On the margins

Published : May 22, 2009 00:00 IST

in Chennai

IT is a notorious fact of contemporary life in metropolitan cities that no person in his senses would opt to live on a pavement or a slum if any other choices were given to him. Anyone who cares to have even a fleeting glance at the pavement or slum-dwellings will see that they are the very hell on earth. The eviction of the pavement or the slum-dweller not only means his removal from the house but the destruction of the house itself. And the destruction of a dwelling house is the end of all that one holds dear in life. Thus observed Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, while responding to the arguments in the famous Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation case in the Supreme Court in 1985. The petitioners, who were pavement dwellers in Bombay (now Mumbai) city, argued that they had chosen a pavement or slum to live in only because of its proximity to their place of work and that eviction would result in depriving them of their livelihood.

Two decades after the Supreme Court upheld the right to shelter and livelihood as part of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, government agencies in Tamil Nadu bulldozed dwellings made up of tarpaulin, bamboo sticks, iron sheets and thatches in different parts of Chennai and sent their residents to far off locations on the pretext of undertaking beautification works in the city and implementing various development schemes, including mega projects such as elevated corridors, mass rapid transit system and metro rail.

Though the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for May 13 in Tamil Nadu have provided a reprieve to the slum-dwellers who face eviction, those living in the slums in objectionable areas in the city are in perpetual fear as the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) authorities are determined to restart eviction so as to ensure that Chennai becomes slum-free by 2013.

Ironically, the eviction drive has been given a fresh impetus now though the British rulers had decided exactly 100 years ago that against the backdrop of increasing squatter settlements in the cities of Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata then Madras, Bombay and Calcutta respectively a beginning should be made regarding town planning legislation and the form it should take.

The issue of tackling the citys slum problem has a chequered history. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who has always claimed to follow in letter and spirit his predecessor and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) founder C.N. Annadurais motto We shall see God in the smile of the poor, set up the TNSCB during his first tenure in 1970. The board was formed to clear all the slums in Chennai within a targeted period, prevent further growth of slums in the city, give protection to slum-dwellers from eviction, re-house them in modern tenements and provide basic amenities such as drinking water supply, electricity and storm water drains to certain slum areas until they were finally cleared.

Laying the foundation stone for the TNSCBs first project in Nochikuppam to construct 1,000 tenements at a cost of Rs.67 lakh, Karunanidhi declared on December 23, 1970, that his government had decided to replace all slums in the city with modern buildings under a seven-year programme at Rs.40 crore. But the failure of successive governments to translate this lofty idea into practice is evident in the steady growth of slums not only in the city but also in the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA), which extends over 1,189 sq km in three districts. Besides the Chennai Corporation, the CMA covers one cantonment, 16 municipalities, 20 town panchayats and 214 villages forming part of 10 panchayat unions in Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts.

In 1971, the slum population in Chennai stood at 7.37 lakh. According to Census 2001, the slum population in the city was over 10.79 lakh, 26 per cent of the citys total population.

The pre-feasibility study on identification of environmental infrastructure requirement in slums in CMA, conducted by a Hyderabad-based consultant for the TNSCB under the World Bank-funded Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project-II in 2005, also indicated a marked growth in slums in Chennai. A total of 1,431 slums, including 242 undeveloped slums, were covered by the survey; 122 of the undeveloped slums were found located in objectionable areas such as the margins of rivers, and feeder canals, roadsides, seashore and places required for public purposes.

The Master Plan-II for the CMA, prepared by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Corporation (CMDA) and approved in September 2008, also refers to the TNSCB estimates indicating that of the 1.1 lakh families in the undeveloped slums, 75,498 live in objectionable slums. They include 30,922 families squatting on the margins of the Cooum and Adyar rivers and the Buckingham Canal, 22,769 families that have put up huts along road margins, 16,519 families located on the seashore and 5,288 families dwelling along feeder canals such as the Mambalam-Nandanam canal, the Otteri nullah and the Captain Cotton canal.

