Social Insecurity

This post arises from the yearly onslaught of Operation Road Clearance which heavily impacts the poor who have encroached on Highways Department Property.

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Yesterday I walked around the back of the hill just after Highways Department had raged through Chengam Road and the hill-round-roadway. Instead of the old blokes in loincloths with crowbars of yesteryear, they now progressively use JCBs to bash down all the little tea stalls, humble shacks and huts and any other temporary dwellings along the way: this is a regular pre-Deepam exercise that gradually clears the shoulders of all seven highways radiating from town. For the duration of the festival all such stalls must toe the line behind the shoulders of the roads. Between now and next pre-DeepamFestival, all the little businesses and shacks will grow back onto the shoulders of the tarmac, encroaching on Highways Department property as usual with whatever roofing they can fossick. There really isn’t anywhere else for these people to flourish.

The happy sadhu with the one-armed wife was squatting beside all their belongs tossed under a metal signboard, their dwelling smashed to pieces, stuff scattered in shambles all around – humble, simple, tattered treasures. I should have photographed the couple there and then for the abject disempowerment stamped on their forms but I’m not a journo, my own psyche was caving in at the sight of them.

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Here is where their humble abode used to stand – as described in the post called Gross National Happiness : Happy National Grossness.

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I spoke for awhile with the elder of the two girls in the short story called Scapegoats. Highways also ripped their tea shop down, all their belongings were massed beneath the broken stall, samovar, stove, school-bags, bedding and everything.
It was afternoon; Where will you sleep tonight then, I asked her. We have to sleep here on the footpath, she said.

Shades of beggary!! Looks very much like rain too.

Highways Department says they can’t have their TeaShop there anymore. All the way around to the Hanuman temple was the same sort of story. Highways says this every year.

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Now two days have passed since this onslaught so I can give a less gloomy update. As I have mentioned before, these are an extremely resilient people.

The mother of the family who lives here is doing what she can.  Children are at school, husband gone to town.
The mother of the family who lives here is doing what she can. Children are at school, husband gone to town.

Many of the little stalls are back in business already, without shade cover since their roofing was destroyed. They’re not exactly cheerful, but coping:

Vinoth catches up on study while he stands in for his mother; they are fortunate to have two shade trees over their squat to see them through until after the festival when it is permitted them to re-erect their plastic politician canopy once again for the year ahead.
Vinoth catches up on study while he stands in for his mother; they are fortunate to have two shade trees over their squat to see them through until after the festival when it is permitted them to re-erect their plastic politician canopy once again for the year ahead.

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This ingenious woman has put up another shade-cover already.

In the face of the looming invasion of a couple of million pilgrims within a little over a week, the brutal expediency of the government’s solution to the problem of encroachment on the highways is simply necessary in this anarchistic and impoverished society.

This necessity is one side of this coin; the other side is the fact that this has been happening every year almost forever, everybody knows it will continue to happen more or less forever; moreover before it does start happening every single year, every single stall owner knows very well that it will happen.

And even more astonishing is that there are always those stall or tea-shop owners who prepare themselves every year by removing the roofing and bamboo used to encroach prior to the Highways Department arriving on their doorstep. They stash it somewhere – usually quite visible to Highways, no need for subterfuge here.

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Every year when Highways Advancement looms, the family who own this excellent TiffinShop remove all the corrugated iron sheets from their business area and any other offensive material, plastic chairs, benches, tables; when the JCBs have gone they re-install one or two sheets over the cooking area and re-arrange benches and tables accordingly:

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No Big Deal here. But you can see by their house above that these people must have good strategies for living. They work hard and are willing to put energy into something a little uncertain.

A week after the Clearance this family have a beautiful new roof that was worth all the trouble, look:

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Fortunately they have a shade tree overhead; the new weather-proof roof really brightens things up:

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Nevertheless, despite these potential role-models, most stall or TeaShop owners seem to continue manning their stall/shop from under their illegal shade cover, with plastic chairs for customers rubbing shoulders with the tarmac, right up until the JCB positions itself to wreck their property. It’s tempting to consider this as exemplifying the incapacity of the FolkCulture to entertain past-tense counterfactual conditionals. Or perhaps the Marxian concept of mutual interdependence between oppressor and oppressed; after Highways have left, until the next morning everyone afflicted does appear suitably chagrined, although being one of the afflicted rather one of the smart ones for whom it’s no big deal is their own choice.

