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Alcoholism, diseases, poverty define everyday struggles of Chennai’s pavement dwellers as govt refuses to count them as homeless

On the jagged concrete footpath, still warm from last night’s heat waves, Mahalakshmi turns on her side and pulls up the floral-printed bedsheet over her head in a vain attempt to catch some sleep. The Chennai sun is beating down from behind the leaves of the peepal tree. The clock at the Egmore railway station shows it is quarter past eight.

There’s no point waking up earlier. The public toilet would be crowded and dirty until it gets its first wash at around 7.30 am. That’s about when the first batch leaves for work. Over the years, Mahalakshmi has mastered the art of suppressing her urges – she can’t usually afford to use the paid toilet more than twice each day. Also, there’s nothing much to do after waking up unless one of the churches in the city is celebrating something and offering food to the poor. Sleeping till late seems to be a better diversion.

Washing clothes is a weekly project. The water that drains out after washing vegetables, and sometimes bathing, is stored in tubs to provide for washing clothes.

Washing clothes is a weekly project. The water that drains out after washing vegetables, and sometimes bathing, is stored in tubs to provide for washing clothes.

Mahalakshmi was born on this footpath. She says, she remembers playing here as a child but doesn’t remember much about her mother. “She disappeared one evening,” she says adding, “she didn’t return. I don’t know where she went. I cried myself to sleep.” She did not have a father but this 200 metre-long pavement that stretches left of Chennai Egmore Station, along the Gandhi-Irwin Road, was home. She thinks she’s 40 and has an Aadhar card.

“I haven’t been anywhere else. I grew up here, got married here; my husband died on this footpath,” she vaguely points at a spot on the pavement. He was suffering from tuberculosis, one of the most common diseases the homeless across the country suffer from, apart from HIV and hepatitis. She and a few others took him to the nearby government hospital where treatment is free. He lay there on a mat on the floor for two days, until the doctors finally announced there’s nothing much that can be done. “We returned home. He died a couple of days later. I prayed for his death. Only death brings relief.” Mahalakshmi turns away before saying she didn’t bother to hoard any of his belongings in the memory of her husband. “What’s the use? How is memory useful for us anyway,” she says quietly.

Mahalakshmi’s three daughters live on the same footpath, with their husbands, but they are not worried about how their mother survives. “There’s no sharing here under the scorching sun,” someone quips.

Cooking is done occasionally. Mahalaxmi buys vegetables and meat only after somebody hires her to clean the house. She then dusts their windows, cleanses the corners of cobwebs, polishes their furniture, sweeps the floors. The cash thus earned allows her a few days of freshly made food. For the rest of the month, meals are dependent on the mercy of the local shopkeepers who usually agree to work out an arrangement. Except, however, those occasional days when the hotel opposite the road disposes off still edible food.

Around a hundred other people live along with Mahalakshmi on this stretch of the footpath. Their belongings, contained in aluminum trunks, cloth bags, cardboard boxes, neatly line the footpath besides cart-full of broken beer bottles, plastic containers, a dead hen, her feet still tied to the chain that anchored it to the lamp post.

Around a hundred others live along with Mahalakshmi on this stretch of footpath running along the Gandhi-Irwin Road in Chennai. Their belongings line the footpath.

Around a hundred others live along with Mahalakshmi on this stretch of footpath running along the Gandhi-Irwin Road in Chennai. Their belongings line the footpath.

The men mostly work as labourers – carrying freight and cargo on and off vehicles at the train and bus stations.

Karpagam and Md Abdullah have three sons and a daughter, all of whom were born on this slice of footpath. The eldest son Ashfaq is doing well and lives in a small cottage in the slums of north Chennai. “I don’t want to live with them; I don’t want to hear any rude words the daughter in law throws at us. I have my peace here,” Abdullah says in English. “I am educated, but I have a problem. I drink a lot,” he smirks.

