The sight of dry fish shops on the roads, the smell of fish in the air, rickshaws all around — the setting is unmistakably north Madras! As I get down at the N4 bus stop and go in search of Nagooran Thottam, it is not too difficult to locate the freshly painted yellow housing board quarters constructed for the welfare of slum dwellers residing in Nagooran Thottam. Just in front of the new buildings, I see a deep well hand pump and next to it, a man trying to open his suitcase and unbox his belongings.
“We had our housewarming ceremony yesterday,” says Kumar*, a resident of the Nagooran Thottam Housing Board with a glowing smile.
The smile, however, begins to fade once we start conversing. “The construction of the quarters was completed in 2016. But because of pending dues, the newly-constructed portions were not handed over to us,” he tells me.
In-situ construction in Nagooran Thottam was started in 2015 and completed in 2016. The newly constructed quarters have the capacity to shelter 24 families with each portion measuring 400 sq ft. This was one of several redevelopment projects kicked off by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), in alignment with the objectives of the ‘Housing for All by 2022’ scheme, launched by the Government of India under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) in 2015.
“In-situ slum redevelopment projects were initiated in seven places last year in Chennai — Manali, Thiruvottriyur, Thailavaram, Vyasarpadi, Perambur, MUN Nagar and Giriappa Road in Thousand Lights. The construction of the Housing Board in three places in Thiruvottriyur, namely, Nagooran Thottam, Dhobikana and Kesava Pillai Park, is over and we are at the stage of floating a tender for the construction in other areas,” explains K.Raju, Chief Engineer, Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB).
Notification and temporary resettlement
The tale of resettlement in such projects, however, is not all rosy according to owners like Kumar.
According to Section 3 of the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act, 1971 a notification must first be issued by TNSCB, affirming the area as a slum. Such recognition indicates the possibility of redevelopment or upgradation.
According to Section 11 of the Act, before declaring that a certain settlement falls under the slum clearance area, a show cause notice will be served to the owners of the land or buildings as to why this may not be considered for clearing and depending upon the cause cited, if any, the government will issue appropriate orders.
Once both sections of the law are complied with and the area has been notified as a slum, the notified slum will be resettled until the process of redevelopment or upgradation is complete.
“We were instructed to vacate our original homes to make way for new construction in 2015, and within 15 days of the announcement, the authorities and workers came with excavators to demolish the old quarters. I have seen my own neighbours who were forcefully evicted,” says Kumar’s wife, Selvi*.
Selvi adds that they had a tough time finding a rental house but somehow managed to find one close to the original quarters. The TNSCB gave them a sum of Rs 8000 for paying rents till the completion of the project but it proved to be inadequate for the year and a half that they had to stay in rented accommodation. “We had no alternative, but to arrange for the additional expense. We felt the time could have been extended or we should have been told much earlier to help us prepare. But I’m happy that I finally managed to pay off all the debts and have a house today,” she says.
Under PMAY’s ‘Housing for All’ programme, the Government of India shall grant a sum of Rs 100,000 per house and the residual expenses shall be shared between the beneficiary and state government. The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, however, is not clear on how the cost of redevelopment will be shared between the state and the owners.
“We will allot the houses to the slum-dwellers once the construction is over. Within a period of 5 years, the residents are requested to pay 10% of the expenses incurred on the construction of house, after which we will issue residents the sale deed to their portion in the quarters,” said K Raju.
Kumar has done his bit and paid off the balance, he has received a temporary document and a receipt acknowledging the payment. He has been promised a patta once all the tenements are occupied. But the journey till this point has not been very smooth either.
“Initially we were informed that we would not have to pay anything for the construction of quarters, but once the construction was halfway, the authorities collected money from us now and then. A sum of Rs 4,000 for electricity, balance money that we had to pay for the old quarters, etc.,” says Kumar.
According to the family, money for old quarters was collected through monthly rents ranging between Rs 100 and 150. But this was not collected regularly by the government authorities, nor were collections tracked, so that the amounts due would often consolidate into a sizable sum. Now, before the new quarters were handed over to the residents, they were asked to pay up all dues.
“I used to pay rents regularly, so my debt was only around Rs 7000, but there were others who had to pay close to Rs 10, 000, including dues. Had the rents been regularly collected while we were staying there, my neighbours would not have had to arrange for lump sum amounts at the last moment. If I sum up all the money I have paid by way of rent, it amounts to nearly Rs 90,000. We struggled to settle the payment; after all, we who live here are just fishermen, not MNC employees,” rues Kumar.
As per the suggestions of the TNSCB authorities, a few of the slum-dwellers signed up for a loan sanctioned by HSBC bank with which they paid the money and got the quarters. In addition to that, a few residents had to take loans from private moneylenders.
Another site of proposed in situ development lies on Giriappa Road in Thousand Lights, behind the busy Vijaya Raghava Road. This is an area where the stark inequality in society is made evident by two discrete sections of people: those who can afford to own their own homes and those who cannot.
On entering Giriappa Road, one might initially doubt the need for a housing board in such an area, apparently an area inhabited by middle income groups. But a look into some of the lanes leading up north confirms why new construction is called for.
It is a narrow lane with kids running helter skelter, elders chatting, ladies in conversation and youngsters in groups. As I enquire about the proposed redevelopment project, Sarala, a resident, shares some insights.
“Our streets get inundated even after light spells of rain, so we were promised quarters around 20 years ago. But the funds have been sanctioned only recently, we were told that the project would take off in a few months and we were happy that our problems were finally receiving due attention,” she says.
She also shares that the authorities had initially said that each house would be 600 sq ft in area, under the ‘Smart City Model’, but now it has been reduced to 400 sq ft, though the reason for this is not known. “The money we have to pay is also raised exponentially; we were initially asked to pay Rs 80,000 for 600 sq ft but now, it has been hiked to Rs 180,000 — a sum that few here can afford as everyone is a daily-wager. The initial project also included the supply of Metro water, which got cancelled eventually, and we have to construct a bore well to satisfy our water needs,” says a slightly disappointed Sarala.
On the walk back, I see sewage water running just outside their homes in the narrow stretch, and realise how badly the slum-dwellers need officials to deliver on their promise of building these quarters.
Making redevelopment a viable option
It is well established by now that rehabilitation of slum dwellers in a new location creates its own set of problems around livelihood, education etc. of those displaced. A study conducted by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) on the impact of evictions and resettlements post-floods showed how this had violated the rights of the slum dwellers on multiple fronts and in various ways. One of the key recommendations put forth by researchers is therefore to redevelop or upgrade habitation in situ rather than force relocations in the future projects.
But the experiences shared above – both in the completed project and the one proposed – shows that in situ development too needs some thought and streamlining.
“The best model for developing informal settlements is by in situ redevelopment or in situ construction. These two models should not be considered a secondary solution and alternative location should be the least priority. But having said that, there is currently no proper fallback mechanism when the slum dwellers have issues in terms of housing, tenure, rent payments, quality of construction etc. The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act needs to have pro-poor amendments covering all these aspects with adequate legal safeguard,” comments Vanessa Peter, Policy Researcher at IRCDUC.
Talking about holistic slum development, she adds, “In addition to redevelopment, the government should also aim to provide facilities such as anganwadis, skill development training, support to widows, education etc. Mere granting of concrete houses does not signify the growth of slum dwellers, a holistic plan must be sought for development.”