Public meeting on continuing slum eviction in Chennai

Transparent Cities Network* (TCN) organized a public meeting on Saturday, August 8, to discuss land rights and tenure security in Chennai. In the last 30 years, demolition of slums and eviction of their residents has been an all too frequent occurence. In the last ten years alone, at least 63 evictions have taken place affecting over 150,000 people. The most recent incident is the demolition in Govindasamy Nagar (near Greenways MRTS), where demolitions took place as recently as Friday, August 7.

Govindasamy Nagar Eviction

Slum evictees are typically relocated to tenaments on the peripheries of the city, such as Kannagi Nagar, Perumbakkam, and Semmenchery. The new locations have poor infrastructure and are very distant from the source of livelihoods of the people who are forced to relocate there. The evictions themselves are arbitrary, often violent, and do not follow many existing regulations. The pretext for eviction can be anything from road-widening, canal cleaning, “park” building, beautification, etc. The slum-dwellers are working class citizens who have given their lives to building up Chennai and providing important services. Through these evictions, they are denied their right to the city and their livelihood.

The goal of the meeting was to build a broad based coalition of groups who will contribute to the struggle for the working class’s ‘Right to the City’. The groups in attendence included activist groups Pen-Urimai-Iyakkam and Pen Thozhilaalar Sangam; NGOs Thozhamai and Action Aid; several independent reseachers and activists; as well as residents of slums currently under forced eviction.

Background of laws and schemes

The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, 1971, lays down how the government is to intervene in slum areas. It says that the government should first identify a slum area and ‘declare’ it to be a slum on the basis of a set legal definition. A settlement that has been ‘declared’ or ‘notified’ as a slum gains some legal protections. The government is also mandated to improve these areas, for example by providing amenities like public transportation, water, sanitation, schools, health facilities, etc. In the years following the passage of the law in 1971, the government declared many slums, but since 1985 no new slums have been declared. Central Government schemes like Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) laid down that a certain percentage of the urban land developed should be set aside for housing the poor. In addition, these schemes also alloted money to be spent on housing and related infrastructure for the urban poor. The NDA government has recently announced some schemes for urban development, namely Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), Smart Cities Mission, and Atal Mission for Renewal and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). These differ from the earlier schemes in that they do not provide any land rights or tenure security to the poor. They also bring in private players, but do not include any safeguards to protect people from profit-mongerers from short-changing them.

TCN case study detailing the current reality

Transparent Cities Network has conducted a study on evictions in Chennai in the last decade. At least 63 evictions have taken place, affecting 30,000 families or 150,000 people. Of these at least 4,511 families were not provided resettlement. Further 7 of the 63 evictions took place in declared slums.

Jacintha, Pradeepan and Vijay, members of the Community Outreach & Advisory of CAG and members of TCN presented fact-finding reports from two sites. The first report described an attempted eviction in Konnur High Road, which is located in a central part of Chennai, and is a declared slum under the 1971 Act. There have been eviction attempts in Konnur High Road in 1984 and 2011, which the residents successfully resisted through collective action and through a legal victory in the High Court. In 2014, another eviction attempt took place. The residents were forced and threatened to accept highly unfavourable terms and move to Ezhilnagar, a slum relocation site in the periphery of the city. Nobody knows the reason for this eviction.

The second TCN report described Ezhilnagar itself. The relocation site borders Kannagi Nagar, and is situated some 25 kilometres from Konnur High Road. Despite many promises by the government, the infrastructure and safety in Ezhilnagar is abysmal. The resettlement houses are poorly designed, with limited access to water, sanitation, schools, or health facilities. The apartments also feature long, narrow, dimly-lit hallways that have become breeding grounds for crime, which is largely ignored by the police. Most of the resettled residents still work near Konnur High Road, and now spend several hours a day commuting. The fact finding team also found two plots of vacant land near Konnur High Road, which can potentially be used as resettlement colonies instead of Ezhilnagar.

