The City to its People: Can the Working Class reclaim Chennai?

The working class of Chennai, especially those living in slums are not new to temporary displacement during rains. Every year, the slum dwellers find themselves in temporary shelters depending on the sympathy of the local officials, unions and NGOs to help them for their immediate needs. Every monsoon, the media would report traffic congestion due to roads being inundated with water. Temporary disruptions of power and other services are the norm. Schools would be temporarily closed by order of Government, sometime minutes before the classes were to start for the day.

This year monsoon started no differently for Chennai. The slums of Saidapet’s Athuma Nagar(whose inhabitants would eventually be relocated to Ezhil Nagar) were affected by rains as early as Nov 16th[1]. Transport was choked and garbage mixed with sewage and storm water washed up in the shores of Chennai beach [2, 3]. These were nothing but rituals like Floods in Orissa, North East Floods, Margazhi Vizha to be repeated and noted every year.

stood_as_equal_croppedHowever, December 1st changed everything. Twenty four hours of incessant rains followed by opening up of sluice gates of Chembarambakkam lake and Poondi reservoir and breaches of several small lakes saw Chennai and its neighboring regions inundated with water. The floods affected all the classes of Chennai from rich to poor, from capital to labour, from upper caste to lower caste [4]. As the citizens of Chennai rose to deal with the breakdown in the state and public infrastructure, heroic endeavors, religion, class and caste came into play both enriching the crossover alliances and rupturing the mechanism of coping.

Using personal experiences, media discourses and articulations, we want to highlight the space that floods in Chennai have created to explore alternative socialist politics.

Cause of the rains and floods

Almost every one agrees that the Chennai floods was not a natural disaster but man made due to the failures of economic development and pro capitalist state. The statement of Chief Minister Jayalalitha that this is a ‘once in hundred years natural calamity’ is seen as an evasive posturing from accountability in the face of the realities of the ground. In particular, the opening up of sluice gates of Chembarambakkam reservoir and Poondi reservoir, which were opened up without any warning by the officials, has been deemed as the main reason for this ‘man-made’ disaster. In fact, a an article by Times of India on Dec 9th exposes the paralysis of the State machinery which failed to act even with advance warning of preparing for the deluge in Dec 1st and Dec 2nd. The question posed by Times of India ‘whose orders were the bureaucrats waiting for to open the reservoir sluices?’ is yet to be answered[5].

The unregulated development of Chennai as an economic center( fueled by IT and manufacturing centers in and around Chennai) and speculative real estate development over the myriad of water ways, which have been abandoned and encroached, has come under criticism by the left for its impact on the floods [6, 7]. Civil society has highlighted ‘rampant violation of the coastal regulation laws, unchecked construction on environmentally sensitive land, and blocking of natural drainage systems‘ by ‘legalized’ and illegal encroachments by both private and State led capital [8]. The construction of Airport runways over the Adyar river, the shrinking of Pallikaranai Marshlands for IT sector and apartment complexes, SEZs in Sriperumbudur and Maraimalai nagar that concretised catchment areas, Mass Rapid Transport Systems over river Adyar,Cooum and other waterways, Port Development in Ennore creek and sensitive inter-tidal zones along the coast, Roads and Educational Institutes on water-bodies are some examples of these unregulated structures.

A further analysis on the flooding has been the pattern of the rainfall and its linkage to global climate degradation. In his article, Nagaraj Adve, a member of India Climate Justice, has articulated mechanisms to link Chennai deluge to global climate changes [9]. According to NASA scientist Tony Del Geneo, while exceptions will occur in natural phenomenons, recurrence of such phenomenon can indicate a linkage to climate change. Chennai experienced heavy rain fall in 1969, 1976, 1985, 1996, 1998, 2005 now 2015 [9, 10]. According to these sources, the Centre for Science and Environment has linked the extreme weather patterns with floods in Chennai, Mumbai, Orissa, North East and Kashmir and their impact in agriculture which has seen extreme weather in the last three of the four years. As articulated by environmental experts, the impacts of climate changes are exhibited in new patterns and new normal emerging from recurring abnormal weather indications. A political analysis of Theekathir places the cause of global climate degradation as a political irresponsibility of imperialist countries, which refuse to heed to specific measures which can potentially scale back the climate change [11].

Public Infrastructure – Energy, Water, Sanitation, Communication and Transport

The Chennai floods caused major rupture of public infrastructure where almost all of the services, both private and public were disrupted over various periods of time. On December 1st, workers were severely affected when the deluge affected various roads and rail services.

