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A Tale of Two Cities

At the far end of Kotturpuram's TNSCB colony, the Adyar river takes a lazy sluggish ninety degree turn on its last stretch to the sea. It doesn't flow so much, as drags itself along. It is an apologetic river that doesn't seem to be following any natural contours, but has rather chartered its course by excusing itself around obstacles that come in its way. Over decades its shallow contents have allowed its banks to be bullied; not only forcing it to make adjustments to its wayward course, but also to surrender large chunks of its catchments to dense illegal occupation. One such settlement used to be at Kotturpuram.


Up until the mid seventies, Kotturpuram was a dead end location, somewhat like a comet tail of all those high brow academic institutions at the head of its solitary main road. Where it ended abruptly were massive concrete pipes spanning the river, laid for the specific purpose of bringing water to the thirsty city from some distant source. A precarious catwalk attached alongside served as a feeble link to the rest of the city. On the seaward side of Kotturpuram were a few grand estates and a peaceful Housing Board colony, occupied mostly by staff connected to those various academic institutions. Behind and beyond, where the road couldn't reach them, were a patchwork of barren fields spiked by countless palmyra trees. There was even a rustic village attached. The other side was in sharp contrast. Here the road dipped ominously (it still does) by more than a floor height into, what used to be, an unattractive, mosquito infested swampy land with a jungle of thorny bushes, and a messy cluster of miserable huts. Itâs occupants were recent rural migrants.


As a student of architecture, with our college at the head of the road, and later with my brother moving into the housing colony, I was quite familiar with the area and had witnessed, first hand, all the changes taking place. I knew of Chitharao from my college days. He used to be a resident of Kotturpuram. He was a small time building contractor, who got along more by his genial nature than by any particular skills of his trade. He had moved here during the late sixties as a single migrant teenager; marrying a few years later and setting up a family.


With a native wisdom that comes only to the oppressed, an instinct for survival had taken him to seek protection from the local slumlord. An uneducated man, he understood the unspoken paradox of urban economics; the existence of a delicate equilibrium between the formal and the informal sectors. The slumlords' diktats were clear and non bureaucratic. Under his strict tutelage (and terms, of course), whosoever could reclaim a patch of the swamp became entitled to build upon it. Urban governance somehow has a way of balancing itself.


Picture 1: Kotturpuram, Twitter, Srini Swaminathan


For Chitharao, bagging small contracts in the nearby colony was not too difficult. Commuting by bicycle was not too tiring nor time consuming. But more importantly, he could tap into the large pool of labour available within his colony to undertake the diverse aspects of a building site. An uncomplaining man, he often used to worry about the precariousness of his location. His annual nightmare were the monsoon rains when the river would sneak in like a thief from one side and a deluge would cascade down from the higher ground on the other side, submerging and destroying his meagre possessions. The sword of Damocles regularly fell on their material wealth. It could only be a matter of time before it started claiming human lives.


Then in the late seventies, a swanky bridge was put in place, ensuring the place was no longer a dead-end. The comet tail had gone. Next, the Government stepped in to replace the shantytown with neatly laid out tenement blocks. With improved connectivity, skyrocketing prices and a booming real estate, Chitharao's fortunes rose for a while. And although the entire neighbourhood generally underwent a major facelift, nobody paid much attention both to the river's catchments that had begun to shrink drastically and to the monsoon runoffs that had begun to be channeled through narrow streets. The background for a tragedy was being put in place. All that was needed was for the Adyar river to rise.


And rise it did - devastatingly. Once or twice every decade, Chennai's annual rainfall goes beyond the average. November 2015 was one of those fateful years. Not only were the rains copious, but were uniformly distributed geographically across the city. The runoffs had nowhere to run. And then without sufficient warning, the locks of the city's reservoirs - under the assumption of doing a larger good - were thrown open. The Adyar river, whose capacity to handle such a deluge had long since been whittled away, rose up like a furious anaconda, slashing left and right. Like Noah's Biblical floods, the angry waters respected neither channels nor boundaries. Cars, two wheelers, compound walls, trees and lamp posts were tossed around like toys. While within homes, heavy furniture and appliances began defying gravity and started floating around, losing all their utility value. Within hours, the entire low lying TNSCB tenements just sank, by nearly two floors, under the onslaught. The tragedy had come to pass.


The horrors of a flood are impossible to imagine or to narrate. What was now making little islands out of the buildings, was not water at all, but a lethal combination of sewage, mud, toxic fluids and a fearful variety of creepy crawlies that are rarely seen on the surface; seeking out every little crack and crevice to relentlessly push in their vile contents. Shelves and cupboards, furniture and fittings, pots and pans, food and eatables, clothes and valuables - everything got covered with an evil slime.


As Chitharao rushed his family onto the already crowded terrace, his building experience terrified him with a single thought - what if the lower floors buckled under pressure and got washed away? But by the collective power of thousands of prayers such a calamity did not happen. It was another 24 hours before the waters receded, the rains subsided and the sun came out. There was nothing left to salvage from his ground floor house. Then basic human needs began to bother them - thirst, hunger, change of clothing and above all, money. The only saving grace was there were no invalids or helpless children in his family. He could see what a huge problem it was for those with this additional burden; they just became grounded and immobile.


