Chennai’s decades-long policy failure to address housing issues of the urban poor

Housing and homelessness have been issues that the urban poor have grappled with in Chennai due to flawed eviction and resettlement policies.

Chennai has long been guilty of excluding marginalised communities from the scope of its flagship projects such as Singara Chennai.

Explaining this historical marginalisation process, the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), in its ‘Urban October Campaign’ says that historically, marginalised communities settled near water bodies in Chennai, as these were the only available lands that were neither in demand nor in possession of affluent communities. Forcibly dislocating marginalised and vulnerable families from their places of habitation to the city margins, without exploring possibilities of relocation near their existing sites of residence, is an act of socio-spatial segregation that has been taking place in Chennai for decades.

Over the past two years, Citizen Matters has covered various angles and impacts of such eviction drives and resettlements in Chennai and the impact it has on the lives of the urban poor.

Evictions drive people to homelessness in Chennai

Chennai is home to many informal settlements that go by the name of Thideer Nagar. According to the residents, the name ‘Thideer Nagar’ was derived from how the thatched huts in the settlements along the river banks used to catch fire all of a sudden, perhaps a very old tactic used to evict the people. Notably, many of these Thideer Nagars in Chennai are also located along the river banks. The story ‘Life in the many Thideer Nagars of Chennai‘ paints a picture of lives in these Thideer Nagars, that stand at the risk of eviction anytime now.

Highlighting the precariousness of life in such settlements is a paper titled “Lines in the Mud”, authored by Karen Coelho of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS). The paper delves into how eri restoration efforts have become sites of social tragedy in Chennai, as a result of the almost exclusive focus on the removal of encroachments. They result in the brutal eviction of thousands of working-class families that have struggled over decades to build a foothold in the city. The rise of property-led environmentalism and the exclusionary nature of urban environmentalism is taking place across Chennai in the name of lake and riverfront development

Thideer Nagar near Saidapet
The tall buildings on one side of the banks of Cooum and the tiled roof houses in Thideer Nagar on the other side show the glaring inequality in Chennai. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

While the aforementioned stories give the idea that the people in informal settlements live in fear of being evicted all year long, the case of eviction in Govindasamy Nagar is a unique example of how an individual can use the system to forcefully remove people from their lands.

This incident came to light on May 8, 2022, with harrowing visuals of the self-immolation attempts by G Kannaiyan, a 58-year-old resident of Govindasamy Nagar, who died in protest against the forced eviction drive carried out in the locality.

The evictions happened in the backdrop of a Supreme Court (SC) ruling that labelled the residents as encroachers and ordered their relocation. It was one recent example of how the state failed to defend its citizens and gave up its decades-long struggle for an individual’s interest. This also happened right in the middle of the final exams leaving many school children to drop out from the schools.

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

A year after the incident when I revisited the same spot, which was once home to those hundreds of families, I found that the spot was now an abandoned site. Some of the demolished houses were turned into cow sheds.

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

While the case of Govindasamy Nagar showed the immediate impact of eviction on the people during the eviction drive, the case of Kannppar Thidal is one where hundreds of families were left in limbo without a proper resettlement plan.

A house of two family in a dilapidated building in Kannappar Thidal,Chennai
This single room is the house of two families that accommodates seven members in Kannappar Thidal. There is a cot, a small space for the kitchen and a television set in this room. Pic: Shoabana Radhakrishnan

There is a reason why the residents deny believing the promises made by the government at the time of eviction. A two-storey building in Kannappar Thidal, has been home to hundreds of residents who were evicted two decades ago with a promise of alternative accommodation in ‘three months’ time’.

Over the past year, we have been consistently covering the developments in providing housing for the families in Kannappar Thidal.

Read more: Life in single-room homes in Chennai

Nightmare continues in resettled housing in Chennai

The struggle with housing doesn’t stop at evictions. The nightmares continue to haunt the people who have been evicted from their residences and resettled on the outskirts of the city.

The two-part article based on the report by IRCDUC titled Life on the Margins – Access to Basic Infrastructure Facilities in the Resettlement Sites of Chennai, points out several key issues pertaining to living conditions in resettlement areas. The report was based on the study conducted in five resettlement sites — Perumbakkam, Semmenchery, Gudapakkam, Navalur and All India Radio (AIR) Site, with an objective to identify both site-specific and common issues faced by the resettled families.

In addition to being uprooted from places where they lived for decades, those being ‘resettled’ by the government are not given a place to call a ‘home’, highlights the study

murals in kannagi nagar, Chennai
Large murals have been painted on the walls of Kannagi Nagar in three editions of the art district project. However, the condition of the houses inside the building continues to remain worse. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

While the studies have shown that the resettled families face a lot of issues even in the resettled sites, the resettlement site in Kannagi Nagar became a sudden spot of attraction for many artists and photographers. This was because of the colourful murals that adorn the walls of Kannagi Nagar, which is called Chennai’s first ‘Art District’. But beyond the colourful walls lies the harsh realities and the glaring daily life struggles of the Kannagi Nagar residents.

