Editor’s choice: The three stories from Chennai that shook me

Much was written about Chennai by our staff reporters, freelance journalists and citizen journalists in 2022. Here are some of my favourite stories.

One of the recurring themes in the life of a journalist is looking at a story done by another publication and kicking yourself for not having thought of the idea yourself. So, to sign off for the year, I’d like to highlight the stories that our reporters did on Chennai in 2022 that I hope made someone else think, “I wish I’d written that!”

These stories also happen to be the ones that illustrate what we do best – platforming voices drowned out by the daily discourse, unpacking urban policy and highlighting actions that bring about collective change.

Life in the Thideer Nagars of Chennai

Over the years, Citizen Matters has reported extensively on the precariousness of the lives of the urban poor in Chennai. A story that shows what is emblematic of the problems people face is one that provides a glimpse into the lives of people in the many Thideer Nagars of Chennai.

All over Chennai city, there are many areas named Thideer Nagar. We pass by them on our daily commute but pay little attention to what lies behind the name. This story delved into what it means to live in a Thideer Nagar.

The many residents who spoke to us offered up their own explanations for why the name Thideer Nagar came about. But the common thread in all these stories has been the suddenness with which their lives could change overnight, and change for the worse.

The residents of these Thideer Nagars have spent decades without any basic civic amenities such as drinking water, electricity, shelter and toilets. They do not have any claim over the land they have resided in or any security of tenure. Very few even have hope for positive change. Instead, they express the fear that calling attention to their plight would lead to eviction and displacement from the places they have called home, no matter how ill-suited it is for living. 

While some manage to escape this cycle through education and better jobs, many drop out of school and are forced to work to make ends meet, closing the door on any possibility of a different life. 

The pandemic has only made things worse for the residents of Thideer Nagars.

Stories like this remind us of how unequal life is in the city. It holds a mirror to our own obliviousness of issues faced by fellow Chennaiites. That status quo is their best-case scenario should disturb us enough to demand action. 

Read more: How flawed eviction and resettlement are triggering child marriages in Chennai

Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme in Chennai

But is action always enough? 

Our deep dive into the implementation of the Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme (UEGS) showed how action, even if well-meaning, will prove futile if the target audience does not benefit from it. 

The UEGS was launched with much hope that it would help people hit hardest by the pandemic and the general economic gloom by providing a steady source of income. It was supposed to do what MGNREGA did for job creation and employment in rural India. 

But months into the launch, the scheme is in disarray in Chennai. Our story sought to understand why the scheme has not worked in the city and what can be done to fix it.

Conversations with the workers revealed that there was little thought that went into what jobs can be performed as part of the scheme. On paper, the jobs created must be for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers, but at present only one kind of work is being offered.  

Desilting of stormwater drains remains the only job that is assigned under the scheme despite the scope to engage workers in an urban setting being much wider. 

The workers also complained of impossible targets, little to no training, low wages compared to similarly physically arduous jobs they could get in the city and how payment disbursement has been an issue in some of the areas.

The nature of the work has kept many out of the ambit of the UEGS, with even those who signed up not working the entire 100-day duration of the scheme.

This story highlighted the urgent need to reimage schemes to suit local contexts. With lakhs of youth among many looking for steady jobs, the UEGS could provide an avenue for all.

But for this, there must be wider engagement with the target audience for this scheme to understand their needs and incorporate their suggestions and feedback prior to the expansion of the scheme. 

Success of Pulianthope Welfare Assembly

What we often come across in our reportage has been the issue of stakeholders not being heard. Therefore, the story of how the residents of Pulianthope have organised themselves into an action group that works for the collective good holds a special place.

The unfortunate reality that many in Chennai live with is that social capital decides whose problems are addressed on priority. While well-organised Residents’ Welfare Associations from affluent neighbourhoods do not have a hard time getting an audience with the powers that be, those who do not have such connections are left to fend for themselves.

Residents of Pulianthope have long suffered due to the stigma attached to their locality as being a hotbed of crime and antisocial activities. So much so they have had job applications rejected or phone connections denied due to the infamy of their place of residence. 

Read more: Stigma around Pulianthope: How does a neighbourhood become criminalised?

This has also resulted in them having to live with sub-par civic amenities as their complaints continually fell on deaf ears. Bad roads, lack of sewage connections and faulty stormwater drains are the norm.

But a group of residents saw merit in organising themselves into the Pulianthope Welfare Assembly. They sought strength in numbers and the effort has seemingly paid off.

The Welfare Assembly has so far helped residents connect with jobs and create a network where opportunities are shared and suitable candidates are matched. They have also helped residents receive various benefits and entitlements offered by the government by making applications online. What would previously require multiple visits to government offices has been made accessible to many residents through the work of the Welfare Assembly. 

pulianthope rwa in Chennai
The RWAs aims to help residents access job opportunities and secure their livelihood. Pic: Facebook/Pulianthope Podhu Nala Sangam

The residents have also found more success in approaching officials and elected representatives as a collective rather than taking their grievances to them in their individual capacity. 

The success stories emerging from Pulianthope are a blueprint to emulate for other areas similarly underrepresented when we discuss issues in the city. They have concerned themselves with projects and tasks that go beyond beautification to issues that affect the material and daily lives of residents. This approach lies at the heart of the support they receive from the residents. 

As we step into 2023, we hope to produce more such enlightening stories that contribute to the dialogue around civic and urban issues in Chennai. Stick with us for the ride. 

Happy New Year!

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