Playground or public convenience? Doomingkuppam’s Sanitation Problems

Residents of neighboring houses use the Santhome Beach Playground as makeshift toilets. Photo: Aruna Natarajan

“We don’t want to do this, but it’s not like we have a choice,” Kannika* said of having to use the playground near her home to relieve herself due to the lack of adequate sanitation facilities around Doomingkuppam.

This is the reality for many who reside in the area despite having lived in the city for decades. The many rows of huts that dot the area in front of the scenic beach lack proper toilets, forcing residents to defecate in the open.

Residents of Doomingkuppam waiting for toilets

Doomingkuppam is home to many members of the fishing community, whose lives are closely linked to the sea. Their main source of income is the sale of the daily catch at sea. For which families have set up small stalls along Loop Road.

Many here remember the tsunami with sorrow, speaking of how they lost loved ones and what little they had in the tragedy. Rehabilitation efforts have involved the construction of nearby pucca houses to house the majority of families in Doomingkuppam and the Nochi Nagar area. However, not all residents live in these buildings. Many continue to live in thatched-roof huts, tin-roofed houses and makeshift shacks across from the beach.

It is these residents whose demands for better sanitation facilities have gone unheeded.

“We have tried to draw the authorities’ attention to this, but we also fear deportation. We don’t want to be displaced from here, so we try to live with all the facilities available,” says Karpagam S, a resident.

“In the past, our local politicians promised us sanitation facilities, but nothing materialized. Until recently, we didn’t have an advisor to whom to make these requests. Kamal’s party (Makkal Needhi Maiam) promised us toilets if elected in the last assembly elections but their candidate did not win,” said Valiammal*, a native of Doomingkuppam.

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Open defecation is the only option for many

So what do the locals do? In the mornings at the Santhome beach playground, groups of women and young children make their way to the more secluded areas of the ground and relieve themselves behind the shrubs. They carry small pots of water for washing and use the sand from the ground to cover the waste.

playground filled with garbage
The playground was once used by local children but is now filled with rubbish and used as open defecation. Photo: Aruna Natarajan

“I got used to it. We are a big family and the toilets at home are broken so I come here every morning. Public restrooms are not nearby or are not well maintained. We come here accordingly. I hope things can change soon and we can get the toilets working again so that I don’t have to come here,” said resident Santhiya V.

Most of those who use the land complain of a lack of usable public toilets which would prevent such a situation. “The number of people in the area requires an increase in the number of toilets, especially those that can be used by women and girls. There are more facilities closer to the beach for visitors than for those who have resided here for so long,” said Menaga K.

Even those most reluctant to discuss their reasons for using the pitch spoke out in favor of better facilities. One resident, Latha*, said: “I hope the next generation will at least not have to endure what we have to go through just for using a toilet.

The playground as contested space

“We would like to find the field to play. We’re currently using the beach but it’s not the same,” Santhosh said. “The beach has broken liquor bottles thrown or sometimes buried in the sand. Many of us have injured ourselves while playing there. Also, the surface is not flat and there is no fillets.

broken bottle son the beach
With the playground serving as a restroom, the beach is a play space. But broken bottles in the sand pose dangers. Photo: Sumesh/A Whole

The fallout from the residents’ use of the playground as a makeshift toilet put an end to all sporting activities that had previously taken place there. One All, a sport for development organization working in the region is developing.

“We conducted our life skills training program through frisbee sessions for children by the beach. Then we were informed that the land was available for use, but when we tried to use the land for the sessions there, the ground serving as toilets for the local community became an issue. Despite daily cleaning of the area, there were hygiene issues and the children no longer wanted to use the floor. So we had to postpone the sessions on the beach,” said Ganesh Moorthi, host of One All.

The playing field is private land owned by a family who reside in the Leith Castle area. Residents of the area say there has been no maintenance lately and as the land is private property they have not been able to improve the situation. There is rubbish and dirt overgrown shrubs and bushes that once served to see a bustling crowd of young local children thronging around in their free time.

The floor has now become a symbol of the sanitation problems plaguing residents, with disgruntled children and adults demanding more toilets.

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How to fix Doomingkuppam sanitation issues?

To achieve Open Defecation Free (ODF) certification under the Swachch Bharat Mission, a city must not have a single person defecating in the open at any time of the day. Chennai is far from accomplishing this mission as evidenced by the daily struggles of Doomingkuppam residents to access safe sanitation facilities.

The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) owns or maintains 853 public toilets in all locations in the city. But the upkeep of many facilities leaves much to be desired. The civic body recently launched a call for expressions of interest to outsource the maintenance of toilets in the various neighborhoods. There are also plans to construct additional toilets under the Singara Chennai 2.0 scheme with an expenditure of Rs 221 crore.

“We were told that those living in makeshift houses will also receive a pucca house in the buildings under construction in the area. Once we settle there, we will have our own toilets. Therefore, we have not made any requests at this time,” S Mary said.

Raising this issue, an official from the Greater Chennai Corporation retreated: “Residents will move to pucca houses. We will also build more toilets across the city and ensure this area is covered.

When the families who were told of the move would actually move into the buildings is a question they don’t have an answer to.

With no other developments in sight, residents continue their daily walk to the playground every morning, although they hope to have toilets in their own homes in the future.

[*Names changed on request]

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