Why COVID proved to be a greater challenge in Chennai’s resettlement colonies

The lockdown has exposed the grave vulnerabilities of lakhs of people in resettlement colonies of Chennai. What are the lessons from this experience?

Five or more people cooped up for 24 hours in a room 10×10 sq ft. The children barely catch a sliver of the sky above their heads. The women deprived of any kind of interaction with their neighbours and friends, which had been the only respite from their usual grueling, monotonous domestic schedules. The men, caught in the confines of four walls 24×7, more dour and impatient than usual.

As the spread of COVID-19 and the effort to curb it resulted in India enforcing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, this was the reality for thousands of families in Chennai, as in the rest of the country. Especially for those who live in public housing, in starkly different conditions from that of the relatively privileged who can afford comfortable living arrangements. 

What does isolation and staying indoors for months means when a family of four or more have to stay in a 100 sq. ft room? What happens if one of them is infected with COVID-19? A visit to any of the resettlement colonies in the city will give you a glimpse.

What COVID means for the resettled

Over the past few decades, many Chennaiites have faced eviction from their homes as a result of various policies pursued by the government and due to natural disasters such as the tsunami and flooding. Over the past year, many dwellings on the banks of these rivers have been demolished, with hundreds of families moved to resettlement colonies in Perumbakkam, Semmenchery and Kannagi Nagar.

The resettlement colonies themselves have come under criticism for their lack of basic civic amenities, the condition of the houses and the absence of proper transport, education and health facilities available for residents here. These shortfalls have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the resultant lockdown.

Old TNSCB tenements in Tsunami Nagar are a mere 120 sq.ft. The newer tenements in Perumbakkam measure 380 sq ft. The lockdown and COVID-related isolation has seen entire families share such a small, stifling space for months.

“My family of five has had a tough time. The single living room that we all share felt more like a prison when everyone was forced to be home all the time. The past few months have been worrisome because we share common toilets and water has also been an issue. So far, we have luckily not seen many cases in our block but the lockdown was extremely difficult to manage,” says Semmalar T of Kannagi Nagar.

The small size of the tenements made isolation for those infected with COVID-19 a stressful experience. Dr Archana Padmakar, Deputy Director at The Banyan, working on mental health with poor and vulnerable communities, says, “We have families which access our out patient clinics, who have had relatives diagnosed with COVID-19. They hardly have space to isolate themselves, as they have only one room in some cases.”

Those affected by COVID-19 had the option of being isolated at the government-run COVID Care Centers. But many of them were discharged in a week. Upon their return, they had to remain isolated in their homes, which proved to be a big challenge given the size of these dwellings.

Dr Archana points out that some of them isolated themselves along with their family and avoided stepping out, in view of public health concerns. In some other cases neighbours took the responsibility of the children, while some sent other family members away to relatives’ houses.

Making ends meet

In addition to all these dilemmas, was the sustenance challenge.

“We have had little to no income since the lockdown. Buses weren’t plying until recently, so we had no way to reach the city to seek alternative employment. We walked to the nearby neighbourhoods to find odd jobs. We have always complained about how we are so far away from the city, but COVID-19 has really underlined our plight and made our worst fears come true,” says Kanaga M, a resident of Semmenchery. 

The Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), which works on pro-people reforms through evidence-based policy research, found four main challenges faced by these communities in the wake of the pandemic:

  • Physical distancing is difficult because of the congested nature of the settlement
  • Scarcity of water for washing hands and shared toilets (public toilet) is a cause of concern
  • Small spaces for residing and less open spaces in the settlements makes it very difficult to stay indoors
  • The adverse impact of the lockdown on the livelihoods of the individuals resulted in increased indebtedness and domestic violence in the families

     Source: IRCDUC

Issues of concern

There have been repeated calls by researchers and experts on the need for a rights-based approach to housing that actively takes into consideration the needs of residents.

The density of these housing colonies has been called into question in the past, with the CAG report flagging violations of the National Building Code of India with the construction of 251 dwellings instead of the permissible 150 on 1 hectare of land in Perumbakkam. 

The tenements in Perumbakkam resettlement colony are densely packed with 198 units in a block. Pic: Laasya Shekar

Vanessa Peter, Policy Researcher, IRCDUC is of the view that the housing programme of the state has failed to address the issue of congestion. She cites the example of Perumbakkam where each block has 198 houses each.

“The mass resettlement projects have only concretised slums, but not provided better conditions. COVID-19 has exposed all the vulnerabilities of looking at housing through the lens of infrastructure and not habitat development”, says Vanessa.

There is also a stark need for more civic amenities, that has been especially highlighted during COVID-19. “If someone living in a G+3 (ground floor +3 floors) housing block, which doesn’t have lifts, needs an ambulance they must be physically carried down. In places, the lanes are too narrow for ambulances to enter so they have to be carried to the main road which is wider.”

Hygiene and sanitation are also major concerns among the people in the resettlement colonies. Water supply is only available in the bathrooms in houses and piped supply is not linked to the kitchen; the burden of maintaining sanitary conditions invariably falls on the women. 

The road to change

Greater participation of the community in the housing process is the need of the hour.

Vanessa is of the view that the housing policy needs a complete rethink, especially post-COVID. “Housing needs to be looked at like a project with a DPR (Detailed Project Report) and a set objective. Right now, there is a complete disconnect with the community. The choices to be made are tough if the options are creating a congested ten-floor tenement or moving people to far away peripheries,” she says.

Architect and urban designer Vidhya Mohan Kumar calls for innovations in the approach to building resettlement colonies. The pandemic has presented various unmet needs of the community. Solutions to this could be piloted in the existing resettlement colonies and if they prove effective, could be replicated in future constructions.

Vidhya cites the lack of use of open spaces in resettlement colonies and says, “Much of the lives of the people in resettlement colonies are lived outside their dwelling units, due to the small size of the houses. There are two readings from this: first, that the units must be made larger. Secondly, the spaces outside must be designed better, because right now these spaces are hardly attended to.”

Talking about the high level of social cohesion and sharing of resources in many low-income communities, Vidhya says that the authorities could explore transforming common areas and open spaces into community kitchens and study centres for children. This approach could aid the families in easing aspects of their life they face issues with, due to the small size of their homes.

As for the residents themselves, they are now grateful enough for the respite from the strict lockdown, despite the rise in number of cases. “I am happy to be able to get outside for a bit. We are still taking all precautions against the virus. But if the lockdown had been extended, more people would have had to ‘suffer’ staying in their own homes, something that we have been complaining about ever since we were moved here,” says Velayuthan S of Semmenchery.

Also read:

Inside anganwadis in Chennai’s relocated slums

A tale of uncertain futures along the Buckingham canal

7600 families, one PDS centre

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