Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trapped in Stench

Just posting an article that I wrote in 2004 while studying at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai


A sprawling sea, amusement parks, art galleries, cultural centers, places of worship – this is the city of Chennai. It is the fourth largest city in India and recently celebrated 350 years of existence. But repeating the list over and over again has made no difference in a city that cares little for its poor. A quarter of Chennai’s 4.5 million population lives in the slums. The Census of India defines a slum as "a compact area of at least 300 in population or about 60-70 households of poorly built, congested tenements in an unhygienic environment usually with inadequate infrastructure and lacking proper sanitary and drinking water facilities". Dr. C. Chandramouli, I.A.S, involved in census operations, pointed out that the basic characteristics of a slum are: dilapidated and infirm housing structures; poor ventilation; acute overcrowding; ill-lit streets; faulty alignment of streets; scarcity of safe drinking water; lack of toilet facilities; and absence of basic physical and social services.

Oduma Nagar is a fishermen’s colony in the heart of one of Chennai’s posh, upper middle class areas: Besant Nagar and fulfills the characteristics of a slum. Facing the sea, it lies on the famous Elliot's Beach. The disenchanted citizens of this slum are all but forgotten by the Municipal Corporation. Matters of personal hygiene are more or less ignored by the government. Amongst a host of other problems, garbage disposal from the area is one of grave concern. Depending on the location of their houses, the slum dwellers essentially see three ways of disposing of their waste. Only the people living close to the main road enjoy the benefit of the services of the Municipal Corporation vans. Those living close to the famous Vailankanni church use the dustbins provided by ONYX (the solid waste disposal wing of the French multinational, Vivendi). Since March 2002, the company has been entrusted with the responsibility of cleaning some areas in Chennai, Oduma Nagar being one of them. All ONYX does for this slum is; place two dustbins near the church. There is no activity of garbage collection from within the slum. People living in the deep pockets of the slum find it a hassle to collect garbage and walk up to the dustbins. As a result, they choose to dump their waste into the sea. The ├»¿½pucca├»¿½ or concrete houses in the slum are one-room houses and eight such houses are clubbed together in a building. On an average, about four people live in each house. The space being limited, all the houses pile up the garbage behind the building and it continues to lie there for days. As a result, the prevalence of diseases relating to the gastro-intestinal tract and the skin is very high.

The residents of the slum claim that the chief reason for the absence of a garbage disposal system is the lack of an appropriate road system. The lanes within the slum are extremely narrow and hence do not allow the Municipal Corporation vans to drive in and collect the garbage. On being asked for comment, officials of the Municipal Corporation, Besant Nagar, said that the Oduma Nagar slum falls into ONYX’s area of services and that ONYX is performing its duties fully well. He simply refused to accept the fact that there is no activity whatsoever by ONYX in this slum. The sight that meets the naked eye on walking through the slum is quite contradictory to the Municipal Corporation’s claims. Garbage lies in the narrow spaces between houses and across the sands of the beach. Ironically, many of ONYX’s employees belong to this slum. On being asked why they don’t clean their own locality, they said that they would clean it, if only they got paid for it.

According to Dr. C. Chandramouli, I.A.S, 30 percent of the households in the slums of Chennai do not have drainage systems and are exposed to the grave risk of diseases like malaria. Oduma Nagar is no different. The drainage system is existent only for the houses along the main road. The ones on the beach just dig up tunnels in the sand and the sewerage from their houses flows into the sea. Some residents of the slum prefer to use public toilets as a result of the absence of a drainage system. But the condition of the public toilets is deplorable as well. Moreover, there are only two public toilets near the slum, which do not cater to the needs of the hundreds of people living here. Some of the residents thus prefer to defecate on the beach. This in turn is another source for the spread of diseases. It also creates a problem for women in particular, as they do not have privacy on the beach. They wake up at 4 am so they can defecate in privacy but with the spotlights coming up as part of the beach beautification project, they are left with nowhere to go.

A question that needs to be examined in depth is who is actually spreading the litter? On examining the garbage, one finds that it mostly consists of coke cans and tetra packs. These are almost never used by slum dwellers. Much of the garbage on the beach is actually created by the tourist who can very well read the “use me” sign on a dustbin lying fifty meters away. But the blame for littering the beach falls on the slum dweller. There is another major difference between the litter spread by the tourist and that by the slum dweller. The slum dwellers mostly spread around biodegradable waste (vegetable peels, fish bones and human excreta). The tourists on the other hand, spread litter that is non-biodegradable (coke cans, plastic bottles and polythene bags). In effect, the litter created by the tourists is a greater environmental hazard.

