Socialist Worker

Indian ‘village’ people demand change

by Michael Lavalette
Issue No. 2167

I have recently returned from India where I split my time between the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) and the fishing village of Kasimode.

Kasimode is not a village in the sense that readers in Britain would understand.

It’s a large, overcrowded slum in the northern dock area of Chennai.

Chennai has a population of almost eight million, and the “village” is home to well over 20,000 people, crammed into less than one mile square.

India is a country of vast inequalities. In the suburbs of Chennai there are large gated communities where English is increasingly the first language of choice for the middle and upper classes.

The wealth and opulence in these areas is comparable to that which you would see in the affluent parts of any city in the world.

The central area is dominated by skyscrapers, glass office blocks and the familiar names and advertising slogans of multinational corporations.

Yet Chennai is also a city marked by slums, by people sleeping on the streets or at their place of work and by desperate people begging for survival.

The World Bank estimates that 456 million Indians – 42 percent of the population – now live under the global poverty line of £0.77 per day. A third of the global poor now reside in India.

In Kasimode people travel to work in the city or work on the boats that return each day laden with a variety of fish, including large hauls of tuna.

Yet despite the fact most people work, they live in desperate poverty.

The majority of those who work in the city earn less than the government’s poverty line figure of 538 rupees (£6.70) a month.

The living and sanitary conditions in the slum are desperate. The electricity regularly fails. There are few government services in the area. There is one poorly equipped school and one tiny community centre – both provided by voluntary organisations.

The village is also still recovering from the tsunami that struck the Bay of Bengal in December 2004. Though less than 20 people were killed, over half the houses were destroyed and washed away.

There is now significant evidence to suggest that both the Indian government and the state authorities knew that the tsunami was approaching Indian shores before it struck on 26 December 2004 – yet they did nothing.

Indeed some suspect that the authorities hoped the tsunami would “deal” with some of their “problem communities”.

The authorities regularly attack slum areas, destroying houses and evicting families.

The former slum areas are then handed over to property developers for housing, office or factory development.

In the days that followed the tsunami the relief efforts into the poorest areas were totally inadequate and large amounts of international aid “disappeared” before it could get to the frontline.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that there is a very deep-seated suspicion of anything to do with the government – for the Indian poor it is obvious that the state does not work in their interests!

Given the hardship of daily life you might think that the people of Kasimode would be too consumed with the struggle for survival to engage with political life.

But residents are involved in various campaigns to fight for the rights of the poor and for Dalits (the caste group that used to be called “untouchables”).

Local activists have set up a food co-op and fish workers are in the process of setting up their own union co-op to set up a small smoking factory.

These are small things – but they show that hope exists even in the harshest of circumstances.


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Tue 1 Sep 2009, 19:16 BST
Issue No. 2167
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