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Reflections on Chennai-a city that breeds inequality

“Chennai has taken the wrong lessons from Delhi, where a large section of the poor were forcibly resettled during the Commonwealth Games”

August 30, 2014 09:50 am | Updated 05:59 pm IST - CHENNAI

Expressing concern at the manner in which the urban poor are increasingly getting pushed out in cities like Chennai, Balakrishnan Rajagopal of the MIT’s Department of Urban Studies said: “This is one of the biggest drivers of inequality. There were certain periods when Indian cities were actually quite friendly to the urban poor.

“In Chennai, for example, the slum redevelopment during the 1960s and 70s was part of a larger Dravidian welfare orientation. But this commitment to find housing for the poor fairly close to or on the land where they actually live has unfortunately been lost.”

Chennai has taken the wrong lessons from examples such as Delhi, where a large section of the poor were forcibly resettled during the Commonwealth Games, Mr. Rajagopal said. Due to the existence of poorly-constructed resettlement colonies like Semmanchery on the city’s outskirts, Chennai gives the impression of an “apartheid city”.

Speaking to The Hindu during a recent month-long visit to India along with a team of researchers from the Displacement Research and Action Network based at MIT, Mr.Rajagopal said that the same structural conditions that encourage the marginalisation of the poor currently prevail in nearly every Indian city – from Bangalore to Chennai to Delhi.

“In India, the focus right now is on good governance, but understood in terms of a World Bank definition that essentially means efficiency and world-class infrastructure. But, if you look at cities across Latin America, they are laying greater emphasis on equity and social access for the poor,” he said.

India must remember that the livability of all the residents of cities should be improved, not just the rich, Mr. Rajagopal said.

Emphasising that the “market fetishism” of the 1990s has driven up land prices marginalising the urban poor even more, he said: “If India’s rapidly growing tier-II and tier-III cities need to avoid the same mistakes, they need to start focusing on deepening democracy and increasing public participation at every stage of a city’s life and governance.”

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