Konjam Tamil theriyum

I’ve had so many good days recently!  It seems that whenever I leave the house I meet interesting people or discover something surprising about Indian culture.  Actually just being at home can be entertaining.  Sometimes my bedroom door silently opens and a hand holding an incense stick pokes through.  The incense stick waves about it the air and then silently disappears behind the door again.  This is a form of Hindu worship which one of my housemates does every day to cleanse the house.

Having spent many days in Kannagi Nagar now, I have met some incredible people.  One man who I met this week has led a whole campaign to demand justice for resettled tsunami survivors in Kannagi Nagar.  When they were resettled they were told that their new houses in Kannagi Nagar would be free but for the first three years they were made to pay rent until this man, one of the resettled people, initiated a petition.  The petition led to negotiations but when this did not solve the matter, he led a protest outside the cricket stadium in the centre of Chennai.  This led to another meeting with state government officials who then sent him to a central government human rights meeting in Delhi where it was finally agreed that the tsunami survivors would not have to pay rent.  He is a really inspiring man who, from a very humble background, has led inventive and sophisticated campaigns to get justice for people in Kannagi Nagar.

Monday was Indian Independence Day so my interpreter had the day off.  I had to prepare my survey though so I went to Kannagi Nagar anyway to see how far my few Tamil words would get me.  Actually, although I really appreciate my interpreter, I was amazed by how much more I could interact with people when I was alone.  As I walked around the site lots of people wanted to talk to me and one elderly lady even gave me banana.  I was very touched and also very pleased (my tummy was rumbling) and I wished I could remember ‘thank you’ in Tamil but I think she understood.  One girl approached me who actually speaks very good English and so I talked to her for a while. She invited me to her house for lunch and so I spent a long time talking to her and her parents as they offered me more and more food.  Hopefully I can employ her as my interpreter when my own current interpreter can no longer help me.  Being on my own really revealed to me how just a few words of Tamil make all the difference and how eager people are to offer me food, water and help me with anything.  My few Tamil phrases are met with screams of laughter and applause (more due to the comedy value than my excellent Tamil accent I suspect).

Anyway, so as well as gathering ever more data, I feel really lucky to be discovering Indian culture and doing my fieldwork with such generous and friendly people.

 

One week in.

It’s been just over a week since I arrived in Chennai but with so many changes in such a short time, it already feels much longer.  Chennai is a crowded, hot and noisy city, bursting with life but also chocked up with traffic.  Just how you might expect a rapidly growing Indian city to be.  I haven’t seen much of the city yet since I am living near my research site to the south of the city.  One long road stretches south from Chennai, known as the IT corridor, because of the many IT companies who have built their offices here.  This is where I live and spend most days.  Apart from the software companies, the resettlement site I am studying and some roadside cafes, there is very little else here.  It is far from boring however. The contrast of the smart new office buildings with the canvas shelters of the construction workers is startling, as is the mixture of ox-drawn carts, buses, cars and auto-rickshaws which hurtle, beeping their horns, along the main road.  Chennai may not be the most attractive city but I already feel quite settled.  The cultural differences are certainly greater than I’d anticipated but I’m lucky to be sharing a flat with 7 other Indian girls who can teach me the Indian ways of life, how to tear a chapati with just your right hand etc.  I’ve met many very kind and generous people in just one week who are eager to tell me about life in Chennai.  It’s fascinating to be living in a different culture and to see how Indian cities are developing and how Indian society is transforming alongside it.

I have spent the past week visiting Kannagi Nagar, the slum resettlement site, to get an overview of the area and talk to some of the people who live and work there.  I intended to study the residents’ associations which I expected to find there but it turns out that the only formal associations are women’s self-help groups.  This is not really a problem though and it is actually interesting to investigate how people mobilize without forming groups and what prevents people from being more unified.  I will also look at the NGOs which work on the site in order to analyse how their relations with the resettled people and government bodies influence their ability to improve the living conditions in Kannagi Nagar.  Having spent time interviewing leaders of the self-help groups, residents of Kannagi Nagar, NGO workers and government employees, it seems that many people are reasonably satisfied living in Kannagi Nagar.  Vast improvements have been made in recent years, such as improving the water supply and waste collection and building a police station, which have greatly enhanced people’s standard of living.  Those who have lived here for around 10 years do not have many complaints and speak highly of the slum clearance board.  I found this surprising, especially in comparison with media reports of suffering and misery in Kannagi Nagar and people’s anger at being forced out of a slum in the city centre to the resettlement site in the outskirts.  People in Kannagi Nagar do mention that it is difficult to get work so far from the centre and many say that they preferred living in their slum but few express strong emotions of anger or frustration over being resettled.  It’s interesting to see how people’s expectations of their living standards and their perception of their ability to change their situation influences how they’ve accepted being resettled.

However, in the past when the resettlement site had just been constructed, the problems the resettled people faced were much greater.  There was no electricity or water supply, anti-social behaviour was a serious problem, and household waste was everywhere.  Not to mention the very poor drainage and the lack of schools, health centres and transport to the centre.  The residents would go together with their neighbours and friends to protest over the lack of facilities and once blocked the main road in order to have their voices heard.  It took three to four years after the first people were resettled here for basic amenities to be provided and it is only recently that a hospital and police station have been established near the site.  This raises questions over whether these improvements, which have made many people in Kannagi Nagar optimistic, were brought about in response to the residents’ protests or as a result of a change in government policy or capacity or perhaps numerous other factors.  In the coming weeks I will investigate further how the slum clearance policy is decided and implemented, who and what influences this and what the government’s capacity is to meet the needs of the resettled slum dwellers.

A few pictures of Kannagi Nagar: