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Chennai women’s collective to combat poverty, pandemic

Jan 17, 2022 12:32 AM IST

In January 2020, two months before the first case of Covid-19 entered Chennai, Mercy Muthu and four other women knocked on thousands of doors in their locality’s slum tenements to draw up a list of pensioners, widows, destitute women and people with disabilities

Chennai: Alamelu Bhaskar, in her 30s, a mother to two toddlers whose photocopying shop was shut due to lockdown restrictions when the pandemic began in March 2020, had at that time feared her family and their similarly poor neighbours would die of starvation over being infected by the virus. But, instead of giving up, Bhaskar used her time to drive a community initiative along with a dozen other women to crowdsource food, groceries and monetary assistance to distribute them to the most vulnerable, such as senior citizens, women-headed families, and people with disabilities and mental illness.

Women crowdsource food, groceries and monetary assistance to distribute them among the most vulnerable. (HT Photo)

Bhaskar is among a few working women in Chennai belonging to lower socio-economic groups, who were identified with leadership potential and picked by a city-based NGO (Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities--IRCDUC) five years ago to be trained to create more women leaders in low-income communities. When the pandemic hit, these women had been central to helping other women like themselves in the absence of safety nets. Bhaskar was elected to the coordinator’s post in her residents’ welfare association last year, achieving one of the visions of the initiative that women should occupy such positions. Now with the fast spreading Omicron variant, there is dismay and discontent again but the power of these groups lies in coming together to address their issues on their own.

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“This time I’ve closed my shop voluntarily to be safe because I have two children at home,” Bhaskar says. “But, there are also a lot more women who have risen up to the challenges now.”

While Bhaskar predominantly volunteers, not too far away from her, Mercy Muthu, 44, has immersed herself into this community work full-time, taking home just a stipend from the NGO. This is paltry compared to the monthly 20,000 she earned when she was a team leader in a prominent call centre from the heart of Chennai city but here is why Mercy has been doing this work for the past two years. She had to let go off her job in 2017 when her family was among hundreds who were forced to move to the city’s peripheries by the government as part of relocating those living along water bodies for flood prevention.

In January 2020, two months before the first case of Covid-19 entered Chennai, Mercy Muthu and four other women knocked on thousands of doors in their locality’s slum tenements to draw up a list of pensioners, widows, destitute women and people with disabilities. There was an issue of pensions and social assistance of 1000 from the government being cut because these individuals had been relocated due to the floods. Given that they no longer lived in the previous address, the pensions and assistance had stopped. They identified 300 such deprived benefactors.

“Some of them sobbed uncontrollably to us because they are fully dependent on their pension,” recalled Mercy. Their new residence in Perumbakkam has jurisdiction that falls between Chennai and the adjoining district of Chengalpattu. The five women – all aged between 30 and 40 – met the Chengalpattu collector who in turn directed them to the revenue inspector in Tambaram who instructed them that they will have to open new accounts in Shollingnallur’s Indian Bank which is in the city. “No one knows about such rules, that’s where our work comes in,” says Mercy. Everyday they took a group of 10 to the bank to open their accounts. “And this 1000 was what rescued them when the pandemic hit.”

Global crises like Ebola in 2014 and the 2008 recession have shown that disasters have a gendered impact, so when Covid-19 hit, it was just a question of how these inequities would manifest. More cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse came to light within this community too given the pandemic-induced lockdown. “By now we have become emboldened to go to police stations to file complaints and women are supportive to one another. There is a sense of respect and a little fear also when people use us,” says Mercy. Eight women marched into a police station last year to accompany the mother of a child who had been sexually assaulted by a neighbour during the first wave of the pandemic and the case is in the trial stage.

“These women see each other and they get inspired. Basically, it’s all about synergy,” says Vanessa Peter, founder of IRCDUC who along with one of the trustees A D Nundhyny began training women like Mercy and Bhaskar who in turn are now training more women. Mercy has identified 50 women through her field work in the past two years to be a woman leader like her. “We speak to a lot of people. Some women will have all the details about other vulnerable persons and direct us to help them. It shows that they care. I can tell they have the potential to be a leader amongst us,” says Mercy. Their work is to meet the basics but it is crucial to ordinary everyday living – like fixing civic issues, ensuring that social security schemes reach the benefactors, setting up camps for Aadhar registration.

Now with Omicron spreading fast, though there is no full lockdown except on Sundays, people have been asked to stay home. So Mercy and the group are re-assessing their situation where they bring help home. For instance, the DMK which formed the government in May has rolled out a scheme, “Makkalai thedi maruthuvam”, meaning health services at your doorstep, and these women are linking those with health issues with this scheme. “We informed the local health officers and they have even arranged for physiotherapy to be done inside people’s homes,” Mercy says.

Mercy has grown enough for her work to be recognised for the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board renamed by the DMK as Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. She now sits in community development meetings. “The aim is we women shouldn’t be dependent on anyone, not even the government. We should use government schemes but we have to get together to help ourselves.”

Bhaskar was elected to a resident welfare association (RWA), Peter says, because she was visible doing the work. “The idea is to create spaces where women can be participative.” Last month, the state issued a government order to launch ‘Nam Kudiyiruppu, Nam Poruppu’ (Our Tenements, Our Responsibility) scheme to maintain these tenements constructed by the department of Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. Peter says 50% of RWAs must be occupied by women in response to the order which also states that the maintenance and repair works will be carried out solely by resident welfare associations and some by the Board and some with 50:50 contribution of both. “But the state cannot completely abdicate its responsibility towards the poor. These aren’t middle class localities where RWAs can cover all maintenance. There is much left to be done within these communities before they take up such a huge responsibility.”

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