Resettling slum dwellers across the city of Chennai, India, citing development reasons does not end their woes, residents quote. Decade-old complaints remain to be addressed.
Tamil Nadu (India):
Houses bulldozed, sharp debris clumsily pushed to a corner by a faceless city corporation, a pungent smell emanating from the highly polluted Cooum (Koovam) river on one side and hundreds of blood-sucking mosquitoes to bother them every minute. This was the scenario for the residents of the Sathya Vani Muthu Nagar (SM Nagar) slum in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, India.
They are now staying in hutments laid on the dangerous rubble of their demolished homes, clinging on to the few valuables they saved moments before their homes turned to stones. Sometimes, the limited food they cook or receive from authorities and NGOs, is stolen by their own neighbors, leaving them hungry, according to local residents. The residents worry over their dwindling unity.
Revisiting the Past
The SM Nagar slum, located in the central part of Chennai city, has over 2100 residents. Reports state that over the last two years, many of them have been relocated to other areas in the city. So far, over 1000 families in the SM Nagar slum alone have been relocated since 2019. The eviction, which was temporarily halted due to the pandemic, resumed once the lockdown in the State was lifted. About 500 houses have been destroyed in the SM Nagar slum in the last month alone. Residents state that officials forced them out of their own homes and razed them right before their eyes. The plan is to evict them to eight-storeyed residential structures in Perumbakkam, which is about 20 km outside the central city.
Residents here state that most of their men are construction workers and daily wage earners. Some of them are employed in the Central Railway Station near the slum. The Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital is also nearby, making the slum a central part of the city. To make ends meet, women from the slum, engage in domestic work in nearby places. Thus, the geographical area these citizens are located in is essential for survival. Many fear they will lose their livelihood if they are moved far away.
Until a few weeks ago, officials were providing the SM Nagar residents tokens (a paper with the allotted house number) and forcing them to relocate despite their refusal. A high school student from the slum recalls some incidents with disgust and pain;
“Police hurled abuses at us. The city corporation did not give us enough food. There were neither blankets nor bed sheets to protect us from the cold at night, when we slept on the rubble for a week. We were being threatened to move as well,” he said.
“We do not want to live next to this stinky river either. We shall destroy our own homes and move out on in the next few hours provided you give us an alternate accommodation nearby,” residents state.
Hope for them, came from a political source who indicated that the Tamil Nadu government is thinking of providing them with an alternate accommodation in Tiruvottiyur. Located inside the city, the residents may begin moving there in a few months time. However, despite the claim being uncertain, the residents have clung to it for over a month.
A Common Occurrence
Livelihood and eviction woes are not endemic to the SM Nagar alone. Over the last twenty years, numerous slum dwellers in Chennai city have been evicted to areas where they are allotted cramped housing. This housing ranges from 100-400 square feet and is located in tall multi-storey buildings. Sometimes, they are even allotted land to build new homes on. However, this is not always the solution for the displaced. Many residents complain that even decades after their resettlement, their concerns remain unresolved.
What is now happening to the SM Nagar residents, had happened to those who lived in a barren land near Perumbakkam a decade ago. Annadurai (name changed), a member of the Residential Welfare Association of Perumbakkam narrates a depressing experience from his life. He recalls himself begging for support, standing on the fallen debris of his demolished house along with hundreds of others in the year 2010. According to him, the then ruling party in the State, the Dravida Munnetera Kazhagam (DMK), had demolished their homes as a part of a slum clearance project. Despite their locality being far away from a water body and having hardly any traits of a slum, the DMK thought it was necessary, he claims.
“I can never erase those memories from my mind even if I wanted to. Some died of snake bites while sleeping on the rubble. There were even pregnant women among us. My daughter lost her books and scored less in her exams”, Annadurai said.
“When men went for work, the women in the area were asked to get into a few buses under the pretext of going to chief minister’s house, by people who claimed to be government officials, for a negotiation. “However they locked us up in a wedding hall for almost an entire day, demolished our homes and then dropped us back”, Annadurai’s incensed wife claimed.
According to the couple, many residents protested, moved the court, and sought support from political parties but succumbed to political pressure in the end. They relocated to another area and rented a temporary residence until they were allotted a house in an eight-storey building in Perumbakkam, five years later. The same type of building in Perumbakkam the SM Nagar residents are expected to call their new home.