According to an anecdote shared by an IT worker, the company she worked for in Maraimalai Nagar finally gave the day off on the afternoon of December 1st. The pregnant worker lives at her mother’s place in Thiruvottiyur while her husband, another IT worker, works in Kerala. She needs to cross the city diagonally from one extreme end of the city to another extreme via train services to commute a distance of over 65 kms. By the afternoon, train services between Chennai beach and Tambaram were stopped. The bus services were affected severely due to roads in Guindy being affected. After an 8 hour ordeal of hopping various vehicles, she reached home late into the night.

As workers become increasingly mobile, the conflicting needs between affordable housing and wage work has made commuting significant for the working class. Even as MTC workers have been hailed for their service through out the monsoon season when private transports had failed, even they could not reach the working class neighborhoods such as Kannagi Nagar. This severely affected the movement of such communities which typically rely on the public transport. The transportation failure also affected the supply of materials to the city and distribution of materials to various neighborhoods [12]. The centralization of materials supply and distribution at Koyambedu failed both at sourcing and distribution points due to transport failure.

Several areas of Chennai experienced power failure over prolonged period and sporadic community resistance also emerged due to the power failure. In several instances, it turned out that substations and distribution boxes were placed without any regard to geological conditions and were themselves submerged in water.

Electricity disruption along with transport disruption caused other failures including communication, water and sanitation. The water distribution and domestic water consumption have been predicated on the existence of power supply and road transport and failed causing undocumented miseries for residents. The Chennai City and the State administration have increasingly come to depend on TV Media as a source of information dissemination. As TVs shut down with power outage, there was no other mechanisms in place. Ironically, it turned out that several stations were shut down due to their own premises being compromised by water inundation.

Hardly any effort was taken by the State to provide alternate mechanisms for communications to provide timely information to the citizens to deal with the floods before and during the floods. According to Times of India, police officers were asked to turn down their mobile phones(even before the mobile communication became non functional) and asked to communicate only via wireless sets [5]. The National Disaster Management Plan was enacted after Tsunami to setup mechanisms to deal with such emergencies . The lack of will and implementation have been criticized by left parties which have exposed how only Rs 10 crores out of Rs 380 crores have been utilized so far [13, 14].

While the city restored these services, it relied on the sanitation workers from other districts to handle the piled up garbage that were threatening to become a health hazard. The sanitation work was done by predominantly Dalit sanitation workers (migrant and local, permanent and contract), thus exposing the caste continuity even in points of such ruptures [15, 16]. The conditions of work and stay for these workers were abysmally poor and was condemned by unions and activists.

As Tamil Nadu has become urbanized, Chennai has expanded radially by absorbing municipalities, village and town panchayats. Between 1971 and 2011, the population of Chennai city has almost doubled from 26 lakhs to 46 lakhs and Chennai Metropolitan area has more than doubled in the same period from 35 lakhs to 80 lakhs [17, 18]. To facilitate this urban expansion, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority has resorted to convert land use patterns of extended areas into residential and commercial zones without undertaking any geological surveys or providing a comprehensive plan to incorporate public infrastructure in these extensions [19].

In this urban sprawl, services such as sanitation, which were under the control of decentralized town and village panchayats were moved into centralized municipal corporation services. In 2013, a committee setup by State Government proposed mechanisms to expand the Chennai City Civic Structure from its existing 176sq. km, comparable to other metropolitan areas such as Hyderabad and Bangalore. The goals of such centralization of services was also to facilitate public private partnership in public services [20]. Since 2000, Chennai Corporation has been privatizing the services of sanitation to several companies including Onyx, Ramki and Neel Metal etc. While labour has been the main casualty in this process as casualization increased, the consumers had not been happy either with these services even in normal times [21]. That these services failed during floods is no surprise.

Private transport over public transport has been increasingly prioritized by building roads and bridges with no support structure for enhancing public transport services. The burden of maintaining public transport was moved completely to the consumers in this case mostly working class by way of increasing ticket prices and indirect taxes [22]. The growth of private transport services such as Uber, Ola are given priority in para transport services over autos, shared autos and public transport services.

Housing and Right to Shelter– Evictions and invisibilisations

Like public infrastructure, the floods also exposed the lopsided development of housing. Unlike the upper middle class and rich, housing for economically depressed classes is not a mechanism to accumulate capital, but essentially a mechanism to solve the need for shelter. Some experiences highlight how the working class has tried to solve these needs and ended up being affected by the floods.