Resettlement sites where those evicted from across Chennai are moved to are known to be constructed in poorly connected areas, with a lack of people-centric infrastructure, often neglected by the state. But another often neglected complication that arises as a result of the resettlement is that many stop receiving their pension once they move to their new homes. Reports point out that 44 per cent of the women-headed households have lost their livelihood after resettlement (IRCDUC, 2020) and 40 per cent of persons with disabilities have lost their livelihood after resettlement (IRCDUC, 2020), cutting the access the pensions for senior citizen stand testimony to nothing but the poor governance.

Yet another major issue that the families in resettlement sites face are the space constraint and lack of safety. As years pass the families grow. However, the government does not have a plan to accommodate those growing families. This affects the most vulnerable groups – children and senior citizens. While the senior citizens are forced out of their houses, a new settlement is formed around the same area. On the other hand, this also results in school dropouts and increasing trends of child marriages in resettlement colonies.

The IRCDUC reports point out that 96% of the evictions carried out in Chennai from 2015 to 2022 were carried out for the ‘restoration of waterbodies’. On the contrary, the intense rains in 2021 November only came as a reminder to these residents that little has changed for them since the last deluge.

The resettlement sites too have been the subject of urban flooding. The plight of Perumbakkam residents during the rains shows how basic services were not met in the resettlement areas, making them the victims of the same cycle they have been unfairly accused of propagating.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the IRCDUC and International Accountability Project (IAP), on World Bank-financed housing projects in Chennai and across Tamil Nadu reveals that nearly four decades after the implementation of the project, a majority of the beneficiaries still await land titles and sale deeds that were promised to them. The delay from the Government to address the issue at the earliest despite acknowledging the existence of this problem, leaves the rightsholders with no ownership or claim on the land.

Read more: How flawed eviction and resettlement are triggering child marriages in Chennai

Reconstruction of housing units in Chennai traps families in debt

Though there are a lot of issues in the resettlement areas of TNUHDB housing units in Chennai, these houses are a dream come true to thousands of families as the concrete building means that their children now have a roof over their heads come rain or shine. However, these houses have served their purpose for only one generation of residents before beginning to fall apart.

The lack of maintenance of these multi-storey buildings has started posing grave hazards to the safety and well-being of the residents in these tenements. In a telling incident, a four-storey dilapidated building belonging to the TNUHDB in Tiruvottiyur, which had as many as 24 units, collapsed on December 27, 2021. Though nobody was injured in the accident, the incident served as a wake-up call. The TNUHDB formed committees to assess the quality of the old buildings and decided to reconstruct some of them.

Though the TNUHDB’s decision to reconstruct the houses has come as a welcome move, the families who were moved out from the tenements during the reconstruction period have found themselves trapped in a cycle of debt as they do not have any alternative housing arrangements made during the period of reconstruction. To make matters worse, the residents have been kept in the dark about the new plan for homes to be constructed and many project timelines have faced delays that extend into years.

In a three-part story, we have looked into the anecdotal experiences of families that are trapped in a vicious debt cycle, a reality check on the promise made by the TNUHDB to reconstruct the tenements in two years and the role of residents’ welfare associations in addressing the key issues in these tenements.

Revamp of policies on housing and homelessness necessary

On 16 October 2021, close to 50 families residing on the pavements near the Egmore Railway Station were evacuated and shifted to a temporary shelter near Pattalam, by the Chennai Corporation and the city police. This incident ironically happened four days after the Tamil Nadu Government released the Draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Policy. The draft policy emphasizes that people who are being resettled should be “treated fairly and humanely”.

In an interview with Citizen Matter, Antony Stephen, a migration specialist and Assistant Professor from the Department of Social Entrepreneurship, Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), has explored the implications of the draft R&R policy for the slum dwellers of Chennai and housing for the urban poor in general.

Further, in an attempt to consolidate the views of the different civil society agencies to further strengthen the homeless people’s wishlist ahead of the Tamil Nadu Budget for 2023-24, the Information and Resource Center for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) conducted a stakeholders consultation meeting on January 12, 2023. As an outcome of the meeting, IRCDUC published a report on the ‘Wishlist to tackle homelessness’, which further emphasises the need for a comprehensive intervention in the areas of housing and homelessness. 

As Vanessa Peter, Founder of IRCDUC, points out, “Seeing housing as a standalone approach to addressing urban deprivation has failed long ago. Giving land rights to the people is the solution as it will not only give them a sense of ownership of their land and the building but also make them actively take part in looking after the land and the building.”

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