Home Improvement

A Chennai community struggles to leave behind the streets

Shiva Raj and 11 other members of his community obtained loans to buy autorickshaws. palani kumar / pep collective for the caravan
01 April, 2019

Shiva Raj was born on a footpath. He grew up on the streets. As a five-year-old, unable to afford a real football, he would kick around broken clay cups and paper balls. His earliest memories are of a sky bracketed by foliage, decrepit buildings and perforated plastic sheets, of huddling under cornices to prevent getting wet in the rains, of fighting for a little shade when the summer sun baked the tar on Chennai’s roads.

His father repaired umbrellas and plastic buckets for a living. In the Margazhi month—which stretches from the middle of December to mid January—his parents managed to earn a little more as fortune tellers for slum dwellers preparing for the festival of Pongal. But these odd jobs did little to make ends meet, and a permanent home and access to school were out of reach. Raj would join his brother and three sisters, as well as other street children, in roaming the footpaths all day, occasionally disrupting the already hectic traffic. “We moved from one place to another throughout the day, sometimes with our parents, sometimes by ourselves,” Shiva, who is now 31 years old, recalled when we met in September 2018.

“We never begged,” he said. “We lived in the streets. We had no home. People threw money at us.” The stigma of begging is a burden Shiva has struggled to shed over the years. Today, he drives an autorickshaw, seeking to earn a steady income. He is also a big brother of sorts for his extended family, which belongs to the Indra Devendrakulam community. Formerly known as the Pallar caste, the community has traditionally practised tenant agriculture, and forms the second-largest scheduled caste in the state. Many members of the community have migrated to Chennai over the years, though the absence of housing and employment opportunities forced them into an itinerant existence, begging or performing odd jobs for a living.

Shiva’s life was transformed when he was ten years old, in 1998. Uma Venkatachalam, a social activist, spotted him and convinced his parents to enrol him and a few others into a local government school. Around the same time, the Tamil Nadu government tried to rehabilitate Chennai’s homeless population by providing them tax-free plots of land at the outskirts of the city. Shiva’s father and uncles pooled their meagre savings and built for themselves, for the first time in their lives, real homes that had brightly painted concrete walls.