Resettled: A story of struggle on the fringes

Thousands who were relocated to remote areas after last year’s floods have a tough time finding jobs and accessing basic infrastructure

Updated - December 25, 2016 03:50 am IST

Published - December 25, 2016 02:28 am IST - CHENNAI:

Sewage overflow, a common sight at Eazlil Nagar in Thoraipakkam, OMR.

Sewage overflow, a common sight at Eazlil Nagar in Thoraipakkam, OMR.

In the months following the December 2015 floods that devastated the city, thousands of families — who in official parlance were encroachers — were sent away from their homes to remote areas. While they were being packed off in crowded trucks, many left with fear and uncertainty about how they would fend for themselves in a new area, even while a few hoped that the permanent houses assigned to them would symbolise a new beginning.

However, over a year after the disaster, it is the worst fears of residents that have come true.

“I have sold my jewellery and have been living on alms and handouts from neighbours and money lenders for the last 10 months,” said P. Suganthi, a daily wage labourer in Perumbakkam, who with her husband, two daughters and ailing mother had to leave J.J. Nagar after their houses were washed away.

“We were promised employment, but finding a job has been extremely difficult. People look down on us. When I tried to get a job as a sweeper, I was asked to bring a guarantor since I’m from Perumbakkam. Almost everyone here faces similar issues,” she said.

According to official statistics, 2,151 families from slums were relocated to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) tenements in Perumbakkam, over 1,715 to houses in Ezhil Nagar and 193 to Gudapakkam. These include families affected by various civic projects as well as slum dwellers living on objectionable land.

The loss of income and livelihood has had an impact on various aspects of life. Many have even stopped sending their children to schools due to safety issues and financial constraints. “This place is very isolated and unsafe. By the time my daughters return home, it gets dark. Also, we cannot afford to pay the daily bus fare with no income in hand,” said Saroja, a resident of Ezhil Nagar.


Residents are unhappy with the poor quality of construction. R. Rani, a widow residing in Perumbakkam, pointed to the damp ceiling in her apartment and showed a video recording from during the recent cyclone in which the entire ground floor of the complex and the street outside were flooded. “The situation remained this way for four days. We found it difficult to step out to even buy food. Nobody came to help us. Why did they bring us here then?” she said. When they were relocated, the families affected by the floods were given Rs. 5,000 each and told they would get a monthly subsistence allowance of Rs. 2,500 for a year. However, many residents of the tenements complained that there were irregularities in the disbursing of the funds. Their financial situation is made worse by the fact that they are expected to pay a monthly maintenance fee. In Perumbakkam and Gudapakkam, the charge is Rs. 750 and in Ezhil Nagar, it is Rs. 300, excluding the monthly electricity charge which, according to residents, is not less than Rs. 350.

“We haven’t received the allowance for the past three months and we have no jobs either. So, we couldn’t pay the maintenance fee. Now the Slum Board officials are threatening to remove us. But how do we pay in such circumstances?” asked K. Raja, a daily wage labourer in Ezhil Nagar.

Nowhere to go:  Poongavanam was left homeless after she lost her house in a demolition drive.

Nowhere to go: Poongavanam was left homeless after she lost her house in a demolition drive.


No rehabilitation

The complaints raised by residents here point to larger questions regarding resettlement in the city. Experts note that the absence of a rehabilitation and resettlement policy or norm in Tamil Nadu and social impact assessment has gravely affected the lives and livelihood of slum dwellers who are forced to the fringes of the city. Residents who were resettled said the process was completed at short notice and without consultation.

S. Madhavan, a tea vendor from Vallalar Street, Aminjikarai, recalled the time when he and others in the locality were given a day to pack their belongings and head to their new homes in Gudapakkam, 30 km away.

“My father and I had saved every penny to build our old house. But in a matter of minutes, it was reduced to rubble,” lamented Madhavan, who with many other residents had resisted relocation. “But nobody listened to us, and we were brought here. There was absolutely nothing here, no water, no power. The cyclone disrupted the temporary arrangement also. It’s been 15 days without electricity now. Who do we now go to,” he asked.

A recent report by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), a city-based NGO, pointed out that nearly 1.29 lakh people living in various informal settlements in the core areas of the city have been pushed to the fringes in the guise of housing programmes and another 1.69 lakh individuals are to be resettled in the tenements in Perumbakkam, Ezhil nagar, Athipattu and Thiruvotriyur as per the ongoing resettlement programme.

The report also pointed out that in Perumbakkam, 15 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women of the flood-affected families lost employment immediately after relocation. In Ezhil Nagar, 11 per cent of men and 18 per cent women of the flood-affected families lost their jobs mainly because of the increased distance they had to travel for work and inadequate transportation.

One of the important findings of the study was that 16 per cent of children in these resettlement sites dropped out of schools and anganwadi centres (AWC). In Perumbakkam, 18 per cent have dropped out and in Ezhil Nagar (Thoraipakkam), 13 per cent of the children have dropped out.

There is only one primary and one high school in Perumbakkam, that too inside the tenements. In Ezhil Nagar there is only one middle school, which parents claim has no facilities.

“There is no water supply in the school or toilets. Many a time, children are made to sweep the classrooms and floors. The maintenance is very poor, so I don’t send my children there,” said R. Kalyani, a resident of Ezhil Nagar.

A Supreme Court judgement in 2006 related to the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) scheme had, while maintaining the upper limit of one AWC per 1,000 population, stated that the minimum limit may be kept as 300 for opening of a new AWC. Further, rural communities and slum dwellers should be entitled to an anganwadi ‘on demand’ (not later than three months from the date of demand).

According to the IRCDUC report, most of the resettlement sites do not have enough anganwadis. The existing centres are cramped with nearly 40 children and function inside houses rather than in separate buildings.

Officials from the Slum Clearance Board said that they had been taking steps to arrange for employment and set up more anganwadi centres, schools and hospitals and that it would be done based on demand and the number of people moving in.

Similar issues crop up when it comes to vocational training too. “The Board gives tailoring training to everyone. How many tailors does a place need. Training must be based on market demand,” said Vanessa Peter, policy researcher, IRCDUC.


Lack of emergency healthcare

Residents of Perumbakkam also complained about the lack of healthcare and said that the only primary healthcare centre functioning in the tenements was inadequate and did not cater to emergency services.

“My son once had an asthma attack. We were asked to take him to Royapettah, but there wasn’t enough time. So we rushed him to a private clinic. The centre is simply not equipped,” said Shobha, a resident. There is currently one doctor at the Perumbakkam centre and six at the one in Semmencherry, which residents claim is also short-staffed and does not provide timely help.

“We currently have six doctors. Three of them work on contract and in three shifts. We are not equipped to handle critical cases. So we refer them to other hospitals,” said an assistant civil surgeon from the centre.

A meeting convened by the Chief Secretary in 2010 had stressed on the need for proper guidelines whenever a resettlement scheme for over 5,000 families was proposed. It had also noted that panchayats were not able to deliver services. Confirming this, S. Jayaraman, Perumbakkam panchayat secretary, said they were understaffed although they had 50 residential colonies under their jurisdiction and hoped the area would come under the Corporation.

Referring to the need for a resettlement policy, Anbuselvam, a Dalit scholar and activist, said that the existing system was not community-friendly. “It’s sad and worrying that there is no mention of this ghettoisation. I fear that if left uncared for, it will lead to serious issues,” he said.

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