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Is it a raw deal?

Living on encroached land is not a permanent solution, nor will it be right if the Government were to evict the encroachers and assign the land to hoteliers... Everything depends on the policies of the Government, says GOUTAM GHOSH.

THE BRICK-AND-MORTAR houses, along the Canal Bank East Road that runs southward from Sardar Patel Road, Adyar, outnumber the huts. Some of the buildings stand up to three storeys high and a typical brick-and-mortar house is so dark within during the day that bright lights have to be switched on. Unlike Santosh Nagar off Kandan Chavadi, Old Mahabalipuram Road, the street here is wider. To its west, just as in Santosh Nagar, there are patta lands and most of the buildings are impressive.

Many factors distinguish the canal bank residents of Kasturbai Nagar and Indira Nagar from their peers in Santosh Nagar. First, most of the families in Kasturbai Nagar and Indira Nagar encroached the canal bank long before the Santosh Nagar groups did. A good number of residents have been living here for more than 50 years. Second, most of the residents here worked for the Pallavan Transport Corporation (now MTC) when they or their parents occupied or "bought" the land. Today, many residents are Government employees. Third, you will find PVC water tanks, which are filled everyday — for the residents on both sides of the road. Santosh Nagar has not been blessed with such administrative benevolence so far. Finally, the Buckingham Canal Bank Dwellers' Residents Welfare Association is based in Kasturbai Nagar, where the president, Mr A. Kuppusamy keeps his finger plumb on the pulse of all satellite associations of canal bank residents.

What is most striking about the residents and their association here is, they raise their eyebrows whenever anyone questions why they encroached on the canal banks. "Who has sent you?", "Whose interest are you representing?", "Why do you want to rake up an old issue that has been settled?" are seemingly justified questions, but the reply — that the aim is to find out the truth — does not dispel the air of mistrust.

The residents' representatives who gathered first in the house of Mr Kuppusamy and then in a much larger group in the house of Mr. Srinivasan, a political activist, to question the bonafides of this correspondent more than to share the truth about their fears and problems was proof of a queer depth of complacency — that "Everything is all right".

Irrespective of whether they "bought" their land from gold-digging political leaders or simply occupied the strip one fine morning, the undeniable fact is they are encroachers. Middlemen of political leaders capitalise on the helplessness and pecuniary constraints of the poor by offering them land illegally at prices even the poor cannot refuse. Almost everyone this correspondent spoke to in Santosh Nagar and Adyar canal bank stretch said they bought the land from someone belonging to some political party. Only some said they occupied their strips long before this transaction system became the vogue.

Paying the fine (for encroachment), Metrowater charges, the power and phone bills; having a ration card or voter's identity card with their residential address does not imply an inalienable right of ownership. Poromboke land encroachment is legalised by the Government at times, but "and abutting waterways cannot be sold, purchased or owned" as a PWD official said.

The number of petitions sent to a former Prime Minister, former Railways Minister or to the President cannot help legalise a wrong, unless the laws are changed to make a wrong right and a right wrong. The residents may be peace loving and there may not have been any crime here in decades, but the law is blind. If the Government pursued the laws seriously, it would point towards eviction.

As it stands, the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) that is to go up to Velacherry has provided for three stations at Kasturbai Nagar, Indira Nagar and Thiruvanmiyur. Leave alone the question of whether stations are needed at such frequent intervals, given that these are scheduled stops, a pathway and bridge is needed for people to access each station from the east bank of the canal.

To build the pathways, houses have been identified which need to be razed. If the Railways need space for the pathway, they can specify exactly how many metres breadth they need and then identify the minimum number of houses that will need to be demolished, instead of marking six or seven houses in a row to yield nearly 30 m (to provide for increased traffic density two decades from now) when they need at most 10 m.

The residents have apparently been offered accommodation "on compassionate grounds" at Okkiyam Thoraipakkam, each apartment a fraction of what the families occupy here. Some of the residents who were available in the morning this correspondent revisited the area said unequivocally, "We will not go to Okkiyam Thoraipakkam. It is full of criminally minded residents, most of whom are from slum areas which had been cleared for expanding roads and other works.''

What is interesting is, all the residents identified for eviction either live in huts or have no clout to turn the ruling in their favour. It was learnt that in one instance, where a house of a leader was identified for demolition, he managed to have the pathway altered so that his house was left untouched.

The houses were identified during talks between the local leaders, the Railways and the Public Works Department. The ill-fated house owners were unable to voice their concerns. Every family has been here for years. Almost every family has children going to local schools. All the working members commute short distances to reach their work spots. So the relocation (on humanitarian grounds) after eviction will upset life's steady state for each family.

When the residents association leaders supplied a bound volume of photocopies of various documents supporting their claim as local residents, some copies of letters from the Railways had blank space which meant that the originals were masked. Copies of the untampered documents were obtained later from the Railways. So the association, instead of sharing the truth, had given doctored documents, without the details of houses which were intended to be razed.

The reason for the hide-and-seek was, "We do not want to raise the issue again. After all, the problem has been solved." Yes, the problem has been solved for those who will live there — at least for the time being. The problems would begin for those who would have to move into holes "unfit even for poultry" said some residents.

The instinct for self-preservation has won, and reason and claims of unity have been relegated to the background. Though all the residents first rose up against the move to evict all (as copies of the petitions and media coverage show), those who have escaped the axe are now happy to hide because their houses have not been marked in red. As a resident rightly said, "Fairplay implies either leaving the residents alone or evicting and relocating all of them instead of just a handful.''

The problems of domestic sewage disgorging into the canal happened till the sewer lines were laid, but the living conditions continue to be as precarious and as far from pleasant as one can imagine. After all, a canal bank cannot offer more than mosquitoes and an asphyxiating stench. Living on encroached land is not a permanent solution, nor will it be right if the Government were to evict the encroachers and assign the land to hoteliers, as the residents have alleged in one of their petitions. But a starred hotel on the canal bank may neither be aesthetically appealing nor financially promising. So a sane investor will toss funds for the project. Therefore the residents' fears are probably unfounded.

What happens over the next few decades depends a lot on the preferred policies of the Government and the options they offer the residents. Whatever it is, it is unlikely that land, if at all, will be offered free, and that again will effectively crowd out those who have no means to pay a high price of whatever is offered. Do you still have doubts that the poor get a raw deal?

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