The number of objectionable slums has risen to 150 now. In addition to this, 40,763 persons at 405 clusters were living on pavements, according to a survey of pavement-dwellers in the city conducted by the consultant SPARC for the CMDA in 1989-90.

Now the government has decided to evict the people in the objectionable slums, retrieve the land under their occupation and hand it over to the land-owing departments concerned for implementing programmes such as road widening, desilting and strengthening of bunds.

Official sources admit that the TNSCB has not been able to clear all the slums and provide houses to the economically weaker sections (EWS) in the 38 years of its existence. So far, the board has only been able to construct 72,000 houses or tenements over 35 years, which works out to over 2,000 houses a year. At this rate, it will be difficult to cover all the remaining 1.1 lakh households in raw slums in Chennai, an informed source pointed out.

A study on Effective Demand for Housing in Tamil Nadu, conducted for the State government in 1995, had brought out the economic profile of the households thus: About 38 per cent of the households have an income less than Rs.1,101 per month, while 9 per cent draw less than Rs.501 per month. Three per cent of the households have an income of less than Rs.250 per month. EWS and lower income groups (LIG) account for 72 per cent of the households. The city, thus, has more of poor people houses on the ground than of rich people houses, as a skyline.

The same report also quoted a study by K. Madhav, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and the convener of the Association for Protection of Slumdweller Rights, that nearly 92 per cent of the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) households were from the LIG and the EWS.

The failure of the government and its agencies to tackle the problem through traditional modes or strategies has been attributed to factors such as lack of availability of funds, lands, in-house implementing capacity, speciality in respect of newer, faster building technologies, manpower and organisational wherewithal to take up huge projects, delayed execution owing to governmental procedures and indifferent quality of construction.

Now the government has made it clear that it will redefine its strategy by allowing private developers to use TNSCB land and raw slum land to reconstruct the existing dilapidated tenements and slum houses on a part of the land and use the rest of the space for commercial exploitation.

The government gloats over its new schemes to provide 28,000 dwelling units for the EWS at several places in the CMA, including Thiruvotriyur, Tondiarpet, Okkiyam Thoraipakkam, Semmancheri and Perumbakkam, under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the Emergency Tsunami Reconstruction Project (ETRP), the Rajiv Gandhi package for tsunami housing and the 12th Finance Commission.

These schemes offer a glimmer of hope on the grounds that they have the mandate of a slum-free Chennai by 2013, official sources claim. Minister for Housing and Slum Clearance Suba Thangavelan said on February 27 that his department aimed at constructing one lakh dwelling units in two years.

But the governments decision on resettlement and rehabilitation has evoked a lot of protest from the slum-dwellers. The issue relating to the displacement of over three lakh people, most of them Dalits, has been totally ignored by the ruling DMK and the main opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) during the election campaign.

Though the government claimed that it would not repeat the mistakes committed in Mumbai where slum-dwellers were forcibly evicted, several hundreds of people have already been shifted from some slums in the city to new settlements in north Chennai and on the outskirts of the city.

People living in the slums and fishermen colonies have resorted to different forms of protest, including hunger strike, demonstration, dharna, road roko and rallies calling for a halt to the eviction plan and to take up immediate steps to ensure in situ development as declared in the governments policy on slums. The uprooted people have urged the government to enhance basic amenities in the new settlements and ensure their livelihood.

People who have been shifted to new locations in the past eight months revealed the pathetic situation prevailing in the new settlements, which are devoid of electricity or drinking water supply. Heaps of garbage and clogged toilets are common sights in these new settlements. Public distribution of essential articles and hospital facilities are inadequate here.

Those resettled at Kannagi Nagar, 20 km from the city, said most of them were daily-wage workers and had to spend Rs.30 to Rs.40 a day on transportation. K. Renuka, a teenager, lost her job that fetched a monthly pay of Rs.1,500 in a cardboard-box manufacturing unit in Pudupet, in the centre of Chennai, because of the eviction. Saraswathi, another resident, said she had been uprooted from her place of employment and social interaction.