As mentioned above, the slums in Chennai are not new to temporary displacement in annual monsoon. However, some slum areas were affected rather badly. Saidapet slums along the Adyar river is one such case. The Athuma Nagar residents of Saidapet slums who found their houses destroyed due to rains were persuaded to relocate to Ezhil Nagar. Ezhil Nagar like Kannagi Nagar, Chemmenchery and Perumpakkam are housing tenements built on the outskirts of Chennai to relocate the poor from their slum dwellings within Chennai.

These tenements themselves are built in low lying areas and were flooded due to the rains. During these rains, not only were these families affected due to flooding, but their access to transport and livelihood were curtailed severely [23,24]. The ghettoization of slum dwellers in large numbers and the issues of livelihood they face due to these relocations have been highlighted both by researchers and activists, who have long since demanded in-situ urban housing for the poor [25]. However, successive state governments have blatantly disregarded the needs of the working class and been bent on pushing the poor to the periphery of the city.

The rains have provided an opportunity for the State to push its eviction drive. Several unions and citizens have highlighted the capitalist nexus of the State which has used the rains as a pretext to push the eviction of slum dwellers when the major encroachments (both State and private players) are continuing their encroached space scot-free. Some slums especially Athuma Nagar residents who have to rebuild their whole lives did not put up much resistance but other residents are resisting this drive [26, 27].

The suburban villages of Chennai in Thiruporur region, which are being remapped in the ever expanding urban Development of Chennai, expose the emerging contradictions of land use and the urban development. Karunilam, a village few kms from Maraimalai Nagar, one of the industrial belts near Chennai, now contains both rows of villa houses targeted for middle class and the huts of Irulas, a tribal group from Tamil Nadu. Unlike the villa houses on the main road, the huts of the Irula tribals are themselves hidden from public view, nestled on a raised bund between a lake, a pond and a low lying area. With the rains, the irula huts were submerged from all sides and were evacuated to community hall.

Panchanthiruthi, another village, which found itself into an island and displaced both the Irulas and Dalits from their colonies, when breach from a nearby lake washed away the roads to the village, is adjacent to Japan City, a 1500 acre industrial park by real estate developer Ascendas targeted at Japanese companies [28]. The Irulas of Alathur had built huts on a lake bed which had been sand mined(ironically for the Japanese city) so much that there was never any water in the lake. With the deluge, when some of the adjoining lakes breached, the Irulas found their huts in the middle of the lake [29].

Irulas, like slum dwellers have found themselves with out access to housing rights and housing titles and have invariably chosen to build on the least contested areas in these villages, typically on banks of rivers and lakes. As the tribe has grown, expansion has meant intensification of their dwellings in such sites. Even where the State has stepped in either at the State level or local panchayat level, the sites chosen have been such low lying areas.

Right to housing for working class has been one of the main struggles waged by unions and civil society groups. The state has disenfranchised the working class’s right to shelter by allowing industries to be established without any requirements on them to provide adequate housing, by allowing speculative land pricing without any restrictions or reservations for housing land, by severely reducing publicly built housing stock and by demolishing and evicting urban slums which has become the only viable option for under-paid workers to gain residence in the city. The unions and civil society groups on the other hand have been demanding land titles and pattas for slum dwellers and disenfranchised rural communities such as Irulas as a way to gain tenure security. But studies have shown that such measures have only led to increased gentrification through land market dealings and reduction of affordable housing even as rentals as land prices and consequently rents increase exponentially[30]. This process effectively lures the working class into the ambit of private property relationship by offering a very insignificant share of land and resources to the vast majority of the poor, but buying their allegiance to the structure. It also allows the state to better control this population. It is important to rethink tenure security, utility of house and home ownership to effectively address the urgent and extensive need for affordable housing in the spirit of right to use rather than ownership rights.

Relief and rehabilitation

The mainstream media and groups including left have been vocal in criticizing the lethargy in the State machinery to respond to this crisis and in praising the generosity and compassion exhibited by citizenry in helping each other. Citizen groups, NGOs, unions, student movements and left party cadres worked day and night on relief and rehabilitation measures. On a survey among migrant workers, the workers emphatically stated multiple times on how the adjoining apartment complex residents and administration(where most of them go to work as domestic workers) provided basic necessities including food, milk powder, blankets for those who were displaced from home [31].The help by neighboring communities was emphasized much above any other help that came their way through the State.

