Chennai Field visit – 16-10-2007
Name of Primary respondent: Bhavani
Others: Malar, Mary, Bhavani’s mother and Husband
People accompanied: Sundar, Alaguraja and the Local leader of the federation of Homeless people
Area visited: NSC Bose road, Parrys, Chennai
Time: 9.30pm to 11.30pm
The primary respondent was living with her family and as per her calculation there are nearly 50 homeless families living in that area. No one is living alone and when she was asked again about the single homeless people living in their area, she mentioned that there are few widowed women living there but they are also accompanied by their children. She has also denied the existence of street children living without any parental support in their area.
As she said, their family is living there for generations and she remembers that her mother was also born and brought up in the same street. She or her mother was not able to recall from where their grand parents have come to live on that street. She is married to a Muslim and her husband also lives with her family. It was a love marriage as he was working in a shop in front of the pavement in which she lives. He ought to leave his house after marrying her as his father did not allow him to take his wife to their house. Though the inter-religious marriage is said to be the reason for the non-acceptance, she feels that there are some reasons beyond that. She now lives with her husband, two daughters and her mother.
Initial response for the question on police chasing out was that there is no such incident happens to them. When the question was re-emphasized in other words they have agreed that such incidents happen 3-4 times minimum in a year. It happens for different reasons, they say, for construction of new buildings, like toilets, police station, post office, etc., It was then revealed that the eviction is not exactly to use their space for construction but to invisiblise them during the opening ceremonies of these newly constructed buildings. Thus the evictions happen to be shorter in time, for a day or so and they occupy their spaces after the Government funs are over. They adopt different management tactics to pass through these one day evictions. An important tactic among them is to go for movies for the whole day and come back in the late night by when the police would have left the place. Secondly, they go and stay with their fellow homeless people in other areas of Chennai. There are few who own rickshaws, pack their belongings and carry them in their rickshaws to roam around the city till the eviction drama is over. Others take their belongings with them to get resorted in their friends’ streets. They were sure by saying that these eviction dramas never go beyond a day and they would be able to restore their places by late nights of the same day.
There were a few homesteads having a kind of temporary polythene shelters in the same area. When she was asked about them, our respondent was initially with an urge to prove that their family can also afford to have one such but they do not need such an arrangement at that time. There was an unconscious urge from her part to equalizing herself with others who have those temporary shelters. She could finally come out of that notion and revealed that the neighbour who has such a shelter is running a small hotel kind of thing which provides food items to other homeless people of the same area. Almost all of them own such polythene covers which would be used only at the time of rains and intolerable sunlight. It was also admitted that such covers may not allow them to sleep under the rain but helps them to stand awaken without getting fully drenched.
When it rains more, they have no other way except going to movies for the whole day and come back to their places after the rain is over. They probably come back to their places in the late nights and get sheltered under the shop ledges if it continues to rain. They can not occupy the same place in the day time as the shops would be crowded with the mad urban rush. The polythene sheets are used extensively to cover their valuables, which includes, school books, certificates, ration cards and voter identity cards during the heavy rains.
They have reported of bribed police and municipal officials for occupying their respective pavements. Anyhow this kind of bribing is not happening at present as they say the officials are more flexible now days.
When asked about the facilities for toilet and bathing purposes, they have just showed the public toilet near to their residing place. It is just that they need to pay Rs. 2-3 for using toilets and Rs. 5 for taking bath. Before the construction of that public toilet, they were using the open spaces for defecation and having temporary polythene covers while taking bath.
They collect drinking water from a far away public tap. It is one of the difficult tasks for them to cross over such heavy traffics to fetch their water. They have a public tap near to their residence which is damaged and provides water mixed with drainage stuff. They have made a number of complaints with the municipal authorities to get it repaired and there is no response from the part of the responsible officials.
With regard to health issues, most of them are dependent on the Government Hospital, where they feel the service is improved in present days. Still, at times of emergencies they prefer to go to private hospitals despite of the expenses to be incurred. The general feel was that the Government hospital provides good medication as they also get medicines for free.
They rarely cook food by themselves and prefer to get food from outside which they feel is cheaper and convenient in many ways. They get a person’s one time meal for Rs.5-10 from the nearby shops, which are again run by homeless people whereas the same costs Rs. 20-30 in other shops. They can even afford to have a piece of fish if they can spend Rs.5 more and their usual menu also includes non-vegetarian items, mostly beef. When we disclosed our surprise on the cheaper rates, they came out with the justifications that, the shop owners do not have high maintenance expenses, like rent and electricity bills to run their shops. Also the quantity of rice provided would be comparatively little. The homeless shop owners have an advantage of getting rice for Rs.2 per kg from the PDS centres.
The response for the question on the incidence of going to bed without eating food was a strong yes. They continued to say that if there is a cease in their daily earning, they have no other way except starving for the night. Their life in a way is a day to day affair which has come across several starved days and nights due to its very nature.
