Several families are refusing to move away from the banks of the Cooum at Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar, where eviction is under way as part of river restoration project. Despite a willingness to relocate, the residents fear that they may miss out on the allocation of houses
Autorickshaw driver A. Loganathan and wife L. Sahaya Mary have been camping near their partially demolished shack along the banks of the Cooum at Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar in Arumbakkam for the past two weeks.
They are among the 243 families (according to government enumeration) being evicted from the locality as part of the Cooum restoration project.
“We come here early in the morning and stay till late in the evening every day. Later, we go to my sister’s place nearby to sleep. We have let go of our daily wages for the past two weeks,” says Ms. Mary.
Despite losing their income and often surviving on one meal a day, several families like the couple are refusing to move away from the location, fearing that there may be a visit from officials any time and they may miss out on the allocation of houses for resettlement.
While 93 families have been allocated houses in the tenements of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) at K.P. Park in Pulianthope, 9 km away, uncertainty and anxiety loom large among the remaining families.
Question of allocation
Unlike evictions carried out earlier in localities like Thideer Nagar and Sathiyavani Muthu Nagar where the residents resisted the drive to relocate to far-away places outside the city, the issue at Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar is not the refusal to relocate, but the allocation of tenements at K.P. Park to all the families living there.
M. Shameen, who goes by the moniker Bhaiamma, says that though she was born and lived all her life in the locality, the authorities did not seem to be convinced by the documentary proof of residence she carries. Several tenants who lived here paying meagre rents for several years have not found their names in the list of houses allocated.
Despite these issues, the eviction drive at Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar is likely to turn out to be a relatively peaceful process, given the history of riverside relocation in the city, the distinguishing factor this time being, primarily, the people’s willingness to relocate to better houses within the city.
However, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which made a clean sweep in all 16 Assembly constituencies in Chennai by huge margins in the recent election, has to walk a tightrope between satisfactorily resettling the people and clearing the encroachments to restore the waterbodies while pursuing its initiative of ‘Singara Chennai 2.0’.
With the recent eviction at Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar, the Tamil Nadu government claims to have evicted roughly 12,000 of the 14,257 families along the Cooum so far. While majority evictions along the Cooum have been completed, the government is yet to significantly begin removal of encroachments along the Adyar.
Apart from this, restoration of the Buckingham Canal is on the anvil. This may prove to be the most challenging as it will need the resettlement of at least 21,000 families. The Pallikaranai marshland restoration project is also gaining momentum. The TNSCB will have to ready at least 25,000 housing units for resettling people as part of these projects, officials said.
To tackle these challenges, activists and academics stress the need for fundamental changes at the policy level and a paradigm shift in how the issue is perceived.
Sinthanai Selvan, MLA and general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, says there is a need to stop seeing the people as “encroachers”. Arguing that these people are the early inhabitants of the city, he says they were denied rights, deprived of land and forced to move to such locations as the city grew. “These people have lived here for generations and their lives and livelihood are deeply intertwined with the city. They cannot be moved to far-away places such as Perumbakkam by abruptly severing these ties,” he says.
Vanessa Peter, founder, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), says the way a slum is defined in many official documents itself is problematic. For instance, she points to a line in the Second Master Plan of Chennai (Volume 3, Chapter 6) that says, “The Government of Tamil Nadu holds the view that slums are not acts of God, but of human folly and that they can be banished by wise planning and resolute action.”
She says it appears as if the government’s priority was to “banish” the slums and it did not matter if the people were shifted to ghettos in far-away places with scant regard for their well-being. She says the possibilities of in-situ development or resettling them near their present informal settlements are seldom explored as primary options. “Vacant land mapping or social impact assessments are not done,” she adds.
Many policies, including the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, the Tamil Nadu Affordable Urban Housing and Habitat Policy, the Social Sustainability and Grievance Management Framework and the Second Master Plan of Chennai, govern the resettlement and rehabilitation in the State. Of these, the Tamil Nadu Affordable Urban Housing and Habitat Policy, formulated last year, now plays an important role.
Karen Coelho, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, says that while the policy is correct in some general principles, it does not show any real grasp of the housing and habitat situation on the ground. For instance, the policy says, “to the extent possible, resettle untenable slums through the provision of housing, basic infrastructure, tenure security, where resettlement is done in proximity to the original slum to maintain social and economic networks.” However, it lacks in the articulation of specific measures the government is planning to ensure affordable housing. “Most importantly, how is the government going to tackle the high price of land. How is it going to take land out of speculative markets, how is it going to bring material costs and transaction costs down?” she says.