A similar tale was given by the Irula tribals who were housed in the local community centers and/or schools for more than a week. Their basic relief and rehabilitation materials were provided by private companies and institutions, the emblems of capitalistic development. In most cases, the panchayat representatives which helped them get relocated also relied on these private entities to help with relief and rehabilitation.

While one cannot discount the individual compassion that may have enabled the different individuals and classes to act at the moment of need, the underlying class inequalities also need to be contextualized. The middle class community living in highrise apartment complexes, in many instances, was moved to compassion on the impact of disaster on the poor and was quick to rise to this occasion. At the same time, Shashank Kela has argued about the culpability of the middle class in promoting unregulated development that played out crucially in the floods [32]. If the middle class can be made to see this linkage, then scope for cross class alliances need to be explored expecially in the articulations of public housing, however its likely that middle class will continue to buy into the mainstream development articulation as a way to secure its own future. However, the charity by the institutions and companies, which often refuse to employ the locals in their factories and employ inter district and inter state migrants in large numbers, can only be seen as a preservation of class structures and underlying capitalist system from being challenged through such crisis.

The Government has announced a compensation of Rs 5000 for material loss and construction of 10000 houses for those who lost their housing. These inadequate measures have come under condemnation by various groups. A report by various citizens group has estimated the loss of material and livelihood due to the floods between Rs 50000 to Rs 75000 [33]. Several groups especially migrant workers and migrant families have not even been enumerated for the compensation due to lack of local identification, in contrast to middle class which in several instances were not even asked to provide local identifications. The housing scheme has been condemned by left organizations as a mechanism to evict the slum dwellers from their current locality and relocating them to periphery of the city. Instead, the organizations have demanded housing within 5km of the original locality [34]. The housing needs of groups such as Irulas who do not have pattas or housing titles are not even considered in this process.

The compensation provided by the Government does not also take into account loss of livelihood both among wage labourers and small/medium traders/vendors, peasantry and producers. For instance, in Marakkanam, a coastal place in Tamil Nadu, the salt producers suffered loss both due to salt being washed away and the salt beds destroyed by the floods [35]. Lots of the salt producers do not even come under the official radar due to the subleasing operations which deny any kind of official recognition for the marginal salt producers . Some left parties have articulated a need for enumeration of loss among small and marginal traders/vendors and compensation for their loss [34].

The access to relief also exposed the ruptures among working class in terms of ethnicity and caste. Narikuravas not being allowed to access emergency shelters by other groups and denial of relief to migrant workers by locals have been reported. In some cases especially in Cuddalore, which was affected very badly, relief materials were looted causing disruption of services to the much needed areas. However there were opportunities for differences to be overcome as effectively demonstrated by the muslim communities and others which delivered relief services across all classes [36].

As discussed above, the lack of implementation of Disaster management plan to handle such emergencies has also come under the radar in the context of the floods. The National Disaster Management Act passed in 2005 mandates that a State Disaster Management Authority is constituted and sets up Disaster Management Plan and Disaster Mitigation Fund [3]. An audit by an international environmental group has found that the State Disaster Management Authority constituted in 2008 have not even met once. There are no plans and funds as mandated by the law and identifications of vulnerable zones and emergency response measurements [37].


As India chose to liberalize in 1990s, the economic path also prescribed a certain form of urbanization and administration. In the article ‘The Politics of Large-Scale Economic and Infrastructure Projects in Fast-Growing Cities of the South – Literature Review’ by Chance2Sustain, the authors discuss how the structural adjustment loans imposed certain models of economic development and public administration [30]. The Census India website and Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority in India have repeatedly termed Chennai as ‘Urban Agglomeration’. According to the authors, agglomeration is a process of shaping urbanization to enable growth such that the size of a city and the skills,services and infrastructure that a big city brings i.e scale can bring down the cost of production. Thus, the city not only works as engine of growth but also improves the profit of capitalistic system. In this paradigm, the cities have to grow to a certain size and have to be comparable and competitive to other metropolitans both regionally and globally. This envisioning of the City has entailed use of certain technologies and mechanisms which aid in centralization and scale and disincentivizes democratization and communal coexistence.