Hanif, their second son, calls himself Ajith Kumar. He aspires to be a dancer. A thick white and brown dying paste smeared on his top thatch of hair, he says he’s preparing for a show the next day and is not ready for any photo shoot. Where did you learn dancing? “Here,” he gestures at the stretch of the footpath ahead.

Bewildered that someone can possibly miss such an obvious fact, he then fishes out his mobile to show his pictures with a bevy of Tollywood heroes and choreographers. “I danced in Rajanikanth’s Kabali,” he says proudly.

Lives on the streets revolve around a different sun. All are on their own. Women give birth to their children out of compulsion, but can rarely follow through their growing up years. The fathers are mostly a subtracted reality. Yet, life has to be lived, food has to be procured; there’s a different law at work. Police raids occur quite frequently, and when they do, these people flee the footpaths for a brief time, only to return again. Government undertakes surveys intermittently. Journalists also visit these people sometimes. But nothing beats the constants of poverty and life.

Then there’s Kamala, who gestures with her thumb near her lips, and asks for money. Tea? “A drink is what she is interested in, not tea,” the tea stall owner opposite the road says. Minutes later, Kamala took the tea and two paper glasses packed in a plastic bag, and gave it to another woman sitting near her place on the footpath. “Some of them drink through the entire day and lie there. There’s enough work for them but they are not interested.”

What kind of work? The post office next door has small brown boxes strewn across its doorway. “Normally, these people load the cargo on the vehicles. It pays them Rs 7 per box and they can easily do fifty in less than an hour. That gets them Rs 350 per hour. Do you think they are poor? They are not,” smiles Rakesh, who is now loading the boxes alone as nobody came to ask for work. He and the tea stall owner explain how all these pavement-dwellers have government-provided housing at some place in the city. “They don’t live there. They rent it out to others. They prefer living like this. And they certainly aren’t in need of money,” they say.

“That’s the biggest myth urban India nurtures,” says Vanessa Peter, Policy Researcher at Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities who has worked with Chennai’s homeless for almost a decade now. People living on the footpaths of Chennai belong to a different category called ‘pavement-dwellers’ and there are no benefits or schemes meant for them, she says.

The definition of homeless is different for the central and state governments. The Supreme Court recognizes that people living in the fringes, in tents, in shabby shanties beside railways tracks are all homeless. But Tamil nadu government categorises them as pavement dwellers.

The definition of homeless is different for the central and state governments. The Supreme Court recognizes that people living in the fringes, in tents, in shabby shanties beside railways tracks are all homeless. But Tamil nadu government categorises them as pavement dwellers.

“The governments at the centre and at the states have various options and schemes for the homeless and begging communities. Chennai probably has the best infrastructure when it comes to housing the homeless. Unfortunately, the definition of homeless is different at the Centre and at the state level,” Vanessa explains.

While the Supreme Court acknowledges the various levels of homelessness and recognises that people living in the fringes, in tents, in shabby shanties beside railways tracks are all homeless, for the Tamil Nadu government, people living on the footpaths are just pavement-dwellers. They are not counted into the homeless population, Vanessa rues, adding that they don’t usually receive any benefit from the government. “The government uses their invisibility to ignore them, and it’s easy to do so with the limited power of negotiation these people have,” she said.

Striving for the homeless for years and now on various boards and committees working towards better policies and implementation for the homeless, Vanessa admits that there are people on the streets of Chennai that have lived in the same stretch of footpath for three to four generations, braving all kinds of abrasion – from the weather, the police, or their fate.

Within their micro-cosmos, however, Karpagam, Abdullah, Hanif and Latif, Mahalakshmi and her daughters, all find their own living, own struggle, own entertainment, and their own freedom, right on the footpath of the Gandhi Irwin Road in Chennai. They too laugh, and love, and make fun of the other cosmos that routinely tries to look down upon them.

Updated Date: Sep 14, 2018 17:37 PM

Updated: September 14, 2018 — 6:22 pm
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