A big yellow board with “Defence Land” written in big bold black letters welcome people into the slums behind it in Vannarpet, Shanthinagar ward.
There were other boards too. A board inviting people into a church on the walls of which were Tamil inscriptions of quotations from the Bible. There was a Dalita Samraksha Samithi (DSS) board, providing the office address and contact details in Tamil, Kannada, and English. A temple with a hoarding as big as itself announced in Tamil the programs for an upcoming festivity.
“There are Telugu speakers too,” said Narayana Rao, the ward President, to underscore the multilingual characteristic of the slum areas in the ward. “They even have their own section called Andhra colony with 250-odd hamlets.”
The settlement, with small grocery shops, temples, churches, and shops providing services for every possible necessity didn’t seem like a slum settlement at all. It even has its own community centre, funded and run by its Christian residents. Like in a tiny town in Italy, all its houses were painted a certain blue, and, incidentally, most of its male, working residents are painters.
Referring to slums in the adjacent Neelasandra, Narayana said that the majority who live there are Muslims. “In our Shanthinagar ward, and her in Vannarpet slum area, we mostly speak Tamil, and, even though, it is our mother-tongue, we speak Kannada with equal passion, consider ourselves Kannadigas, and even celebrate Kannada Rajyotsava, the state festival.” The percentage of people in these slum areas whose first language is Kannada is said to be 20 per cent. “This results in the representation problem. These slum dwellers are labelled as migrants. And, hence, they suffer.”
Noah, who runs a photo-studio attached to the community centre speaks Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu. He plays the role of a ‘Discipline Coach’ at the centre and according to his estimate, about 100 children from the slum attend the sessions. In the last 20 years of his life, he converted to Christianity, lived through the fear of rowdy-ism in the surrounding slums, and witnessed the conflict intensifying between the defence administration and his people.
He revealed another conflict in the area. Many Christians in the slum are Protestants. The famous roman-catholic Infant Jesus Church is situated a kilometre away, and ‘nothing much has come from them in terms of funding.’
The pressing conflict still remains the battle between the Karnataka & Goa Sub Area Army administration and the slum dwellers in Amrithamma Slum and adjoining areas. Following years of forcing people to move out, the Sub-Area administration disallows renovations and construction on what it says is ‘Defence Land’.
An offer to give up the land for 20 crore rupees presented to the Karnataka Government was ignored. “This political will became evident,” said Narayana Rao. “We have been living on this land since 1960s. Doesn’t living here for half a century make this our home?”
The slum is located next to Army Cantonment and Officer’s quarters. The defence personnel can be seen loving about in the peripheries of the slum making use of the services offered by the slum dwellers – tea, uniform altering and tailoring, bike repair and maintenance…
Whom should the people approach to get street lights fixed, public toilets cleaned, and roads patched and tarred? The Sub-Area Army Service Corps centre. Who should represent them? The elected civic body official – the Corporator. Many corporators could not reach the defence authorities, under whom the land is legally under control. The three-way tension among defence authorities, civic body officials, and people is tearing the seams of what could be a peaceful ‘status-quo’ like situation that the slum dwellers hope for.
“When it rained heavily in the last monsoon season, this house fell,” said Suguna Selvakumar, pointing to a rubble. “The people who were living here had to relocate. They could not rebuild their home because of the reconstruction rules the defence authorities have laid down.” Defence authorities have appointed an overseer, who comes on a bicycle. He makes his rounds meticulously and reports to his department if any renovation or construction is taking place, according to the people living in Amrithamma slum.
Suguna, a maid by profession, is married to a painter, and the couple send their kids to a private convent school. Although they are happy with the schooling their kids are receiving, fears of disease-carrying mosquitoes, and water-borne illnesses worry them endlessly. There is only one Prathamika Aarogya Kendra (Govt. Primary Healthcare Centre) for the ward and for all the slums in it.
“When we take a bath, the used water can’t be drained to the main sewage line that runs through the slum. We have to manually flush water out of the toilet. We have to do this after taking a bath,” said Shreesha David, who works in a nearby incense sticks unit.
The main sewage line has been clogged for years. One crack and the sewage stuck in the pipe will rush and spray out into the houses in the slum, the residents fear.
Women in the slum line up every morning in front of a pay and use toilet with 3 rupees in their palm. The toilet is installed 3 kms. away.
“Often, I take my children with me,” said Shreesha. “I can’t let them bathe and use the toilet here.”
Another major concern is water. “We all live in rented houses. We pay for using the toilet. Even for cooking and drinking purposes, we have to pay[for water],” she added.
A house nearby has a borewell and a motor connected to the tank which receives corporation water. Women from the slum take several trips on every alternate day between 1 and 2 am to fetch water from the single tap by paying 100 rupees for 10 buckets. The tap is open just for an hour.
A toilet built for the slum dwellers at the entrance to the slum has four latrines. All the doors are off the hinges and outsiders and passers-by also use the toilet.
The toilets that, from the outside, look maintained hit the users with a nauseating stench.
For the main drain pipe that has been clogged for years and the public toilet poorly maintained, the residents of the slum blame the civic authorities.
There are nearly 15,000 houses that are situated in and around Vannarpet – Amrithamma slum, Yellaranagar, Ambedkar Nagar, and Rajendra Nagar.
“If you shoo the people away, they will occupy government and private land. Private land occupation are the most difficult and the most violent. The owner thinks his right to the land is absolute,” said Narayana Rao.
Relocations were promised and the new that slum dwellers from areas such as Andhra Colony were relocated.
“No shifting took place. Old Andhra Colony was renamed as New Andhra Colony. The government tends to do this. No relocation happened,” he added.
Amrithamma Slum, Nanjappa Garden, John Bull Street, Rudry’s Garden, and Jayraj Nagara are all slums that suffer a conflict with defence authorities.
There is one Anganawadi for all these areas. One Girl’s School. One Boy’s High School. All the schools need renovation and repair. Roofs have fallen. Water seeps in. And the retention rates are low.
One bright spot is the Corporation School. Harish, a 10 year old boy, listed his entitlements – mid-day meal, uniform, shoes, Pulao, Bisi Bele Bath (Hot Dal Rice)….he gets them all.