Eviction in Govindasamy Nagar highlights precarious life of Chennai’s poor

The recent eviction drive in Govindasamy Nagar has brought up issues of ownership and role of various agencies and stakeholders into focus.

Chennai saw harrowing visuals of the self-immolation attempts by G Kannaiyan, a 58-year-old resident of Govindasamy Nagar. Kannaiyan immolated himself on May 8th in protest against the forced eviction drive carried out in the locality. He suffered over 90% burns and was declared dead on the morning of May 9th.

Kannaiyan, like many residents of the area, was protesting the eviction of residents and demolition of their homes on the back of a Supreme Court (SC) ruling that labelled them as encroachers and ordered their relocation. A total of 116 houses have been demolished since April 29th, with further orders issued for 159 houses.

A long legal battle

Waterbody restoration, metro rail works, road widening, beautification works and smart city projects are among the major reasons for ‘forced evictions’ in Chennai as identified in a report by Housing and Land Rights Network. However, the Govindasamy Nagar eviction stands out. 

The legal tussle began when a businessman who resided nearby filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court in 2006 demanding the eviction of the residents of Govindasamy Nagar, labelling them as encroachers, presumably to create a better access road for this property. The HC ruled in his favour, ordering demolition of the buildings and relocation of residents. The civic body communicated to the petitioner that the land belonged to the Public Works Department (PWD) and that the houses would be removed once the Collector acts on the order.

When there was a delay in execution of the order, the petitioner filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in 2008 seeking complete removal of the houses. This petition was challenged by the residents in the SC. The SC ruled in favour of the petitioner in 2011. After enumeration, the erstwhile Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) removed 366 houses in the area.

The petitioner filed a contempt petition before the SC on ground that the failure to remove all houses is a violation of the order passed by the SC in 2011. The residents filed an Interlocutory Application in the SC and were granted liberty to approach the Madras High Court to establish that they were not encroachers.

From then the case has once again made its way to the SC which directed the removal of the houses, setting off the eviction proceedings that took place at the end of April. An appeal by the residents to halt the evictions was dismissed by the top court, with the next hearing scheduled for July 12.

Residents’ arguments against eviction

R Geetha of Pennurimai Iyakkam, an organisation that has been assisting the residents in their legal battle and advocacy, said that the residents could not be called ‘encroachers’ as they have been living in the ‘notified slum’ which also comes under ‘unobjectionable’ category. Citing the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement and. Clearance) Act, 1971, she said that the Act protects the residents of ‘notified slums’ from eviction and the government should rather be taking measures to improve the area. 

Notified Slum: Areas notified as slums by the respective municipalities, corporations, local bodies or development authorities are treated as notified slums.

She further added that the residents of ‘notified slums’ could not be evicted unless the land is to be acquired for a public purpose. When Citizen Matters asked the officials if any developmental projects were to come up in the disputed land akin to other eviction sites across the city, the officials maintained that the evictions were carried out based on the individual’s petition and the subsequent SC order. There was no response on what is likely to be done in the land after eviction.

R Ganesan, a resident of the locality, noted that unless the area is denotified, eviction drives cannot be carried out. “We have been paying property tax, water tax and electricity bills to the government for over six decades. We have been running from pillar to post seeking patta, despite the government orders being in place. While the officials failed to respond to our petitions seeking patta, why did they demolish our houses on a war footing?” he asked.

The residents cited a government order (G.O Ms. No 1117 Housing and Urban Development) dated June 27, 1979. This GO was passed to regularise the settlements of slum dwellers who were not owning a house site and had been residing in the area before 1979. 

“The government has issued patta for the land on the other side of the canal where huge apartments and bungalows have been constructed some 20 feet away from the canal. However, the residents of Elango street whose houses are located some 50 feet away from the canal have not been given a patta. Why is the government categorically refusing to give the patta only for the poor people?” asked Geetha. She also noted that if the land had been in the waterways, the government would not have listed the area under the ‘unobjectionable slums’ category.

Read more: When eri restoration is just another name for eviction of the working classes

Inhumane eviction process

“Eviction is a human problem which has to be settled in a humane manner especially when the people who have to be uprooted, formed roots in the area more than 50 years ago,” said the Tamil Nadu government in its 2015 submissions in the contempt petition filed at the SC.