While the government order accompanying the release of the policy stated that periodic consultations were conducted with stakeholders, including civil society, academic institutions, finance companies and private developers, Ms. Coelho says the consultative process was grossly inadequate. A small group of people with hardly anyone from civil society was called for a discussion that was wrapped up in half-a-day and there were no follow-ups or even sharing of the draft of the policy.
Tail wagging the dog
Ms. Coelho says the mass resettlement in ghettos such as Perumbakkam, Gudapakkam, and Kannagi Nagar is a case of tail wagging the dog. She argues the resettlement areas like Perumbakkam get built first with an enormous number of housing units (over 20,000) and then invariably the government sends people to fill them up.
Officials acknowledge that even to the people now being shifted from Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar, the option given in 2018 was to shift to Perumbakkam. Only after resistance from the people and a section of commercial establishments was the option of shifting to K.P. Park provided.
A 2014 report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India said the dwelling units constructed at Perumbakkam significantly exceeded the maximum units allowed per hectare under the National Building Code of India. Ms. Peter of IRCDUC points out that despite this concern, more units are being planned there under the Light House Projects, an initiative of the Government of India.
Stressing the need for a comprehensive resettlement policy for the State, Ms. Coelho argues that there is an apartheid mentality in the way resettlements are done. “We are disconnecting a single class or single caste of people from the mainstream of society, and hiding them away in some ghettos out there.”
A baseline study done in 2018 by Ms. Coelho, Ms. Peter and A.D. Nundiyny of Uravugal Social Welfare Trust on the impact of the resettlements at Gudapakkam and Perumbakkam documented the innumerous hardships faced by those residing in these settlements in accessing education, healthcare and transport.
The study, sponsored by the TNSCB and the Indian Council of Social Science Research, is the only such report available on the resettlements that happened in Chennai.
Ms. Peter adds that rather than a piecemeal approach that just focussed on the eviction of people, a holistic approach was needed to address their problems from different aspects, including employment, education and healthcare.
G. Selva, Central Chennai district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says that even the process of shifting the people to far-away places has been done in an inhumane manner in recent years.
The Chennai floods of 2015 accelerated the eviction process. In the last five years alone, more than 18,000 families have been resettled. For instance, people in the slums of Pallavan Nagar resisted the move to relocate till 2016, despite officials reaching the spot at least on one occasion for demolition. However, they were shifted after 2016.
Mr. Selva cites the example of Sathyavani Muthu Nagar that was cleared last year despite strong protests by the people there. “The acts of disconnecting electricity a couple of days before evictions and lack of proper communication to the people are inhuman,” he says. He adds that shifting of people during the middle of the academic year or in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is unacceptable.
Ms. Peter highlights the need for better coordination among different departments involved in the process. There are at least four organisations involved in the process, especially in informal settlements along the Cooum, the Adyar and the Buckingham Canal — the Chennai River Restoration Trust, the Greater Chennai Corporation, the TNSCB and the Public Works Department. She adds that the finger-pointing that often happened between these agencies led to the suffering of the people.
Acknowledging that there may be constraints in providing in-situ resettlement or resettlement nearby, Mr. Sinthanai Selvan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi says the present government, however, appears to be showing a keen interest in exploring those options. Mr. Selva says relocating all the families from Dr. Radhakrishnan Nagar to K.P. Park is a welcome sign.
Egmore MLA I. Paranthamen on Thursday met Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi to discuss the possibility of constructing new houses near Kannappar Thidal. Pointing out that the majority of the people in informal settlements belonged to the Scheduled Castes in the constituency, he says the situation is similar in other constituencies.
“The homeless residents who have elected us should get a home. We have started a survey of land near Kannappar Thidal to construct houses for the poor,” he says. He has asked officials to explore the possibility of earmarking a portion of the land in the area, which has already been identified for other infrastructure projects like a sports complex.
Mr. Bedi says the Greater Chennai Corporation has taken initiatives to offer the residents better houses in areas like K.P. Park within the city limits, 9 km away from Aminjikarai, where residents have protested.
M. Govinda Rao, Managing Director, TNSCB, says more projects coming up at places like Athipattu will help in the resettlement of people within the Greater Chennai Corporation limits. “Our intention is to accommodate people near their present settlements to the maximum extent possible,” he adds.
Mr. Rao points out that at many places where dilapidated apartment blocks are redeveloped, the number of floors has been increased from three to eight or nine. “This will allow us to accommodate more people in the newly constructed building,” he says.