Woes of the Resettled
Even though Annadurai was allotted a house in Perumbakkam after the tragic events in his life, he states that the government’s reckless action and five long years of wait for a new home had cost many their livelihood.
“I have been driving taxi all my life and managed to get back on track after some days of struggle. But many daily-wage earners suffered as they couldn’t travel 20-30 km for work daily”, he said.
Loss of livelihood can be seen among many in Kannagi and Ezhil Nagar, another resettlement colony in the city. Venkatesan, who shifted to Kannagi Nagar eleven years ago from the Saidapet slums of the city, states that it is economically unfeasible to spend about Rs 100 on traveling to work daily, for people who hardly earn Rs 500 a day.
Venkatesan’s friend, who now works as a security guard, said that some resettled dwellers in Kannagi and Ezhil Nagar, have now given up their old jobs and taken up other menial jobs nearby. Some still remain unemployed and depend on their wife’s income.
Another concern of the SM Nagar residents pertains to the increasing rate of crimes in the Perumbakkam area. Perumbakkam has over 17000 families from various slums in the city, living in tall eight-storey structures. Sources state that illegal dealing of drugs and alcohol are common in the area. They point to Kanniammal, an intersex woman, and the mastermind behind a huge illegal network of drug trading. According to them, she supplies drugs to school-going children as well.
Amya, an auto-driver, who hails from Chennai, shared his view on the root cause of increasing crimes in such areas.
He stated, “Since gangsters from numerous slums are relocated here, there is a rivalry between them. Gang wars and deaths by hacking are hence inevitable”.
Not just Perumbakkam, but even Kannagi and Ezhil Nagar, which have over 21,500 two and four-storyed houses, continues to manifest a bad reputation. Crimes are common in colonies that house those evicted slum dwellers or those rehabilitated due to disasters states senior resident Arokyadas. Though the area Councillor and police continually expound upon a decline in crime rate, residents are still scared to venture out in the dark on their own.
Gomathi, a roadside vegetable and fruits vendor, who came to Kannagi Nagar after the 2015 Chennai flood, feels that she was never afraid to travel out in the dark at midnight when she lived in the Saidapet slums. Sadly, she feels that she could never step out after dark in Kannagi Nagar. Her friend Rajeshwari seconded her concern.
“I am even afraid to go to the hospital, alone at dark, which is hardly a kilometre from here”, she states.
Not in the Scheme?
Besides livelihood, such resettlement housing boards have many other existing concerns. Some of them over a decade old! Some residents state that they are relocated but left to arrange for their own basic needs.
For instance, residents of the two-storey Tsunami quarters of Kannagi Nagar have been fetching water from a pump for their day-to-day activities ever since the quarters was built in 2005 and people were relocated after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Since then, none of the homes in this lane have a tap water facility and to this date, rely on pump water.
“There is one pump for every block. About 10-18 families rely on this pump for the day”, Babu a resident states.
There is no specific movement to obtain a tap water system either. Munnusamy (name changed), a resident, states that many residents are quite content with pumps and do not gather to file a petition. He states that despite standing in queues for water and fighting over it, the residents have got used to it.
Babu also denies facing any difficulties in using a pump while many blocks, which were built later, have a tap water connection. Munnusamy states that water comes only every other day, causing huge difficulties for aged people. Those who required tap water had to install it at their own expense.
Parthibhan, an official from the CMWSSB (Chennai Metrowater Supply and Sewage Board), in response to the lack of tap water supply in some blocks, states that none of the residents ever filed a petition seeking one in the first place and that he is helpless without a petition.
“According to the plan allotted for them in 2005, there is only a pump water provision for each blocks in this lane. If the residents file a petition, the government shall take action at the earliest”, he said.
Tragically, residents are reluctant to stand together and file a petition. Apparently, Munnusamy feels that the people there never mingled well, leading to a lack of collaboration.
Similar to pump woes, those in certain blocks of Perumbakkam, face poor internet connectivity. Annadurai states that despite requesting a metered or a strengthened connection, the telecom officials responded negatively.
“The lack of internet has affected my daughter’s education, which has largely shifted to online platforms due to the pandemic”, his wife said.