Testimonies from Govindsami Nagar

The meeting was also attended by residents of Govindsami Nagar, who are currently facing demolitions and tremendous pressure to leave their premises and move to relocation colonies. Damodaran, 28, described his situation. His grandfather moved to Govindsami Nagar in 1965, and the settlement was declared a slum in 1973. Since then, people have been paying house tax and have invested their efforts in developing the area. In this case, it is not the government who is directly behind the evictions. Rather, there is a private individual by the name of Rajiv Rai who claims to own the lands, and who has won his case in the High Court. The court proceedings did not involve the slum residents at all, and they got to know about the matter when an official surveying the area (for the sake of organizing evictions) told them about it. Both the government and local politicians have refused to take any interest in the case, despite the fact that the government officially recoginized the slum. The government is now quietly following the court’s orders to evict the slum, and forcing the residents to move to Ezhilnagar.

Mr. Rai has filed a contempt of court case in the Supreme Court, because the High Court’s order to return the land have not been met. The case has been filed against some government officials, and does not involve the residents at all. Meanwhile the residents have filed a review petition challenging the High Court’s decision. Even while the petition is pending, demolitions, evictions and threats are continuing. Another resident of the Govidsami Nagar settlement talked about the conditions in Ezhilnagar, to which they are under pressure to relocate. Most of the people in the colony work in Mylapore, so after relocating, people are having to spend four hours a day and a lot of money commuting to work. The Slum Act 1971 requires that slum dwellers be re-settled within a radius of 5 kilometers, and that there should be at least 3 notices prior to eviction. None of these regulations are being followed in this case.

R.Geetha on the importance of collective struggle

R. Geetha of Pen Urimai Iyakkam spoke of the need to build a movement to counter the State and Corporate efforts to evict slum dwellers. She recounted the success stories of Serkan Thottam, Kodambakkam, and another eviction attempts involving adivasis. In both cases, people managed to resist the eviction by building a strong movement. Geetha stressed that people should not leave their homes under threat, because later it would be framed as though they left willingly. She spoke of the right of labourers to live (or ‘squat’) where they work. Since the city is sustained through the toil of workers, they have a right to the city. In fact, one fourth of the land in any housing development should be reserved for the urban poor. When it comes to private interests, the State is willing to bend the law and give the land. As an example,the Chennai Municipality evicted declared slums in order to build a parking lot for an Apollo Hospital, which itself is built illegally.

According to Geetha, the present movement should be directed not just at fighting evictions, but also at reclaiming land for the poor (for example by pointing out violations of Land Ceiling Act). One success story in this vein occurred in Ennore, where people had been evicted and resettled in a site 20 kms away. Meanwhile, a Hindustan Lever plant in Ennore had shut down. Through the sustained efforts of Pen Urimai Iyakkam, the evicted people were able to move to this newly unused plot of land. Geeta also said that the movement must be city-wide and broad-based. The Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao (Save Houses, Build Houses) Andolan, which is a similar broad-based movement in Bombay, has achieved a measure of success.

Karen Coelho: This is a fight for land

Karen Coelho of MIDS emphasized that the fight for housing is essentially a fight for land. Most of the city’s programs involve taking over land from the urban poor and giving to various parties. For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report about MRTS is very negative, and criticizes the excessive land taken over for the MRTS stations. There is a widespread belief that the city’s slums are polluting and dirty, but studies have suggested that other agencies pollute even more. For example, Metro Water has 350 outlets dumping dirty water into the Koovam River. Furthermore, slums receive far less sanitation infrastructure than mandated by law. In one incident, the Tamil Nadu Slum Board declined an offer for a low cost sanitation system from a consulatant, because the slums were to be evicted anyway! So we see that the real fight is for land. In particular, we need to fight for policies and laws that consider the social purpose of land, not just the economic purpose. Land should be used to provide housing, transportation, etc; and not just monetized through real estate development.

Directions for future action

Broadly the directions for future action are:

1) Build a broad city-wide movement involving many slums and the educated middle class to fight against slum evictions and for the ‘Right to City’, through legal methods and a policy push.

2) Look for proactive measures to counter slum evictions and reclaim land, for example through the Land Ceiling Act and by identifying vacant lands close to slums.

3) The first step of the coalition should be to set up a fact-finding team to investigate the details of the Govindsami Nagar case.

*Transparent Cities Network (TCN) is a project of Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG) aimed at building a common understanding of the problems of the urban poor, using data and technology.

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