According to the authors, how this urban city space is constructed is articulated by international consulting firms which are hired to provide a ‘blueprint’ for building and marketing ‘world class’ cities. So not only the city has to grow but it has to grow in a certain way. One can find this in the view of politicians and policy makers in the last decade who have dreamt of making ‘Singara’ Chennai in the model of Singapores and Budapests [38]. An extension of these views is the ‘Smart City’ Proposal by NDA Government. These schemes and the ones before employ a rhetoric often misleading, using terms such as inclusive, green, poor, slum rebuilding etc. In practice, these become the vehicles for building wide roads, imposing bridges, highrise buildings, privatized services, privatized public parks and evicting poor.

But even in normal times, this was just a dream as centralized public services and privatized services failed either by increasing the burden on the labour(by low wages, contractualization) or poor service delivery due to bad governance. In crisis, these infrastructures were like house of cards that were swept away by the tides of nature.

In this context, the left parties have articulated several demands – in particular – to deal with and to prevent such disasters. These include implementation of disaster management plan, safe housing for slum dwellers within 5kms of their original dwelling, restoration of water ways and improved waste management that do not pollute the water ways. However, these can be solved by various ways. ‘Smart Cities Guidelines’ discusses these demands in similar language, yet places delivery of these services in a privatlized realm which make it difficult for the poor to access [39]. For instance, registration and monitoring of these services is increasingly provided using digitization technologies, which increase the cost of access to these services for poor, if not completely denied. These, while enabling participatory mechanisms for some, will deny an opportunity for the working poor from making democratic choices on these services. Hence there is a need to construct these demands based on socialistic principles of communal and democratic methods of development that puts working class in the center.

The economic engine even in urban context needs its labour power i.e the working class. The working class is needed to keep the economy going and yet needs to be invisiblized in the evocation of ‘Singara’ Chennai, which has been increasingly solved by relocations to the periphery. Just as the capitalist growth has created a mutual but antagnostic dependence between capital and labour, the urban spatiality has created a mutual but antagnostic dependence between the state and the the poor. The articulation of demands without mechanisms which imbibe socialist principles can only play into capitalist-state nexus.

How does one generate these demands which is democratic, still remains a challenge. Working class neighborhoods such as Kannagi Nagar present opportunities where neighborhood committees can be setup by working class organizations to discuss the challenges brought by the floods and mechanisms to cope with them. While the resources for developing such mechanisms should be rightfully demanded from the state, community level structures would have to be evolved for the process of planning, developing and maintaining such infrastructures.. These can present significant challenges as communities would have to overcome divisions of inequalities, caste, religion and gender to work together in collective interest. Democratic spaces would have to develop to allow for the necessary negotiations to result in meaningful outcomes. This can take the shape of neighbourhood committees functioning under broad and widely accepted guidelines.

Finally, as Adve has articulated, the impact of global warming is still unfolding. Already, rich communities are and have found ways to deal with these impacts by way of developing private infrastructure, may it be captive ports or water management. It is important for us to reflect on how the working class can create social resource base to manage in such disasters. Merely placing demands on the state without building the capacity of the working class to deal with these duel threats seem more hopeful than warranted.

7 சென்னைப் பெருவெள்ளம் வளர்ச்சியின் அழிவும்அழிவின் வளர்ச்சியும்!, CPML(PL), December 2016
10 கனமழைக்குக் காரணம் காலநிலை மாற்றமா?, Theekathir, December 5, 2015
11 காலநிலை மாற்ற உச்சி மாநாடு பாரீஸ் பூமி சூடாவதை கட்டுப்படுத்த விடாமல் அமெரிக்காவும் இங்கிலாந்தும் பிடிவாதம், Theekathir, December 4, 2015
12 சென்னைபுறநகர்பகுதி மீண்டும் மூழ்கியது மின்சாரம் துண்டிப்பு: குடிநீர் தட்டுப்பாடு, Theekathir, December 1, 2015
13 தமிழகத்திற்கு ஏற்பட்டுள்ள மிகப் பெரும் பேரிடர்
14 தமிழக மக்களை வெள்ளத்திலிருந்து பாதுகாத்திட அனைத்து நடவடிக்கைகளையும் மேற்கொள்வோம் பேரிடர் மேலாண்மை முறையான நிர்வாக அமைப்பு இல்லை Theekathir, December 4, 2015
31 Conversations during survey, Dated December 27, 2015
34 Press Statement Rally in Chennai to commemorate the loss of lives and livelihoods in Chennai Floods, CPML(PL) and Young Tamil Movement, December 20, 2015
37 http://www.environmental
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