Here is how women in Chennai came together and raised their voices to fight for their rights after losing their homes a decade ago to the tsunami. From jointly owning their new house with their husbands to learning about RTI and empowering themselves, these women have come out of the tragedy together.
Even today, a decade after the tsunami struck in 2004, she remembers the fateful day clearly. Within seconds, giant waves turned 55-year-old Swapna Sundari’s world upside down. The gushing water crashed into her hut in Nochinagar located near the Marina beach in Chennai and had she not grabbed her five-year-old grandson by his hair, he would have been swept away.
The next few days were spent in fear, in nearby makeshift shelters, along with hundreds of others whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami. As the days stretched into months, and months into years, there were many moments when Sundari and other tsunami-affected families despaired that they might never be able to shift out of the temporary shelters.
It was only in January 2014 that the travails of 628 families of Nochinagar finally came to an end. After nine years of braving several hardships, including deprivation of financial assistance during the initial stage of the rescue and relief operations, their stiff resistance to government’s bids to shift them away from the seashore paid off. Finally, 501 non-fishing Dalit families including Sundari’s and 127 families from the fishing community moved into their new two-room flats constructed on the same land where they resided and earned their livelihood before the tsunami struck. These in-situ flats have been made by the Tamil Nadu government under its Emergency Tsunami Recovery Project.
This is a huge milestone for the Nochinagar coastal community. But much of this would not have been possible had it not been for the women’s active participation to reclaim their traditional land and livelihoods. They have played a vital role in the campaign to realise homestead rights. Whether it was to resort to cooking food in the middle of the road to protest against delay in delivering on housing or to form a human chain to force withdrawal of the proposal to construct a bridge across the villages on the Marina stretch, the women showed the heart and the tenacity to claim their rights.
The gleaming pink coloured tenements in Nochinagar are a testimony to the coastal women’s unwavering struggle. However, it hasn’t been easy. From running pillar to post for getting the tsunami relief sanctioned to sitting in front of the Collectorate with their eyes blindfolded in protest of the state’s bids to evict them from their land, they have done it all. But what has made their efforts worthwhile is being able to get the flat allotted in the joint name of husband and wife, a big change from the earlier policy of giving it in the name of the male member.
The first impact of this joint ownership has been the lessening of domestic violence. According to Sundari, women are beginning to understand that they no longer need to fear being thrown out of their houses and this awareness has boosted their confidence. “Earlier, women were afraid of complaining against their husbands. But now they are ready to approach the police for help,” she says.
Sundari, who accompanied the first woman from her community to file a complaint at the local police station, shares that the cooperation of the police made a big difference. “They called the husband and warned him of strict action if he did not allow his wife to stay in the house. This helped to sober him up and even the disagreements between them have decreased. This case has given the other women courage to stand up for their rights,” reveals Sundari.
Another critical change the movement brought about was ensuring each flat comes with an attached toilet. Incidentally, tenements built at the government’s relocation site, where several families had been shifted soon after the tsunami, are one-room flats with a common toilet for two families. The very fact that the Nochinagar community has been able to bring about a design change in their housing has inspired residents of the adjacent fishing community living in Nochikuppan. Now, they have agreed to move out and let the government make new houses to replace their existing dilapidated tenements. Earlier, they were afraid if they moved they would be deprived of their land and be relocated to a site far away from the sea.
Although the struggle for Nochinagar residents has been a long one, Sundari says it would not have been possible without the support of ActionAid, a civil society organisation, and its four partners working together as the Forum for Securing Lives and Livelihoods Rights of Coastal Communities (FLLRC). When ActionAid began working with the urban coastal communities in Chennai in 2004, it found that government efforts at relief and rehabilitation were not reaching the marginalised and poor communities. So the FLLRC was created to help build community resilience.
“Our partners Arunodhaya, Udavi, C-DOT and NAWO were already working with the communities in these coastal districts. The aim of bringing them together under the FLLRC was to tap their individual expertise to collectively strengthen our campaign to empower the coastal communities,” explains Sunitha Rao, FLLRC programme manager at ActionAid.
As per an estimate, women engaged in fishing related activities constitute 55 per cent of the workforce in Tamil Nadu and 65 per cent at the national level. So, one of the strategies adopted was to empower them to become agents of change. The Forum identified articulate women and built their capacity to inform and inspire action.
Additionally, as the FLLRC raised awareness on government policies and schemes related to land and housing it also pushed for coastal women, traditionally kept out of decision-making bodies, to be given equal opportunities to participate in the movement.
The coastal women’s federation was one such initiative undertaken by FLLRC that gave women from both the fishing and non-fishing community a chance to emerge from the shadows. Another important step was their induction in the Coastal Communities Protection Movement (CCPM). “Initially, the men were opposed to the idea. We explained to them how women were equally, if not more, affected by disaster. It took some time in convincing them but finally they agreed,” recalls Virgil D’Sami, Executive Director, Arunodhaya.
The women also formed a significant part of the group trained by ActionAid to use the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In fact, for Sundari, the RTI training turned out to be the most important lesson of her life.
It was when she used it to access information on the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board’s housing project for the coastal communities that she found out how the government had planned to deprive them of their traditional land.
“We got to know that the TNSCB planned to relocate the non-fishing community to Thoraipakkam and Semmenchery, areas far away from the coast. Their plan was to provide housing near the coast only to the fishing community. Our predominant livelihood activities are related to fishing and we need to stay close to the coast. Why should we be discriminated against?” remarks Sundari, who belongs to the non-fishing Dalit community.
As other Dalit women came to know of this, more than 500 of them came together to complain. Then their protests grew louder with other Dalit community leaders joining hands, which led to the formation of the Chennai Dalit People’s Federation (CDPF). Sundari, who was elected president of the Chennai Coastal Dalit Women’s Federation, led the campaign to expose the bid to divide the fishing and non-fishing communities. When the TNSCB realised that the storm of protest was unlikely to end, the segregation process was dropped.
For the women of Chennai’s coastal community, the journey to claim their rights over land and livelihoods has been life changing. While the sword of displacement still hangs, they are now wiser and better prepared to deal with the capriciousness of not just the weather but also the government.