However, the eviction drive carried out by the Tamil Nadu government this April in Govindasamy Nagar, in abeyance with the order of the SC, has been termed to be one of the most ‘inhumane’ ones by the affected residents and activists who are helping them with legal aid and advocacy.

“We were given a token for a dwelling unit in Perumbakkam on one hand and asked to grab our things and move out immediately. Before we could process what was happening, the house built with four generations of blood and sweat was bulldozed to the ground. Now, we stand on the street,” said R Saranya, who has a one-year-old child. 

Plaque at a house in Govindasamy Nagar
Plaque at a house in Govindasamy Nagar. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

The officials initially said that the houses of students appearing for public exams would not be demolished. “However, even after showing the identity card of my son, who is in class 10 now, our house was demolished,” said R Shanthi. 

Citing the Tamil Nadu government’s announcement that all students from Classes 1 to 8 in all schools will be considered ‘pass’ based on the Right To Education Act, a class 7 girl V Karthikeyani asked, “The government would declare us pass till class 8. What will we do after that? If we do not study well now, how will we be able to face the public exams? There has been no light in any of our houses for the past 10 days and the exams are ongoing. How will we study?”

Debris of homes in Govindasamy nagar
Debris where once homes stood in Govindasamy Nagar. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

Sivagami P, works as a housemaid in the nearby apartments. Her main source of income is from household work. Now that she has been given a token for a house in Navalur which is not only on the outskirts of the city but also on the 3rd floor, neither she nor her husband who are both in their 60s could climb the stairs. “There is no electricity connection, lift facility, shops to buy basic amenities or a source for livelihood,” she said.

This eviction drive also went against the government’s own Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued earlier in April whereby it was to provide adequate notice for the residents prior to eviction, engage packers and movers to help residents shift their properties to resettlement areas, and organise camps to ensure that changes to be made in documents such as ration card, voter ID and Aadhaar to match their new resettlement address.

The delay in implementation of the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy of the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB) has also resulted in lack of pre-resettlement activities such as public consultation and other support such as economic support for the self-employed or provision of a subsistence allowance to the relocated residents.

Read more: Government should not use slum eviction to further ‘Singara Chennai’ agenda : Migration expert

Actions of the state

In response to the petitioner in the contempt case in the SC, the state government not only gave a statement in favour of the residents but also went on to add that the businessman had vested interests.

“His only interest is to gain additional wider access to his properties from the canal bank side to increase the real estate value of his property that is located adjacent to the encroached area. He is misusing the PIL for personal gain without realising that the resettlement of slum dwellers is a sensitive issue and the government has to tread cautiously,” read the 2015 affidavit filed by the Secretary to Housing and Urban Development Department of the Tamil Nadu government.

However, the officials, who carried out the eviction this April, said that they were ultimately bound by the SC’s direction and were merely following it. 

While the case was ongoing for years, the death of Kannaiyan has drawn the attention of many. Chief Minister MK Stalin who expressed his condolence for the death of Kannaiyan in Tamil Nadu Assembly, announced that going forward, opinion would be sought from the residents on the relocation sites prior to any eviction. 

The resettlement would be carried out only after all the basic amenities are ensured in the resettlement site and the eviction would be done only after resettlement. A policy in this regard that favours the welfare of the public would soon be drafted. He further assured that the residents would be allotted dwelling units constructed by the TNUHDB in nearby areas of Mandaveli and Mylapore.

However, the allotment orders for 259 tenements for residents evicted from Govindasamy Nagar have already been issued. “As no other TNUHDB tenements were available in nearby locations, allotment orders were issued for houses in Perumbakkam for 126 families, Kannagi Nagar and Ezhil Nagar for 48 families, Semmancherry for 17 families and Navalur for 68 families,” said the officials from the TNUHDB. 

Contradicting the residents’ complaints that there were no basic amenities in the allocated dwelling units, they said that 259 tenements were kept ready for occupation with all basic amenities. They also added that of 159 houses, for which demolition orders were passed, 43 were not demolished as there were students appearing for Class 10 and 12 board exams.

The outcome of the case and subsequent eviction has laid bare the precarious living condition of many residents in Chennai’s notified and non-notified slums. With recent court rulings and actions of the state pointing towards the inevitability of eviction and relocation to the fringes for many of the city’s long-time residents, the anxiety among those without security of tenure has only escalated with these events.

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