On Sunday afternoon, the Irula tribal settlement on the periphery of Sankarapuram village wore a festive look. Located about 50 kilometers from Chennai near Chengalpattu, 20 tribal families have been living in this small pocket of land for three generations.

After the floods of December 2015 ravaged their thatched houses, these families, who collect firewood for sustenance, pieced together their lives bit by bit. A few months ago, a non-governmental organisation came forward to help them build more solid homes. The NGO put in half of the Rs 60,000 they needed to construct a single room concrete structure.

On the weekend, eight houses were inaugurated with some rituals. A bamboo arch at the entrance of the settlement was decorated with flowers. There was music on the loudspeakers and a good meal.

Seventy-year-old Kanaga went to sleep with contentment. “To sleep in a proper house was a big dream,” she said.

Monday, though, turned out to be devastating.

The gusts from the very severe cyclonic storm Vardah, which crossed the shore north of Chennai that day, blew the metal roofs away in a matter of minutes. Plasters on the walls still wet with cement came crashing down. Like last December, the water from the nearby pond rose quickly and entered the settlement.

Not willing to risk their lives, the families quickly moved into a nearby school building for shelter. As the ferocious wind howled, they could do nothing else but watch their new homes getting pummeled.

Savings lost

On the highway connecting Chennai to Chengalpattu, the trail of destruction left behind by cyclone Vardah, which clocked wind speeds of over 120 kilometers per hour, was very visible. Thousands of trees were uprooted. Some fell on animal shelters in the villages. Goats and chickens, which serve a crucial economic function in the rural world, were the main victims. In many places, traffic was diverted as the local administration struggled to clear the roads.

For these Irulas, who in the eyes of caste Hindus occupy the same social position as Dalits but are politically and economically even worse, Rs 60,000 is no small deal. Though the houses were partially funded, the families had to pledge and sell their belongings to raise the rest of the money. The men said they get Rs 200 a day if they could find work. The women get half of that for the same job. Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was erratic and the surrounding fields have not seen cultivation, mostly sugarcane, for three consecutive seasons.

Children of Sankarapuram Irula settlement drying school textbooks that were damaged by the storm
Children of Sankarapuram Irula settlement drying school textbooks that were damaged by the storm

Despite living on the same land for generations, the government has refused to allot them legal deeds. Every election, candidates promise to ensure the land was allotted to the residents but never reappear after they’re elected.

In the village, there were strict boundaries. The caste Hindus do not like them moving outside their settlement unless if it is for specific tasks commissioned by the villagers.

When the Irulas tried desperately to escape the storm, not one in the village came forward to offer them shelter in their homes. But on Tuesday morning, men from the village were quick to come to the Irula settlement to ask for help to remove uprooted trees.

“They did not even ask us if we were hungry,” said one of the Irula men. Their first meal since Monday afternoon came from activists who visited the settlement on Tuesday.

Irulas of Sankarapuram
Irulas of Sankarapuram

Kamalam, an elderly woman of the community who said she did not know her proper age, pointed to her nose as she narrated the terrible scenes of Monday afternoon.

“I sold my nose stud and other belongings to fund this house,” she said. Her roof was the first to be blown away in the gust. The metal sheet landed 50 metres away.

Not everyone in the settlement were compensated by the government after the floods last year. Those who did get the relief said it was a meagre Rs 4,000 that was spent in weeks, buying essentials.

When they approached the panchayat chairman Perumal for help on Tuesday, he told them that his term had ended two months ago. Having spent a lot for the Assembly election campaign, the man claimed he did not have enough money to even arrange to get them food. “He said he would talk to the officials but nothing has happened,” the tribals claimed. No government officer had contacted them till Tuesday evening.