In Chennai’s resettlement colonies, life comes full circle with the floods

The recent rains have put families in resettlement colonies in the same situation as in 2015, with scant access to health and sanitation facilities.

“I feel like crying when talking about the problems we are facing now,” laments Mary, a resident of Chennai’s Perumbakkam resettlement colony, who has been grappling with the recent floods. “We do not have access to water, electricity or food. Government authorities have not taken any relief measures whatsoever.” Anguished voices such as Mary’s are now echoing across the resettlement colonies in the city.

Unlike buildings elsewhere, people on the ground floor were not the only ones who had water enter their homes. “The top floors had water leaking in many of the buildings because the construction is of poor quality,” says Maha, another resident. A few others show a video of some residents frantically trying to figure out the source of the leak in their house — something they must have done until a few years ago when their homes were not made of brick and mortar, but then were promised safer, sturdy housing elsewhere. 

The state of neglect is even more clear on days when clouds part. The mildewy walls of the colony look saturated with dampness; yet, a series of drain pipes that abruptly stop above the lintel continue to feed more dirty water, drop by drop, into these walls. On the ground, hedgerows found along the alleys of fancy apartment complexes are replaced with long trails of greywater here.

Read more: COVID-19: Women, children in low-income housing bore the worst brunt

The history of these dwellings

The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, now rechristened as the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB), has constructed a total of 1,31,600 housing units across Chennai, Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur districts as part of various resettlement programmes.

A large section of the tenements are occupied by residents relocated from the banks of Adyar, Cooum, and Buckingham Canal following the 2015 floods. Following the recent spells of intense rains this November, the residents have got yet another reminder that little has changed for them since the last deluge. 

Although the families were purportedly removed from their original habitations to protect them from disasters, they have been put in the path of floods again. Further, the recent spate of intense rains puts basic needs of about 60,000 resettled families in Chennai including access to water, health and sanitation (WASH) further in jeopardy. 

Sanitation and health are major concerns in Chennai resettlement colonies.
The recent rains have put families in resettlement colonies in the same situation as in 2015, with scant access to health and sanitation facilities. Pic: Hariprasad Radhakrishnan

Vanessa Peter, founder of the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), says that issues with regard to water, sanitation and hygiene stem from the rehabilitation measures taken by the government.

The problems faced by each of the resettlement colonies vary widely as the infrastructure and amenities provided were non-uniform to begin with. “Some of the old generation resettlement colonies like Kannagi Nagar do not even have access to tap water inside the housing units,” says Vanessa. “On the other hand, in Perumbakkam, the taps are fitted inside bathrooms. People feel this goes against their dignity. If taps are provided in the kitchen, it can be used in the bathroom, but not the other way around.”

The differences in the amenities offered also vary widely depending on the funding agency. “Each of the agencies such as the World Bank, Japan International Cooperative Agency, KfW, etc. fund different sets of components in resettlement and rehabilitation projects. So, the overall facilities, livelihood training, and subsistence allowances differ between resettlement colonies, and even within the same one,” says Dr Nundiyni AD, lead researcher at IRCDUC.

Basic services not treated as entitlements

In many of the resettlement areas, public facilities including health centres and schools were set up not before the resettlement, but were provided years after following numerous appeals. “Even after they are built, in some of the PHCs, compounders provide medicines on their own at the health centres,” says Nundiyny.

In addition to a lack of homogeneity among resettlement sites, the efficiency of residents’ welfare associations also creates disparity in living conditions with some buildings and neighbouring alleys being better maintained and more hygienic. “Some of the welfare associations in Perumbakkam, especially those of the host communities that were living at the resettlement site before the tenements were built, function better. Hence, these buildings are in a better condition,” says Kausalya, another resident of the colony. The residents say that when some members of political outfits become functionaries of the RWAs, they may not look after the interests of all residents.

Read more: 7600 families, one PDS centre: How resettled slum dwellers buy rations in Perumbakkam

Mary says that residents are often forced to shell out bribes to field staff for repairs by collecting money through RWAs. “For instance, when the power is out, the RWA is forced to pay a few hundred rupees as a bribe. Otherwise, the next time we have a problem, the staff will not fix it.” 

A number of basic services and amenities, which should have been basic entitlements for any resettled family, are not easily accessible. The question that now arises, therefore, is whether the fates of these residents will change with the state government releasing the Draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy in October.

Gaps aplenty in the draft policy

“In the absence of a policy so far, people could not demand these facilities as an entitlement. Once the guidelines are released based on the policy, these entitlements would also extend to the older resettlement colonies as well,” says Antony Stephen, Head of the Department of Social Entrepreneurship at the Madras School of Social Work, adding that the government was also planning to relocate a large number of families as part of Singara Chennai 2.0.

But, the draft has a number of gaps with regard to WASH. The policy document lays out provisions for safe drinking water, adequate drainage facilities and access to a sub-health centre within two kilometres. But, it still does not guarantee that the facilities would be created before the resettlement colony itself. 

Further, the roles and responsibilities of the Residents’ Welfare Associations and the TNUHDB are not clearly assigned, making grievance redressal difficult. As per the Board, RWAs are responsible for “maintenance and other general works in the tenemental area.” However, the government agency continues to collect maintenance charges “taking into account the expenses already incurred in the past.” 

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

A senior official at the TNUHDB said that the board had received feedback on a number of aspects with regard to the draft R&R policy, and they will be addressed when the final policy is released.

Experts point out that the draft policy does have a few welcome provisions with regard to grievance redressal and social audits in the resettlement colonies. As per the policy, a nodal officer from the land-owning department must dispose of a petition within 15 days and in the case of emergencies, within seven days. 

The social audits are to be conducted with the participation of academic institutions and RWAs within the first two years to examine whether the R&R scheme has been implemented properly. “This is a first step to understand the deficits. The government should also address them with enhanced community participation. These measures should also be extended to the existing resettlement sites,” says Vanessa. Come rain or shine, urban poor living on the fringes must not be deprived of their basic right to a dignified life.

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