When The Street Is Home: Chennai Pavement Dwellers Battle Apathy, Rain

In Tamil Nadu, hundreds of migrants make their way to cities from villages every day in search of jobs.
Highlights
  • Chennai has about 10,000 homeless people
  • Unable to afford even the cheapest housing, many end up living on the roads
  • Most homeless work as daily wage earners, making less than Rs 300 a day

By Rina Chandran

Chennai: For Dhanalakshmi S and her family, a small shack squeezed among scores of similar dwellings on a narrow street in Chennai has long been home.

The 35-year-old and her four children share a water pump with 90 other families and take turns to use a public toilet.

Dhanalakshmi is one of about 10,000 homeless people in Chennai, a city of about 8 million people, and a hub for auto makers and technology firms in Tamil Nadu.

In Tamil Nadu, hundreds of migrants make their way to cities from villages every day in search of jobs.

Many, like Dhanalakshmi’s grandparents, end up on the streets, unable to afford even the cheapest housing. Most remain there for decades, under the constant threat of eviction.

“It is not easy to live like this, sleeping, cooking, washing on the street. There is no dignity to our lives,” said Dhanalakshmi, who has lived on Barracks Street in the city’s commercial district all her life.

“We have been asking the government for a home nearby for years, but they only threaten to evict us and move us far away.”

The homes on Barracks Street are low shacks with a metal roof covered in tarpaulin. Pots, utensils, trunks and shelves spill out, with clothes lines hanging on walls and a scooter or bicycle parked outside a few shacks.

City officials say they are gradually relocating pavement dwellers slowly to permanent homes in the suburbs.

“We simply do not have space in the city for homes for all pavement dwellers,” said KS Kandasamy, deputy commissioner of the city’s corporation.

“There are adjustments to be made, but they get good homes of their own, and they will have a far better quality of life than on the street,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nearly all of Chennai’s homeless have been on the streets for at least 20 years, while 75 per cent have lived that way for more than 30 years, according to non-profit Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC).

Most work as daily wage earners, making less than Rs 300 a day, IRCDUC’s survey showed.

Less than half have birth certificates, and more than a third don’t have government documents that entitle them to benefits such as subsidised food.

About a third of country’s 1.25 billion population live in cities, with numbers rising every year as tens of thousands of people leave villages to seek better prospects. Many end up in overcrowded slums, on the streets and under the bridges.

Up to 37 million households – a quarter of India‘s urban population – live in informal housing including slums due to a critical shortage of affordable housing, according to a report last month from social consultancy FSG.

“We can’t reverse or slow the pace of urbanisation, so we need to address the issue of the urban homeless urgently now, before it gets any worse,” said Vanessa Peter at IRCDUC.

It is a similar situation elsewhere: in 2014, more than half the global population lived in cities. By 2050, this figure is expected to rise to 66 per cent.

Slums and informal settlements, which are home to more than 900 million people worldwide – or nearly one in seven – are emerging spontaneously as a “dominant and distinct type of settlement” in the 21st century, according to the UN.

In most states, informal housing is neither defined nor addressed through policy. At the same time, relocation and redevelopment of slums have not kept pace.

The Supreme Court in 2012 directed states to build shelters for the homeless, after a petition following deaths on the street in the Delhi winter.

Tamil Nadu has only about a third of the required shelters, said Paul Sunder Singh, founder of non-profit Karunalaya.

He set up the Pavement Dwellers Rights Association, which lobbies for welfare benefits and permanent homes within a 3 km radius of their current homes.

“Shelters are at best a temporary measure; what they need is a home, government documents that lets them avail of welfare benefits, and greater say in the process of building and allocating homes for the homeless,” he said.

“These are people with jobs, with kids in school and college. They are hard working people who contribute to society, and do not deserve to be ignored or shunted out,” he said.

Increasingly though, street dwellers and those in informal settlements are being squeezed out as officials race to modernise Indian cities with metro lines and WiFi hot spots.

A government plan to provide housing for all by 2022 is meant to create 20 million new urban housing units and 30 million rural homes.

But the slow pace of implementation is leaving thousands homeless. More than 33,000 families living in urban areas across India were forcefully evicted from January 2015, according to advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network.

In Chennai, about 80 families have lived on one of three streets in Periamet, just a couple of miles from Barracks Street, in a neighbourhood of hotels and offices for more than two decades. They do not even have shacks to call their own.

They keep their belongings in boxes on the side of the road or in doorways, sleep on handcarts at night, wash up at the hand pump and use public toilets. When it rains, they shelter under sheets of plastic, said Shanthi V.

“Officials occasionally come and say: we will move you to a house. But they are far away; where will we work, how will the kids go to school, how will we pay for the commute?” she said.

“It may be better for us to stay like this on the street if the only alternative is to go far away,” she said.

© Thomson Reuters 2017

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