Then, as time ticked away heavily, and as has happened so often in the past, the citizens of Chennai rose gallantly to the occasion, bolstering the efforts of the army and the police. Rescue, rehabilitation and relief works started on a war footing. Helicopter, rubber dinghies, life boats and even earth moving equipment were pressed into service. The entire area was evacuated, depopulated and shifted to schools and temporary shelters on higher ground. Community and soup kitchens were quickly set up. Food packets, water cans, essential medicines and spare clothing began to arrive by tempos, cars and two wheelers. The ugly side was also exposed as political parties vied with each other to garner all the credit and make capital out of a human tragedy, by stamping relief materials with their party symbols. By the time the waters receded after a couple of days, Chitharao and family had made up their minds. They were not going to take this anymore. With hardly anything in their pockets, the family took the plunge to move out.


So, when the Government stepped in with an offer of voluntary resettlement at Kannagi Nagar, Perumbakkam, off OMR, just a little beyond the IT hub, the family grabbed it with both hands and closed eyes. The timing was just right. On the surface, it looked like a God sent opportunity. The terms were not too stringent. The only issue was that Chitharao was neither familiar with the area that they were going to move into nor with any of their new neighbours. But they didn't foresee that as a major impediment.


Picture 2: Kannagi Nagar


More than four years have elapsed in the new colony. Our professional links have kept us connected. The family has adjusted into a smaller space and to the poor quality of their environment. But Chitharao is a troubled man. All his geniality has gone. He finds work hard to come by and to execute what little that he gets. He is worried about his family all the time. Unlike before, when only the thoughts of flooding gave him nightmares, now he is worried about multiple things.


To find out whether he had jumped from the frying pan into the fire, our social initiative 'Madras Inherited' began probing into his routine and about the locality in general. It became crucial for us to have some background information of the place. The strategy was to interact with school children; because they represented a wider social spectrum; were collectively easier to interact with; and their views could be trusted to be honest, unbiased and uncoloured.


Broadly, the Kannagi Nagar scheme was conceived about two decades ago, based on three objectives. First, to remove all illegal occupants from the banks of the city's waterways and rehabilitate them here. Second, it was meant to resettle coastal families that had been displaced by the 2004 Tsunami. And third, it was meant to decongest and eventually evacuate existing tenement colonies and exploit their enhanced commercial value.


In hindsight, the project had taken off with all the wrong ammunition and a very callous building program. It appeared from the very start that the idea was to 'pack in' as many families as possible. Climatic considerations were ignored and even flouted. The units were so insensitively designed that even a gust of fresh air would be a luxury. The site was a flatbed of a dried up lake, that sometimes got flooded by the overflow of the Buckingham Canal to its east. The quality of its groundwater was toxic and fit neither for consumption nor for construction. The terrain of clayey soil was unfit for tall structures. The site was poorly connected with the rest of the city and offered scope neither for employment opportunities nearby nor for any gentrification by value addition to neighbouring real estate. Worst of all, it grossly violated the stipulations of CRZ III, that forbade construction of predominantly residential development in an ecological sensitive area. So, all in all, the project had nothing positive going for it. But all that is now in the past.


What came up were row upon row of nondescript blocks, not much different from any of the earlier TNSCB projects. Theoretically all planning and building parameters had been satisfied. To avoid discrimination and maintain social parity, it was a one-size-fits-all type of project that took absolutely no account of the human factor.


Chitharao had soon discovered that nearly all his neighbours hadn't known each other before coming here. They had not only come from different localities and backgrounds but had lived differently and done different things. Most of them had been unable to go back to their old ways and were helpless and didn't know how to start anything new. Their remoteness and disconnect from the city were proving uneconomical. It was like being stranded on an island without resources. A new generation had come up without learning any family skills. All the ingredients for assembly of an explosive bomb had slowly come together on their own.


And who better to paint this picture than the school children!


Picture 3: Activity Sheet used in Student Interaction


Madras Inherited set to work. With the go ahead from the local school principal they devised a simple, well crafted and an imaginative exercise and called it 'The Eyes of Kannagi Nagar'. The students were asked to elaborate on a mental picture of their locality through text and diagrams. The result that came out forcefully through simple stick human figure diagrams was, on the one hand, a poignant and macabre scenario of gang wars, drug peddling, murder, rape, arson, theft; events that the children had actually witnessed. But equally on the other hand, there were lofty and aspirational themes of kids dreaming of joining the police force, of becoming scientists and sportspersons.


We could now begin to grasp why Chitharao is such a troubled man. But here is something to cheer about. The Government is attempting to empower people to douse the fire they had jumped into so many years ago. Artists of international repute have been roped in to bring pride and prestige to the area by converting it into an Art District. Ironically, the cost-saving blank walls have come in handy as giant canvases for some absolutely inspiring subjects. It is hoped that Kannagi Nagar's economy will see an upswing with inflow of people and tourists from outside and disrepute attached to its name will be redeemed.


Picture 4: St+art's artwork in Kannagi Nagar


But Mother Nature had dark plans. As the floods had thundered into Kotturpuram in 2015, Kannagi Nagar offered itself as a victim to a global tragedy, Covid-19, in 2020. All the precautions that the authorities routinely dished out were impossible to fulfil here. It is a cruel irony that having created a ghetto in the first place, they were now asking them to pretend that the tragedy can be warded off by following social distancing, washing hands and seeking fresh air. But this time there is no higher ground to run to.

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