Denying basic amenities to residents of ‘unrecognised’ slums is an affront to their dignity; resettling them fails to address their concerns and is unviable financially

Since 2005, the Central government has given significant amounts of money to the States to improve conditions for the country’s urban poor, first under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and more recently through the slow-moving Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY). Unfortunately, very few studies have looked at how effective these programmes have been in achieving their objectives. Our research in Chennai suggests that money from the JNNURM did not effectively address the needs of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

How could this happen in a programme explicitly designed for this purpose, and in a State known for its generosity to the poor? This is because Chennai faces a problem common to many cities across India: it has two tiers of slums — those with official government recognition and those without, and the JNNURM did not push cities hard enough to directly intervene in slum areas without recognition.

No action since 1985

According to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act of 1971, the government is supposed to identify slums, officially recognise them as slums, and then improve these areas. As soon as the Act was passed, the Board identified and recognised 1,202 slums in Chennai, and added another 17 slums to the list in 1985. All of these slums were improved in situ, either by building tenements or by providing basic services. However, in a sharp break with this progressive history towards the urban poor, not a single new slum has been officially recognised in the city since 1985.

In the nearly three decades that have passed, hundreds of new slums have come up in the city. Unfortunately, because the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act states that you must recognise a slum before you can intervene in it, government programmes to increase access to services for the poor, including the JNNURM, have not directly intervened in these areas — with predictably tragic results. Very little reliable information actually exists about these unrecognised slums but we found one study on them commissioned by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 2002. The study found a total of 444 unrecognised slums within the Chennai Metropolitan Area, with nearly half a million residents at the time, and an average of 620 people relying on a single public water facility in unrecognised slums within the city, far more than the norm of 75 people per water facility. Such numbers are shameful. What they show is that these unrecognised slums have effectively become an invisible Chennai, not counted in the official statistics of slum-dwellers used in the Master Plan and by the Slum Clearance Board, and largely ignored by the service provision agencies.

Indirect response

The government’s only response to such slums has been indirect. Rather than recognising them and improving residents’ access to services, the Board has constructed large-scale resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city on land it already owns in Semmenchery, Kannagi Nagar, and now in Perumbakkam. Unrecognised slums, since they have no land rights, are regularly evicted, and eligible families (those with the required paperwork) are housed in the resettlement colonies. In fact, more than 75 per cent of spending for the urban poor under the JNNURM has gone towards building these colonies, and recent news reports suggest that the Slum Clearance Board is planning to build a total of 1,25,000 such units across the State, in part with funding from RAY.

Poor policy

However, this response is inadequate. Both the media and civil society organisations have documented the extreme trauma faced by families evicted to these colonies. What has not been highlighted so far is that building resettlement colonies is just poor policymaking. Resettlement housing is expensive: according to policy notes, costs have increased from Rs. 4.5 lakh to 7.5 lakh per house over the last few years, and building homes for all the 100,000 odd families identified in unrecognised slums in the 2002 report alone would cost the city more than $1 billion.

Moreover, many residents do not seem to want such housing: news reports find that nearly 20 per cent of allotted homes in Kannagi Nagar are vacant and 50 per cent of the original beneficiaries are no longer living in them.

Most importantly, building adequate amounts of resettlement housing to house all slum-dwellers will simply take too long. Based on the Slum Clearance Board’s rate of construction so far, building housing for all the families in unrecognised slums identified in 2002 alone would take 40 years, and there would be even more families now. Must these families be denied their basic dignity for so long?

Reasonable strategy

A far more reasonable strategy would be to once again implement the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act in the spirit that it was written, and start to recognise slums and improve them in situ.

Government officials frequently cite the lack of land in central city areas to justify the absence of slum recognition in the last three decades. But the 2002 study highlighted another extraordinary fact: all the unrecognised slums in the Chennai Metropolitan Area at the time together only took up 4.8 sq km, just 1.1 per cent of the area of the expanded Chennai Corporation. Even if some resettlement is required, Right to Information Act petitions have revealed that there are nearly 11 square kilometres of unused land available under the Urban Land Ceiling Act in small pockets all over the city so that slum-dwellers can be resettled nearby, avoiding the trauma of far-away resettlement.

Lack of political will

Clearly, what the city lacks is not land but political will. In the early 1970s, when the Board was first created, the State government passed orders transferring the land on which slums sat to the Slum Clearance Board. The massive allocations under the JNNURM for the urban poor were an opportunity to create the political will for transferring land to slum-dwellers once again, but the Central government chose to fund resettlement colonies instead. Unless the Central government uses programmes like the JNNURM and RAY to incentivise State and city governments to intervene directly in unrecognised slums, it will risk leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without basic services for decades to come.

(The authors are researchers at the Transparent Chennai project at the Institute for Financial Management and Research)

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