Raja*, a 13-year-old boy, was protesting on the streets along with his mother and neighbours when their houses in Govindasamy Nagar were demolished by the government in May 2022. “The government disconnected the electricity supply to our houses for almost 10 days. We had our annual exams during this time and all the children in the area could not study at home. We tried to study under the street lights where there were many mosquitoes. But, before our exams got over, the government demolished our houses,” he says.
Raja and other children in the area were forced to take to the streets to raise their voices against the government’s move to carry out the evictions in a manner that affected their education.
Research conducted by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), a civil society organization based in Chennai, reveals that 88% of the evictions from 2015 to 2020 were carried out in the middle of an ongoing academic year, adversely affecting school-going children.
Of the 69 settlements evicted between 2015 and 2020, processes like Social Impact Assessments and Resettlement Action Plans were prepared prior to the evictions only in five settlements. Around 96% of settlements did not have any consultation prior to the evictions and 99% of the settlements which were subject to eviction did not receive legal notices.
Razing down houses during the time of examination also violates the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement, 2007, which clearly stipulates that evictions must not violate the rights of children and must not be carried out before or during school examinations. They also mandate due process to be followed before, during, and after evictions. This includes the provision of advance notice, exploration of alternatives to eviction, and provision of adequate resettlement and rehabilitation, including adequate housing and access to education, healthcare, food, water, and livelihood sources, notes the IRCDUC study.
As a result of this, the children were forced to take a short break that extended anywhere between two weeks to one month from school until they settled down in the new homes.
Most children who were above Class 5 continued to study in their old schools for the first few years. This translated to longer travel hours to reach the schools. On the other hand, the kids who shifted to nearby government schools found that the schools in the areas where they were resettled did not have any basic amenities.
The manner in which evictions are being carried out in Chennai has pushed many children out of school and has resulted in them taking up anti-social activities in the resettlement areas.
Long hours of travel to reach schools due to mid-academic year evictions
“We requested the officials to not evict us during an ongoing academic year (in November) as the children were having half-yearly exams in the coming month. We agreed to move after their final exams in May. But, they turned a deaf ear to all our pleas and evicted us forcefully even before the exams,” says Maria*, recalling the evictions carried out in 2017 in Thideer Nagar near Thousand Lights.
For the next month, Maria did not send her daughter to school. “We did not have an idea of the bus timings, travel hours and modes of transport available in Perumbakkam where we were given allotment orders,” she says.
Similarly, Meena’s* family was also evicted from Aminjikarai and were resettled in Perumbakkam in November 2016. Since all their life and livelihood was based in Aminjikarai, they had to travel from Perumbakkam to Aminjikarai for the next few months until they could figure out an alternative.
To this day, many children from resettlement areas like Semmencherry, Perumbakkam and Kannagi Nagar travel to their old schools. Since the parents have no source of livelihood they too have to travel all the way back to their old residential areas for work.
Explaining what a day in their life looks like, Meena says, “I wake up at 3.30 am to cook and get ready for work. My children will have to wake up at 4 am. Along with my children, I will be at the Perumbakkam bus stand at 5 am. The bus stand will already be crowded by then. But, the first bus will depart only at 6 am. Most of the time, the children do not have time to have breakfast. So, they tend to skip breakfast or have breakfast during the bus journey. We have to take a bus to Parry’s Corner and from there we will have to take another bus to Aminjikarai. It will take at least 2.5 hours to reach their school.”
The tedious journey does not end there for the children. As the working hours for their parents end much later than their school hours, they are left with no other option but to travel back alone every evening. Given the high traffic, the travel hours increase to 3 to 3.5 hours in the evenings. Since most of their time is spent on travel, they do not have enough time to rest, let alone focus on school work.
Maria’s daughter goes to the same private school in Thousand Lights that she did prior to the eviction.
“Before the eviction, it hardly took 5 mins for her to walk to school. Now, she has to travel at least 2 hours every day to reach the school due to the unpredictable metro work. If she cannot make it inside the school before 8.30 am, she will not be allowed inside the school. Considering this, on days when there is a delay in starting from home, she takes the day off and loses out on learning. On days she goes to school, she is sleepy and tired all the time as she does not get adequate rest,” says Maria.
Maria adds that even if they have a valid reason for her child being late due to the 30-km travel to school, they cannot tell the school management this as they are scared that the management will recommend shifting to a different school. “We do not have any savings or property to give to my daughter. All that we can give her is a good education and we do not want to compromise on that,” adds Maria.
The only alternative for the kids travelling all the way to the old schools is to shift to the nearby government schools. However, the residents in the resettlement colonies express serious concerns about these schools.
Poor state of government schools in resettlement colonies
“The problem here is that the government schools in the neighbourhood do not have any basic amenities. There were no schools when we came here. A block of houses was allocated to set up a primary school in Old Perumbakkam. At least 50 children are made to sit inside one room with one fan. Most often, the kids sweat and feel suffocated to sit inside these rooms. Since there are no tables and chairs, the children will also have to sit on the floor,” says Meena.
