Tamil Nadu

Rumble in the rubble

People uprooted: Elango Street at Govindasamy Nagar that connects Greenways Road and Kamarajar Salai and runs parallel to the Buckingham Canal has been emblematic of the problems about slum evictions. The eviction drive in the area that began in the last week of April has been suspended following the suicide of a man in protest against the action.

People uprooted: Elango Street at Govindasamy Nagar that connects Greenways Road and Kamarajar Salai and runs parallel to the Buckingham Canal has been emblematic of the problems about slum evictions. The eviction drive in the area that began in the last week of April has been suspended following the suicide of a man in protest against the action. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Disappointment and dejection are writ large on the faces of the residents of Elango Street at Govindasamy Nagar, the roughly 600-metre stretch that connects Greenways Road and Kamarajar Salai and runs parallel to the Buckingham Canal. The drive that began in the last week of April to remove their houses and the tragic incident of a man taking his own life in protest against the eviction have made this area, notified as a slum in 1973, the focus of the often-raised problems about slum evictions.

The demolitions have now been suspended following the death of V.G. Kannaiyan, 58, who immolated himself. With the Supreme Court, on May 10, reiterating its earlier order to remove the houses located on the land classified as “watercourse poramboke”, many residents are trying to reconcile themselves to the imminent demolition.

Easwari*, whose family is among the 323 to be evicted, is looking at an uncertain future. She has two young daughters. Her husband, a diabetic, works as a delivery partner of a food delivery company. They lived in a roughly 220-square foot portion they had constructed above her in-laws’ house.

She is employed at one residence to draw kolams in the mornings and evenings. Apart from that, she worked as a helper in a clinic and occasionally, as a mehendi artist. Through the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, she has managed to get admission to her elder daughter in a nearby private school.

All this may go for a toss as she has been evicted and alternative accommodation has been provided at the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board’s resettlement site at Perumbakkam outside the city. “I have to report for work at 5 a.m. The family pays me a good salary and helps me when I am in need as I am working there for years now. I cannot continue the job if I shift to Perumbakkam. My husband’s work will be affected too,” she says.

For now, she has taken a house for rent that will cost her ₹8,500 a month, the sum of her monthly salary. “We cannot sustain this as other expenditures cannot be managed. A significant amount is also needed for my husband’s medication every month,” she says.

Easwari’s situation is not an isolated one. Many families in Elango Street are staring at a similar fate of being uprooted, socially and economically, from the place where they were residing in for more than 50 years.

Promise from CM

The assurance by Chief Minister M.K. Stalin after Kannaiyan’s death that the families will be provided housing in upcoming projects of Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board in nearby Mandaveli and Mylapore has given them hope. But activists point out that it is merely a bandaid, not a permanent solution. The Govindasamy eviction episode has, once again, exposed the issues in such resettlement projects and the need for just and sustainable solutions.

While the primary demand of the residents of Elango Street was to let them stay there, many were willing to consider relocating if alternative accommodation was provided nearby.

Murugan*, a resident, said they were offered houses only in such faraway places as Perumbakkam, Navalur and Ezhil Nagar. “The assurance given by the Chief Minister could have been done by officials earlier. The eviction could have been put on hold until new houses in nearby areas became available,” he said.

On humanitarian grounds

Though the Supreme Court’s deadline was cited as the reason for the eviction, activists and the residents argued that it could not be used as an excuse to carry out the eviction in violation of humanitarian principles.

Rules violated: Residents and activists alleged that the the eviction at Govindasamy Nagar violated the standard operating procedures introduced by the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board.

Rules violated: Residents and activists alleged that the the eviction at Govindasamy Nagar violated the standard operating procedures introduced by the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

A group of child rights activists from the State wrote to the Chief Minister urging him to stop the eviction as it was happening ahead of the annual examinations for school children. “They avoided the houses with children studying Class 10 and Class 12. But how can they study in such a traumatic environment? And what about other children,” asked Murugan.

The residents said the power connection was terminated in advance. They said the immolation of Kannaiyan on May 8 could have been averted had the officials not tried to suddenly expedite the eviction on May 7, ahead of the May 10 hearing of a case filed by them in the Supreme Court.

The alleged high-handedness in the eviction process violated the standard operating procedures recently introduced by Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. Officials, on the other hand, accused the residents of non-cooperation despite a court order. Water Resources Department (WRD) officials said an area engineer was assaulted following the self-immolation. They said he had to be hospitalised and the police registered a case.

RR policy needed

Activists said these alleged violations would have been avoided had there been a proper resettlement and rehabilitation policy was in place. Apart from other provisions, the draft of the policy, released in October, mandated consultations and the formation of resettlement committees to ensure that evictions were humane. Despite showing a sense of urgency in receiving public feedback on the draft, the government has not finalised the policy yet.

A senior official of the Housing and Urban Development Department said the policy was being finalised and would be released soon. Citing the non-availability of houses in the city as the reason for allocating houses elsewhere to the Elango Street residents, he said many measures were under way to develop more housing without having to resettle people in faraway places. For instance, a State-level committee was formed to identify land parcels for such projects.

