NIRUPAMA VISWANATHAN & SA­MUEL MERIGALA @ Chen­nai

For some­one whose life is built around fish, 10-year-old San­jay doesn’t re­ally like to have them for lunch. “He’s a picky eater; he will not fin­ish his food with­out potato or eggs,” com­plained his mother, Kalaivani.

On Thurs­day, how­ever, San­jay sat eat­ing lemon rice — no pota­toes or eggs, from an up­turned or­ange fris­bee, amidst the rub­ble that was only hours ago, his home.

San­jay lost his home at Nalla Thanni Odai Kuppam near Kasimedu to the re­cent evic­tion drive by rev­enue of­fi­cials of Am­bat­tur on Wed­nes­day. Around 130 houses in the fish­ing ham­let were de­mol­ished on a sin­gle day and res­i­dents al­lege that they weren’t even given time to re­cover their be­long­ings.

Ex­press had ear­lier re­ported how the land on which these 130 houses were built is not ex­actly nec­es­sary for a pro­posed high­way. Around 230 fam­i­lies had ear­lier been evicted in the first phase six months ago, to make way for the En­nore Ex­press­way that was pro­posed in 2005. A se­nior of­fi­cial from Tamil Nadu Road De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (TNRDC) had told Ex­press that the land cleared in the first phase is enough for the high­way and this was one of the rea­sons the re­main­ing res­i­dents of NTO Kuppam ques­tioned the need to evict them.

But none were ready to hear their ar- gu­ments and af­ter Wed­nes­day’s forced evic­tion, the ham­let looked as if it were rocked by an earth­quake. Clothes, kitchen uten­sils, tooth­brushes, mir­rors, and almi­rahs lay buried un­der as­bestos sheets and bricks.

“Noth­ing. We were able to take noth­ing out; all my mark­sheets are buried in­side,” said 17-year-old Mercy, San­jay’s neigh­bour. San­jay and his brother Ajay also lost their text­books in the de­bris. “But I pulled the fris­bee out, and some of my other toys,” said a proud San­jay.

How­ever, the 130 fam­i­lies have no place to take the bro­ken, torn or bent re­mains. Land for re­set­tle­ment of the res­i­dents of this ham­let was al­lo­cated but not a sin­gle brick was laid by the Slum Clear­ance Board so far at the site three kilo­me­ters away.

“It still hasn’t been cleared of weeds and plants. We don’t know when the gov­ern­ment will be­gin the work,” said Kalaivani. As per the State gov­ern­ment’s own state­ment on Septem­ber 20, the gov­ern­ment had only then “de­cided to ex­pe­dite the ten­der for con­struc­tion of ten­e­ments.”

Clas­si­fied as ‘en­croach­ers’, these fam­i­lies can­not raise ques­tions. But these fam­i­lies have been liv­ing in the ham­let for at least three gen­er­a­tions and kept mov­ing in­ward due to coastal ero­sion.

Noth­ing pre­pared his fam­ily for what was to come. First came the oil spill, and now this. “Af­ter the oil spill, busi­ness fell and it still hasn’t re­cov­ered. We used to make a max­i­mum of `6000-`7000 a month. Now it has halved,” said his mother Kalaivani, who sold fish, like most other women in the ham­let, for a liveli­hood.

So, when the gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties handed them `20,000 per fam­ily around six months ago dur­ing the first phase of evic­tions to find ac­com­mo­da­tion, they used it for food in­stead. “What do we do when there’s no in­come? Be­sides, how do they ex­pect us to find ac­com­mo­da­tion for over six months with `20,000? It won’t even cover the ad­vance, “said Kalaivani.

Af­ter the evic­tion, none of the res­i­dents moved. They stayed the night in makeshift tents and some, in the tem­ple, the only struc­ture left stand­ing. It was a bad night as it rained. “The rain was heavy last night. We didn’t have money to go any­where else as all our relatives are here only. We took shel­ter in the tem­ple but I still got wet. Look, I have run­ning nose,” said San­jay. “Many of the aayas were cry­ing all night long.”

None of the nearly 50 students in NTO kuppam will go to school at least for a week or un­til the fam­i­lies man­age to find an­other house. Around a kilo­me­tre away, Jonitha John, San­jay’s favourite teacher at a cor­po­ra­tion school in Wash­er­man­pet, was a wor­ried woman.

She had heard about the evic­tions. The students flock­ing around her had whis­pered that San­jay’s house has been de­mol­ished. Jonitha de­scribed him as a street-smart kid bril­liant at arith­metic. “He loves out­door ac­tiv­i­ties,” she said. She rec­ol­lected the nu­mer­ous but­ter­fly co­coons he had brought to class so the en­tire class could watch it mag­i­cally turn into a but­ter­fly.

How­ever, San­jay wasn’t the per­fect stu­dent. Ever since his fa­ther got ar­rested a few weeks ago for a petty crime, San­jay had re­sorted to hit­ting his class­mates and us­ing vi­o­lence to solve is­sues. “He was a loner. So we started in­volv­ing him in lots of group ac­tiv­i­ties,” said Jonitha. “And things were look­ing up.” She is wor­ried that the break could ham­per the progress. “There was an­other boy, Adithya, in the other sec­tion. His fam­ily also be­longed to NTO Kuppam and was evicted six months ago in the first phase. He’s dropped out since,” lamented Jonitha.

San­jay said he wants to be­come a po­lice of­fi­cer when he grows up. With school no more the pri­or­ity as he picks out his toys and books from the rub­ble, one can only hope the sud­den tragedy will not fur­ther fuel the bouts of vi­o­lence he ex­hibits and take him on the foot­steps of his fa­ther.

P JAWA­HAR

Res­i­dents of NTO Kuppam had to sift through the rub­ble to re­cover their be­long­ings |

P JAWA­HAR

Res­i­dents with their prized pos­ses­sions on the road af­ter the evic­tion drive by rev­enue of­fi­cials |

P JAWA­HAR

San­jay, who is 10, could miss school for weeks due to the evic­tion drive

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