Today she has abandoned her customary begging lamp-post further down the road in favour of this now far more lucrative site and her begging technique has added gravity and pathos.
Today she has abandoned her customary begging lamp-post further down the road in favour of this now far more lucrative site and her begging technique has added gravity and pathos.

It is this culture’s method of coping with the parameters we face here, these strategies have evolved over centuries; perhaps this repetitive crisis contains the ultimate in versatile scope for all concerned. Much more fun too.

One sadhu remarked that this yearly drama is Siva’s regular reminder of Life’s outstanding quality: Impermanence.

Around two million people will traipse around the mountain soon, there will be a garland of stalls selling everything from plastic grapes and underpants to fruit trees and motorbikes; loud-speakers will blare mantras, devotional and cine music day and night, loud-speakers will blast raucous prices on merchandise and give lectures on how to escape the cycle of birth and death, security cameras will keep an eye on it all; there will be FREE FOOD on the go, junk to munch, coffee, tea, pop and organic. And they’ll leave a grand garland of shit and crap behind them.

Pilgrims are already coming although there are some days until the festival begins:

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Although a special walk path was recently provided for circumambulating purposes, people mostly stick to the Tarmac.

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During the last few days you will hardly be able to cross the road and after the flame is lit on the top of the mountain you certainly will not be able to cross the road and you won’t need to use your feet to walk either – all night.

We need those clear shoulders, you see.

Now for an unpleasant Update:

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Our Model citizen-family with sufficient intelligence to co-operate with the authorities has been hit by Highways below the belt: the two hundred year old Constant-Companion shade tree next to their livelihood business has been cut – not cut: hacked down. They are not alone:

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Ten thousand years of Mother Nature’s effort was destroyed here within a few hours. This is civic and cosmic insanity: trees are our lifeline now.

When I arrived here in the early seventies there was already talk of a RingRoad being constructed to take the pressure off this road in particular and the town in general; it is still nowhere near completed. Hundreds of thousands of years of Mother Nature’s effort are destroyed every year here because the RingRoad is not yet finished due to corruption. Corruption is the stupidest thing on Earth. Mark my words.

Furthermore as the Big Bang-Up Festival approaches and chaos increases dramatically from day to day, the frame around my foreigner’s view on the local social insecurity is modified in a way that enhances my general orientation towards this social system enormously. Look, the lovely rain-proof political-postered roof of our Most Together Tiffin Shop nearby has been replaced this morning with nothing less than new corrugated iron. Highways Department are nowhere to be seen anymore and anyway this is part of the whole shebang:

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Vinoth’s in the process of erecting a huge Shade-Cover for the stall, far more prestigious than the one they had prior to Highways knocking it all down:

Hope he finds a sweet political poster with a tree on it rather than using  the status symbol of corrugated iron.  You see: foreigner's perspective again!
Hope he finds a sweet political poster with a tree on it rather than using the status symbol of corrugated iron. You see: foreigner’s perspective again!

4 thoughts on “Social Insecurity

  1. The resilience of these people is remarkable. I know these places very well, love the area and have friends there. I just wish that things would be easier for them. Thanks for the write up and photos.

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  2. It struck me seeing those butchered trees. People can at least rebuild – with incredible resilience – in a matter of days. But the trees … Nothing makes sense. Yes. Then there’s that fire on top of the mountain. Those impermanent flames! Thank you for another succinctly photographed and said blog. Thank you!!

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    1. I’m having difficulty on the Botanical side here Helen, a vast deep primeval opposition in the face of ignorant evil in which one is utterly powerless. The ignorant are uneducated, they truly do not know what they are doing. And the locals who suffer most the injustice, they are uneducated and don’t understand any better.

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