Following a consultative meeting organised by civil society on the draft in October, around 15 non-governmental organisations issued a call for a moratorium on evictions until the policy was finalised as it would have an impact on all resettlements.

J. Sebastin, coordinator of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board Residents’ Welfare Committee, alleged that the government failed to make a compelling case in the Supreme Court. “Ideally, the government should have argued against the need to evict. Being a new government, it could have argued that it was planning to address evictions differently through policy changes and sought time until the resettlement and rehabilitation policy was finalised,” he said.

Vanessa Peter, founder, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), said the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act (TNSA), 1971, also required significant changes to keep it relevant to the changing times, right from the definition of the word slum.

However, she said, a recent amendment to the Act only dealt with the change in the nomenclature from Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) to Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. While the Tamil Nadu Apartment Ownership Act, 1994, has been repealed and a new law has been passed after public consultations, she asked why the same was not done to the TNSA.

More in pipeline

With more rehabilitation and resettlement work in the pipeline, mainly owing to the Cooum, Adyar and Buckingham Canal restoration projects, the activists said such gaps in the policy framework should be addressed swiftly.

The government has assessed that around 6,500 families are yet to be resettled as part of the ongoing Integrated Cooum River Eco-Restoration Project and the Adyar River Restoration Project. The restoration of Buckingham Canal is yet to kickstart. WRD officials said that as per the initial assessment, 25,000 encroachments will have to be cleared.

They said there was a proposal to widen the canal in many sections, including by an additional 9 to 10 metres near Elango Street. They added that the proposal is under the scrutiny of Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT) and clearance from the State Coastal Zone Management Authority  will also be required.

The proposal, however, has raised questions. Though the Buckingham Canal is part of the National Waterway-4, the Inland Waterways Authority of India has said it will not be developing the roughly 50-kilometre stretch within Chennai city because of the encroachments, mainly by the pillars and railway stations of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS).

In an affidavit filed in 2016 in a case filed by Kasturba and Indira Nagar Residents Welfare Forum, the Public Works Department (PWD) said it was planning to widen the canal only up to 15 metres and construct retaining walls as part of the CRRT-driven project.

Calling for a scrutiny of the need to widen the canal, Ms. Vanessa Peter said that the government should actively consider in-situ development wherever possible along the Buckingham Canal. Pointing out that IRCDUC was doing an independent survey of the settlements, she said there were possibilities of in-situ development in certain locations.

With the construction of one housing unit by Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board costing more than ₹10 lakh, Mr. Sebastin said that shifting so many families, mainly to resettlement sites outside the city, is an expensive solution, both socially and economically. Instead, he said, in-situ development or issuance of sale deeds as done under the Madras Urban Development Project (MUDP) should be explored.

This has been the demand of Elango Street residents as well. R. Natraj, former Mylapore MLA, said it was during his tenure that 366 encroachments on the opposite side of the street and located right on the banks of the canal were removed. He said houses that are there need not be evicted as they are not encroaching on the canal. He pointed out that there is even a government constructed building on the stretch. 

Mylai Tha. Velu, the DMK MLA representing the constituency now, made the same argument in the Assembly recently. He alleged that the individual who filed the case for the removal of encroachments was doing it for vested interests. In fact, in an affidavit filed in 2016 in the Supreme Court in the case, the then Principal Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development said the individual had no public interest, but was going to court to increase the value of his real estate property located nearby. An order issued by the Managing Director of Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board in May 2014, citing PWD officials, said only 366 encroachments along the banks of the canal had to be removed.

However, sources in the Department of Revenue and Disaster Management said such in-situ development plans might require alienation and reclassification of land, which is nearly impossible, particularly with courts taking a stringent view on such issues. “Even in the case of Elango Street, the Supreme Court passed the judgment only after hearing all these points,” the official said. The land alienation and issuance of sale deeds that should have been done for some projects taken up as part of Madras Urban Development Project and Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project (TNUDP) in the 1970s and 1980s itself are pending even now.

Justice K. Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, said the government ought to distinguish between court judgments on such issues. “For instance, the judgment regarding encroachments on Chitlapakkam lake in Chennai is different. It is not a slum problem,” he said, adding that such judgments cannot be equated with orders regarding slum evictions.

He said slums posed a multifaceted societal problem, which cannot be solved by evicting and resettling people in places like Kannagi Nagar and Perumbakkam and thereby limiting their livelihood options and access to healthcare, education and other basic needs.

Alleging that the majority of the encroachments on waterbodies were by government institutions, he said it should not be the case that encroachments by the affluent and powerful carried more legitimacy than a slum-dweller.

He called for a relook into the colonial-era classification of land. While stressing that the importance of waterbodies could not be overstated, he, however, said a proper resurvey of surviving waterbodies must be done. He suggested that the government consider a law for land classification as that would nullify erstwhile objections and eliminate avoidable interventions by courts. 

( *Names changed on request)

(Assistance to overcome suicidal thoughts is available on the State’s health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-24640050)

( With inputs from K. Lakshmi)


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