Explaining her battle to find a good school for her child, she says, “I shifted my kid from the old school in Aminjikarai to the Government Primary School in Old Perumbakkam. As there were no proper facilities, I shifted her again to a Government School in Semmencherry. The school there did not have proper toilet facilities. So, we shifted her again to a Corporation School in Adyar and she studied there for four years. For the last two years, the Corporation school had been sending buses to our area. But, they have stopped it recently, making travel a hassle and forcing another move. Now, my child studies at Perumbakkam Government High School,” says Meena.
The issue with the Perumbakkam Government High School is that there are not enough teachers, particularly for subjects like Maths and Science. “When the students have doubts, the teachers ask them to watch YouTube to clarify their doubts. On days when the children are late to school, the teachers ask the students to clean the campus. Often, the kids go to school without having breakfast. Asking these kids to clean the campus on an empty stomach only discourages the children from going to school. The children who were once very interested in academics end up losing interest in education,” says Meena.
Besides, the students in Tamil Medium and English Medium are made to sit in the same classroom in most of the schools in the resettlement areas. “This confuses the children. Also, the teachers make the slow learners sit on the back bench. This further discourages slow learners from concentrating on the classes,” says Meena, adding that all these reasons contribute to the low pass percentage in the high schools and higher secondary schools in the locality. This often leads to students dropping out.
“The teachers cannot be blamed for the state of the schools. They also struggle as they travel long hours every day to reach the schools. When the children misbehave, they cannot take control of them as they are also scared of the consequences,” say some of the parents.
“When we approach these government schools for new admissions, the teachers themselves discourage adding more students as there are not enough teachers. There are at least 70 to 80 children in one class and the teachers are unable to handle them. Even if they admit new students, they warn us not to complain about the quality of education and the lack of infrastructure in the school,” says Maria.
The teachers also complain that they cannot do anything about the staff strength as the government only deploys temporary teachers and the temporary teachers are not willing to take up jobs in resettlement colonies.
Recommendations to prevent mid-academic year evictions
Studies by IRCDUC raise some critical issues in the eviction process and in the resettlement areas that adversely impact the education of children.
As processes like Social Impact Assessments are not conducted prior to the eviction, there is no adequate information about the education details of the children studying in schools. The absence of adequate information results in failure to adopt mitigation measures to address the negative impact of evictions and resettlement on children.
The inadequate availability of schools in resettlement sites like Perumbakkam constitutes a serious violation of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009. The children, even after relocation, continue to go to their schools near their original sites of habitation, commuting a daily distance of 25 to 30 kilometres because of the non-availability of schools offering quality education and proper amenities near the resettlement sites.
Children studying in private schools do not get their fees refunded when evictions are carried out mid-academic year. Furthermore, the children who are appearing for board exams are reluctant to shift their schools during an ongoing academic year because it is difficult to adapt to new surroundings.
Further, inadequate social and civic infrastructure facilities, and the absence of Primary Health Centres, hospitals, burial grounds, street lights, and garbage collection, clearance, and disposal mechanisms further increase the vulnerability of children living at the various resettlement sites and impact their education.
The loss of livelihoods of the parents has had an adverse impact on the income of the families thereby affecting the lives of the children.
Pointing out that the aforementioned issues faced by the children are grave violations of child rights resulting from the evictions in Chennai, and to restitution of the rights of the affected children, IRCDUC makes the following recommendations to the Tamil Nadu government.
- Evictions should not be carried out during the middle of the academic year. In cases where relocation is inevitable (substantiated after exploring all possibilities), children should be consulted and their concerns should be addressed from a selection of site, process etc.
- The government of Tamil Nadu should refrain from taking coercive steps such as withdrawing ration cards, disconnecting water and power supply and denying government benefits such as Pongal gifts to force families
- To ensure that evictions and resettlement are avoided, the government should explore in-situ housing programmes as first priority and all alternatives have to be explored before suggesting resettlement. The government should only opt for proximate resettlement (within 5 km) wherever in situ is not possible.
- To ensure legal safeguards by finalizing the draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy with strong safeguards protecting the interest of the vulnerable groups (proximate resettlement within 5 km) and the rights of children during resettlement.
As has been well-documented globally, the process of eviction is traumatic for children, as most of them are unable to understand and gauge the full implications of being uprooted from their homes. The experience of having one’s home torn down, often with violence and trauma, which is often accompanied by an increased vulnerability of the family, can leave an indelible mark on the child.
The loss of a home, community, and security severely impacts children. Many children continue to suffer from psychological trauma and stress for a long time. Given the adverse impact of mid-academic year evictions on children, the government must take measures to safeguard the rights of the children and ensure that their education remains unaffected.
*name changed on request