Navaneetham, a domestic help, said she had no job because she was not able to reach the workplace in the city in time. We have been evicted from our homes and dumped here along with the household articles. Our children do not have schools here and we fear they will drop out, said Senthamarai, an elderly woman. An erstwhile resident of a slum in north Chennai said: We are at the mercy of armed gangs who supply power by pilfering electricity from the cables of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board.

The sudden influx of slum-dwellers to the new settlements have also resulted in conflicts with the local people, besides causing environmental issues; the construction of tenements have allegedly affected the groundwater recharging ponds near Kannagi Nagar.

M. Dhamodharan, an activist of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, said the government had plans to shift 6,000 families living in 12 slums in the Chepauk area alone to the citys outskirts. The authorities say they want to evict us as part of the beautification programme. We are in no way responsible for spoiling the aesthetics of the city. Even those settlements along the margins of rivers and canals cannot be blamed for polluting the waterways. It is a known fact that untreated sewage is let into these rivers and canals by the Chennai Metro Water and Sewerage Board, he said.

Dhamodharan added that the evictions were a violation of the Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance government (of which the DMK is a part). It said, Forced eviction and demolition of slums will be stopped and, while undertaking urban renewal, care will be taken to see that the urban and semi-urban poor are provided housing near their place of occupation.

A.K. Padmanabhan, Central Committee member of the CPI(M), said, Urban development does not mean that ordinary people should not live in the CMA. Genuine urban development should aim at providing these people basic amenities. Instead of adopting a viable strategy, several thousands of people are uprooted and thrown to the outskirts of the city with scant regard to their livelihood. These people will be forced to come back to the city seeking jobs. Any resettlement plan should be linked to the livelihood of these people, keeping in mind that the informal sectors contribution to the citys economy is more than 40 per cent. He also flayed the government for repressing the demand of the people to enhance basic amenities in the new settlements at Kannagi Nagar, Semmancheri, Okkiyam Thoraipakkam and other areas.

R. Geetha, additional secretary of the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat, said it was highly objectionable that the slum-dwellers had been evicted just like that. The government wants the service of these rickshaw pullers, construction workers, carpenters, painters and sanitary workers, but it does not like them to live in the city. This is nothing but neo-untouchability. The governments city development plans are lopsided, targeting the high-end users, though priority should be given to the improvement of the sewerage system, drinking water supply and road facilities, she said, adding that basically the eviction drive was an attempt to privatise public land for setting up five-star hotels and amusement parks.

K. Shanmugavelayutham, coordinator of the Chennai Slum Dwellers Rights Movement, said the government had failed to distribute pattas to genuine slum-dwellers. Apart from the Rs.1,468-crore elevated expressway project from Chennai Port to Maduravoyal, several proposed schemes, including the Ennore Road project and the metro rail project, will cause large-scale displacement of the slum population, he added.

Experts are of the view that forced eviction amounted to human rights violation and it should not be forgotten that India was a signatory to agreements such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The struggle for housing in many countries had been a genuine one as reflected in the success of the Movement of National Struggle for Housing (MNLM) in uniting vast sections of the masses to highlight the issue, they point out.

The TNSCBs socio-economic survey in 1971 said poverty and frequent failure of monsoons had led to the mass influx of agricultural labourers into the city from the adjoining districts. After coming to the city, they pick up any manual job. The income they derive from their jobs was very low which was hardly sufficient for a balanced diet, so they were unable to pay for rents for securing decent dwellings and hence squatted on open spaces available near their workspots.

In the era of neoliberalism, things became only worse. After all, neoliberalism creates conditions in favour of increasing private investment in the housing sector. Such investors target only the profitable high-income groups. And the government has gradually withdrawn from investing in housing, particularly in projects for the economically weaker sections.

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