The State is evicting slum dwellers and pushing them to live in confined areas

Ghettos are places where people are condemned to live, and Chennai, depressingly, is producing many of them.

If steep real estate prices are driving the middle class out of the city, the State is evicting slum dwellers and pushing them to live in large numbers in confined areas – three of them in the peripheries with poor amenities. Unfortunately, this urban displacement and the suffering it has inflicted have not drawn much protest from the privileged majority, who have taken it for granted that the city belongs only to them.

About 50,000 tenements spread over three places south of Chennai — Okkium Thoraipakkam, Semmanchery and Perumbakkam — will soon accommodate the bulk of the poor in the city.  Of these, 22,420 settlements have been completed in the first two places. Another 23,864 units built in Perumbakkam and 6,000 more in Okkium Thoraipakkam are at different stages of completion. These tenements, together, will accommodate more than 2 lakh slum dwellers evicted from different parts of the city.

The government justifies eviction stating that the slums are in objectionable areas. What is objectionable and what is not is a contestable point. The fact remains that large-scale displacement is due to infrastructure projects. There are also instances of eviction because the government refused to resettle the increased population in the same area, even if they had lived there for decades. The fisherfolk community’s resettlement in places such as Nochikuppam, is a case in point.

The State often claims that there are not enough lands within the city and so slum dwellers have to be shifted to the periphery. What it is not disclosing is the extent of land it has acquired so far under various provisions, that remains unused. In this context, the approach of the housing board is baffling. It is trying to develop large parcels of land such as the 3.73 acre property in K.K. Nagar, which it owns, like a private developer when there is a pressing need for social housing.

Another issue is the size of the resettlement area. The police department has objected to large resettlement colonies and have recommended only smaller settlements, but the government appears to have ignored this. Confining more than l lakh poor within one area in Perubmakkam is unacceptable. Building 30,000 units amounts to creating a mini-city that requires adequate amenities and access roads. The poor state of amenities in the existing resettlement areas is not encouraging. Lack of health facilities, poorly functioning schools and inadequate bus services are recurring complaints. The indifference of local bodies in servicing these areas makes it more difficult.

The fundamental problem is that the government looks at these tenements as largesse given to the poor. Hence, it hardly takes into consideration their needs and views. The best of the resettlement projects are built on the principles of participation.

For instance, the Ahmedabad Slum Networking Project, started in 1995, works on a partnership basis between the government, NGOs and stakeholders. This has helped make for good facilities, better management and helped in cost recovery. If policy-makers are keen to build an inclusive Chennai, they need to take care of the poor and homeless adequately, and lot more sensitively.

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