From Frying pan into the Fire: The plight of Chennai’s slum dwellers since the floods

Public Hearing on Slum Evictions

The government of Tamilnadu, in accordance with the Central Government’s wish that encroachments along water bodies are removed at the latest, has moved in with great vigour to remove slum dwellers from river banks and move them to the relocation sites on Old Mahabalipuram Road. The Chief Minister of TN had announced that over 10000 families will be relocated very soon and the numbers seem to increase with time. While the government claims that this is a measure to help flood victims move to safer houses, the sites that have been allocated for resettlement were themselves severely inundated in the recent floods and do not offer any better condition than those the residents are presently evicted from. A previous news story on this site had covered some of the issues arising from this process of eviction and relocation.

Jury members at Public hearing

Jury members at Public hearing

In an attempt to make the voice of the slum dwellers heard and to stop this bulldozing of working class families to peripheral ghettos, Unorganized Workers Federation along with National Alliance of People’s Movements, Penn Urimai Iyakkam and Kadhaloora Padhugapu Iyakkam, organized a public hearing on 31st December at BEFI Hall, Chennai. Over 200 people from across 20 slums participated in the public hearing and deposed before the jury members. Many organizations, including Thozhamai, Peoples Architecture Commanweal, Right to City, Action Aid, Theendamai Ozhippu Munnani and Penn Urimai Iyyakam members also deposed.

Participants at Public Hearing

Participants at Public Hearing

During this hearing, many people raised criticisms about the process in which a natural disaster is being used to push anti working class agenda. ‘We faced the floods first, now it is the government and this is a bigger disaster than floods as we lose our homes for ever’ said one of the victims who resides around Adyar. Many people objected to the lack of options and the enormous distance that they will have to travel because of this relocation. Another important and strident criticism that emerged was the fact that this move is being made during an ongoing academic year that has itself suffered severely due to almost two months of closure due to rains. Some raised issues of discrimination being meted out to different slums that are being evicted under varying schemes, while others sought a more comprehensive policy on rehabilitation. Some suggestions were making insitu improvement as the preferred mode and making consultation and consent as mandatory requirements before evictions. The disproportionate impact on Dalit families and women were presented.

In concluding the hearing, the jury members maintained that while the floods could have been due to heavy rains, the disaster was clearly a government failure and scapegoating only the slum dwellers was not the right way to address this issue. They also pointed out that encroachments does not mean only slums, and cited numerous examples of institutions, including government agencies, that have encroached upon water bodies and water ways. A jury member remarked that the present action by the government effectively throws the slum dwellers from the frying pan into the fire as the relocation sites are themselves water bodies and flood plains. She remarked how even during minor storms, the relocation sites get flooded.

Jury members were Ms Saraswathi, from PUCL-TN, Mr Arasu, Chief Engg with PWD (Retd), Adv Badher Sayeed, Mr Vinayagam from Naager Senai, Mr Saravanaraja – environmentalist. Senior journalist and political commentator Mr Gnani, joined during the later part of the hearing. Justice Chandru could not be part of the hearing as he was indisposed.

The report and recommendation of the jury members is awaited soon. Many leaders among the organizing committee felt that the report would help strategize their demands with the government, especially in an election year.

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