The spread of awareness is required in the area. The residents have almost no knowledge of the diseases that can be caused by the piling up of garbage in their locality. Spreading the word with the help of social service groups and involving schools and children could be a feasible option. In addition, the media reportage on situations like these has been miniscule. The Government in the meantime chooses to keep its eyes closed and simply denies the existence of the deplorable conditions that the Oduma Nagar slum dwellers live in.

Mridu Bhandari
November 14, 2004

1. The residents of Oduma Nagar slum
2. An ONYX employee residing in the slum who wishes to remain anonymous
3. Mr. Bhoominathan, Assistant Commissioner, Municipal Corporation, Besant Nagar
4. Slums in Chennai: A Profile by Dr. C. Chandramouli, I.A.S

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

This Day That Year - 29th July 2007

Day 15

The drive from Katra to Delhi is on...I wake up after some 10 hours to see we're going to stop over at Ambala for lunch - at one of Sid's contacts' place. They're extremely warm and hospitable...we chat for an hour and they stuff us with poori, chhole, aaloo and what not! After the delicious meal we are all packed back into our innovas and are zooming away to Delhi again. Delhi arrives faster than we want it to. We sort out our luggage, shift cars according to residences in Delhi and are on the way to our respective homes. So we part with heavy hearts - it's the end of a trip we'll remember for life. Atleast I will. Memories are indeed the biggest treasure. Mom, dad are thrilled to have me back. I'm still getting accustomed to being back from a very different world. It can actually be disorienting. No one who hasn't been to Ladakh can understand what one feels there. So my advice: do go there atleast once in this lifetime. Otherwise you truly have missed something in life.

Monday, July 28, 2008

This Day That Year - 28th July 2007

Day 14

So we're on our way up to Vaishno Devi Mata ka mandir. The walk is beautiful. It's misty and soon it's drizzling. D & I walk up all the way - chatting, looking at sights & he tells me stories of his previous visits here. We have no VIP passes and are wondering how many hours we'll have to wait in queue for the darshan. Ardhkunwari is the half way mark - the milestones seem to arrive really slow but I love the walk up into the clouds. At Himkoti we stop to eat dosas and garma garam rajma chawal. Kavitta catches up with us here and stomachs replenished, we continue to walk up! Soon we're at the mandir, we buy our prashad and are done with the darshan in a matter of 15-20 minutes. No long queues. We're thrilled and inspired to climb up further to Bhairon Mandir. The board says 1.5 kms and we think what the hell...why not? So we start walking. Sid & Runmee are way ahead on their mules! This particular stretch is really really steep and we're huffing and pufffing our way up. D & I stop to sit at various points. Sometimes we take the stairs but they're even more tiring! Many stops later, we're in the temple - darshan, parshad and out. Time to descend. We decide to take the stairs to save time even though we know we'll end up with wobbly knees! So we're rolling downhill - literally running along. A short stop at Cafe Coffee Day for a bite and back on the path. At the foot of the hill we indulge in threads, lockets etc. Then we pack ourselves into an auto back to Hotel New Ashok Palace. A hot water bath later, I'm knocked out on the bed for 4 hours. Then we're up and ready to drive back to Delhi. The biggest regret of the day: No camera on the climb :( We all thought we won't be permitted to take them inside the temple - discovered later that there were locker rooms! So anyways, soon we're dining at the 'Jewel', drinking chai by the roadside, clicking the very last snap of this trip @ Katra and are then on the road to Delhi. I am wishing we could extend the trip further. I am feeling sad about having to go back to the noise & chaos of the metropolis. I just want to freeze time my most peaceful, dreamless 10 hour sleep on the drive back.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This Day That Year - 27th July 2007

Day 13

It's day 13...I feel like I'm living a dream...years later I know I am going to recall this trip, read these blog entries and relive these moments. Anyways, this day is for shopping at Pahalgam! The sweet little town has quaint looking shops - out of a different world - we look at Kashmiri suits, silver and junk jewellery! I end up buying Kashmiri suits for mom, nani etc...and D the master bargainer helps me get them at good prices! I also indulge in silver and junk jewellery - earrings, pendants, bracelets and keychains for friends! Soon, we're driving to Jammu...I sleep most of the way. The innova is like home by now. We stop on the way for a tea break and out of the blue we decide to stop at Katra and go to Vaishno Devi!! It will delay us by half a day only because we decide to skip sleep and start off on the trek at the time we were to halt at Jammu! We don't tell the bosses of our plans yet. They're expecting us back in Delhi ASAP as some award work is to be done! We eat at Vaishno Dhaba@Katra and hunt for a hotel to leave our luggage. Many seedy hotels later, we're checking into Hotel New Ashok Palace, dumping luggage and by 5:30 am we're on our way up for Mata ke darshan at Vaishno Devi!! This time I've decided to go on foot all the way. Only Sidhartha & Runmee take mules. After the Amarnath Yatra, this seems like cakewalk - there are no dangerous curves, no narrow mud tracks & it isn't that steep - in fact there's a proper cemented route and a choice to go by stairs all the way up!!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