On the very same day of our visit, she had taken only the lunch and was yet to take her night’s food. There are no timings with regard to eating she mentioned, “We eat when we get food… that is it”. Most of them prefer to eat in the late nights and whoever feel hungry manage to eat whatever is available at that moment or simply starve for few hours. They usually go for sleep after 12 o’clock in the midnight. “It is only then the city rush gets reduced and the place becomes a little peaceful”, she added.
Bhavani, the primary respondent, has two daughters, one is 3 years and the other is one and half years of old. At the time of our visit, they were sleeping on a two wheeler parking area on the other side of the same road. When asked who will take care of them as she was this side of the once-busy road, she mentioned that whoever is lying down near the children would take care of them. Also her mother used to sleep with the children when she is away. Her first daughter is going to a nearby childcare centre, though irregularly. She had much confusion in identifying whether the centre functions under ICDS or not. Anyhow it was found out that they lack a proper ICDS centre in their area, which will take care of their children during the day time, which they also feel that will relieve them for the day time and they can freely go for their wage labour. She has also told that her children are reported to be underweight as they do not get nutritious food and she is aware that an ICDS centre will fill that gap very well. There were some initiatives taken by some NGOs regarding children nutrition, which was again stopped due to the lack of financial resources. Most of them otherwise keep their children with themselves amidst all their daily routines to earn their livelihood.
She has studied up to eighth standard by staying in a hostel in another district of Tamilnadu. It takes six hours to reach that place by bus. She mentioned about a Parish priest, Father Vincent, who convinced her parents to join her in that residential school. There were five such homeless children in her group from Chennai, she remembers. All their fellow neighbours were having lots of hope on her and she feels that it is the same expectation made her to stop her studies after passing eighth. “I was very weak in Maths subject and I was also afraid that if I fail in tenth exams due to that, the whole neighbour community would tease me. I then felt it is better to stop it by eighth, that too with a pass”. She also noticed that there is no one who then got educated like her. “I really enjoyed in my school days”.
When asked about the schooling of the next generation, they revealed together that most of the children go to school but on an irregular basis. “They go in the initial months to get the books and uniform, which is provided free and then stop going. As many of the parents are illiterate, they do not get the enthusiasm to motivate their children to go to school. Children also accustomed to a free life on the streets and roam here and there all through the day. Some parents purposefully stop their elder ones from going to schools, to look after their younger ones. They do not even properly get the mid day meals provided in the schools.”
Some of their children are staying in some hostels run by Christian missionaries. Even if new hostels for their children are built in their areas, they strongly feel that their children can stay there during day time and in nights most of the homeless people need their kids to be with them.
She feels none of the women there face any kind of domestic violence and it is mainly due to their becoming more aware of their rights through the functioning of the SHGs among them.
All of them are engaged in some kind of work so as to earn their day’s food. The works range from, fruit vending, vegetable vending, rickshaw pulling, casual labour, flower business and so on. There are also noted cases of rag-picking as a means to earn money. It is anyhow said to be reduced in recent days as they feel that rag-picking is not a prestigious job. Many of them opt for rag-picking job only when there are no other options available.
Her husband earns Rs.100 a day and it is because of his work in the shop and she adds that others earn only Rs.50 a day. Twenty among the 50 families residing in that area owns a ration card. All of them are issued with a ration card very recently and none of them have started availing the benefits so far. Many others, who are denied of getting a ration card were made so on the basis of various reasons, like, having no permanent address, there is no government rule to provide cards to homeless, most of them are having the same address, etc. “We are also denied ration cards as the officials fear that we may claim for houses and televisions by showing the BPL cards”, they said.
Only two old people are availing the old age pension from the Government and others have tried to an extent and got frustrated when asked for bribes to avail their right. They have naturally given up their efforts in getting the service. “We expect only the vulnerable people among us to get such government assistance. We can all otherwise manage our lives even without that”, they were clear in making that statement.
There were some deeper/meaningful moments during the whole conversation…
When a new member came into their crew, our primary respondent introduced Harsh in a near-perfect way and it was evident enough that she got the intent of our visit in an exact manner.
She remembered to recite a primary school rhyme when it started drizzling in between… “Rain! Rain! go away…” and she filled her discomfort (to make us sit under a rainy sky) with a smile.
She was mentioning that now days she is a bit ashamed to be on the streets and tries not to sit towards the roadside while taking food. “Even the casual sights of a third person make us feel dehumanized”.
Towards the end of our conversation she said by showing various parts of their pavements, “This is our hall, that is the kitchen, here is the bedroom and there we have the toilet and sirs this as a whole is our bungalow”. She added, “You people will feel difficulty to do without electricity and other services. Look at us, we do not have such problems and we are happier than you”.
That was a statement to derive temporary meanings into their permanent meaninglessness.