Exorbitant electricity bills during the lockdown were another burden for the residents at Kannagi Nagar and Perumbakkam settlements. However, Karuna, the councilor of Kannagi Nagar, claims that the high prices were a result of unpaid dues from the previous year. These dues are added to the current bill.
“The first 100 units are free for us. Most people here just use tube lights and ceiling fans, which do not consume much. Thus, high bills are merely aggregated unpaid dues, which the residents are reluctant to accept”, he said.
Congestion, Drainage, Garbage, and What-Not
Livelihood, crimes, and water woes asunder; hygiene tends to be another problem in such resettled sites. According to Annadurai, the Perumbakkam resettlement area now houses over 17000 families in tall eight-storey structures. The allotted homes are hardly 400 sq ft in area, irrespective of the family strength, making it really congested for even a family of three to live in.
“A high population density causes overcrowding and reduces the hygiene around the locality”, he said.
Also, the drainage pipes in some old blocks have weakened over the years or are broken, causing the drainage to mix with the silt and remain stagnant on the roads. Annadurai blames corporation officials for the delay in repair works and providing basic facilities. The area of Perumbakkam is also known for its rainwater stagnation, even during mediocre showers. The delay in repair works, according to Annadurai, is adding to their woes, making living very difficult.
Hygiene deficiency is endemic to Kannagi and Ezhil Nagar as well. Munnusamy also points to broken drainage pipes and states that the smell of stagnant drainage water on pavements has been responsible for so many diseases in the locality. Also, mosquitoes breeding on it is akin to rubbing salt on the wounds of the residents, he quotes.
“Both Metrowater and corporation officials clean it clumsily. To exacerbate the situation, educated residents themselves litter the pavements with garbage.” he said.
Same Problem, Different Area
Mylai Balaji Nagar (MB Nagar) is another area in the city, where there was an influx of slum dwellers between the years 2000-2010. The aforementioned hygiene woes are common here as well. The area itself lies opposite a barren land, where garbage is dumped. Anna, a resident from the colony, states that some residents themselves are unhygienic and litter garbage on streets, polluting the surroundings.
Residents of MB Nagar also express concern over the poor quality of roads. Pavithra, an intersex corporation worker, digs out a piece of the road with her bare hands and furiously exclaims,
“This is the thickness of the road they built for us. How can heavy vehicles and water lorry, carrying heavy loads move on this? They are not building a new one too.”
To add to the hygiene woes, there are only four public toilets available in the area, which at most times are not tended to claims a resident. Many streets in the area require mending, both in terms of hygiene and road infrastructure. Houses are very low-lying and poorly constructed and welcome water even during minor rains.
According to Devakumar, some streets are completely ignored by the corporation workers and sweepers. He points to his street, which is filled with small yet unhygienic drainage holes. The holes usually contain bathroom water from households. Kids sometimes run around, slip into these holes and injure themselves, he said.
One major concern of people in the MB Nagar is the lack of patta (A legal document for land ownership) despite two decades having passed since resettlement. According to Pavithra, the government has yet to provide official recognition that the land belongs to them. This induces fear amongst the people. They are terrified they might be evicted in the future if the government starts another project.
Development is the key?
According to a government order, issued in 2014, a CRRT approved Cooum River Eco Restoration Project worth Rs 3800 crores. This is the main reason behind the recent evictions of slum dwellers inside the city. The SM Nagar eviction and most of those resettled to the aforementioned colonies were once living in slums near water bodies.
An official from the CRRT states that the government is not bound by any specific rules to clear settlements among bodies of water. According to him, the river boundary is not constant and the clearance distance couldn’t be accurately determined from the body. However, only those within the predicted boundary (scope of river width) will be evicted.
Regarding resettlement, the official stated that even if people wanted to stay in a stinky slum near water bodies, it is illegal. Hailing the developmental works by the government as the way forward, he stated,
“Government relocation is much better now. Livelihood is not just about working in an area that you used to work in. It also involves the quality of life you live, which only development can provide”, he said.
Nevertheless, the residents of SM Nagar await a government order that would shift them to the nearby Thiruvottiyur, where their livelihood will not be affected. They are ready to shift to any area but Perumbakkam. Loss of livelihood is only one of their concerns but nevertheless, an ongoing concern for many in various resettled areas.