This Day That Year - 26th July 2007

Day 12

It's day 12 - we're off to sightsee Srinagar. First stop - Shankaracharya - no cameras allowed. Lots of stairs to climb - the Gods always like to sit on the top! Beautiful temple, more prasaad. I come back and see 8 missed calls on my phone. I call Indrajit & he tells me the magic has worked :) I'm thrilled! Next stop is Hazratbal mosque. We visit the mosque, not realising we're wearing huge orange teekas on our foreheads! We're feeling truly secular! The flight of the pigeons at Hazratbal is spectacular. Next we're lazing around in a shikara, doing cheesy photography at chaar chinaar. The weeds under water are mesmerizing! Lunch is Kashmiri food at Ahdoos - no words to describe it. You have to eat it to believe it! Alas, there's no time left for shopping! Then we're jet setting to Pahalgam. We love our innova by now - 4 of us huddling together on the backseat and Parul with her wisecracks on the front seat is a regular by now :) Pahalgam is a sweet, romantic little town - green and full of flowing water. Every inch of our luggage is scanned & x-rayed before we're allowed into the town - security check due to the Amarnath Yatra. There's a small scuffle with the BSF jawan and we're trying to control Sid & D and avoid a showdown! It's masala movie stuff :) Hotel Heevan (yes, the spellings are correct) is literally heaven - a cottage like thingie right by the flowing river. It's one of the most picturesque setups you could ask for. Soon we're ordering flasks and flasks of tea...and a sumptuous dinner follows. Tonight "sleeping" means lots of us huddling on a double bed! :)

Friday, July 25, 2008

This Day That Year - 25th July 2007

Day 11

It's a lazy morning. After yesterday's yatra, we're all half dead. Bhaiya lets us sleep and relax till late. He burns CDs of the snaps we've taken so far - Parul & I are thrilled we have double the space in our cameras now! Next destination - Srinagar. Bhaiya has made arrangements for us to stay there. The drive is once again breathtaking. On the way we stop at Mata Kheerbhawani mandir & are given VIP darshan once again. The temple has a pond of water that's said to turn different colours - turns red or black in bad times like the tsunami or during earthquakes. We eat bowls of kheer and head to Srinagar. Hitting Srinagar at night is a bad idea. Even though the place is beautiful and the feeling out of the world, there's an uneasiness. You don't feel like trusting anyone here. We're stopped by the police more than once - looked at suspiciously & questioned why we are there but the PRESS sticker always helps. After being lost for about half an hour, we finally reach Badami Bagh cantonment and are comfortably settled for the night in Dagger Huts - royal treatment! The rooms are cosy and we're content. Today's raw deal - my travel agent wants me to come back sooner than planned because I have an interview with the Belgian embassy. We're considering my flights back to Delhi :( I'm depressed about it. I don't want to go back alone. I want to see Pahalgam with the rest of them! Let's see if Indrajit's magic works...!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

This Day That Year - 24th July 2007

Day 10

Wake up at 6 am...time to get ready for the Amarnath Yatra, the walking shoes are on. The bosses will leave for Delhi in a few hours. By 7:00 am the whole jingbang is set to move - on foot, but with mules for backup. My horse is Soni and her owner - a cute, blue eyed Kashmiri boy - Riyaz. The trek begins...with stopovers at Army checkposts - we're greeted with warm water, tea & breakfast...then with warm water, tea & pakodas a few hours later and the saga continues till we reach the Amarnath caves. Army hospitality is just fabulous. The trek is tough & dangerous & it's drizzling as well. Sitting atop a horse you look down into the valley and can imagine lying there in a heap! D & Manmohan are the only ones who don't take mules even for a second. The rest of us just don't have the stamina. The distance is 13 kms one way. Soon we've reached the caves and we're given VIP darshan thanks to the Indian Army once more. We see the much talked about pair of pigeons - they say not everyone is fortunate enough to see them. We get our prasaad and soon are heading downhill. I walk back much of the way with D, Sid & Krrishh - that's what D calls Vidya - an Army jawaan because he saved D's life more than once. We're almost running downhill, it's raining now and we're looking out for landslides and flying stones. Deep bhaiya had warned us about them. About 10 people had died during the yatras because of stone hits. 12 hours, fatigue and a tub full of slush later, we're back at the base camp in Sonamarg. A hot water bath awaits me. Never felt better! Next we're off to eat bhandara food - tonight it's makki di roti te sarson da saag. Tonnes of shudh ghee and calories but who cares? And then it's back to bunk beds and I have the most blissful, dreamless sleep! :)