It was a heartrending sight. People sat or stood in groups watching their belongings being moved into lorries from the houses they had occupied for generations. The houses were being destroyed before their eyes, one by one.
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On Monday, November 20th, residents of the Thideer Nagar Slum on Greams Road had to vacate their houses under orders of the Corporation, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) and the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT). They are among the 603 odd families being moved to TNSCB’s new shelter at Perumbakkam as part of the Cooum River Eco-restoration Project.
The TNSCB has created an eight-floor shelter for the evicted. Those rehabilitated will also be paid a compensation of Rs.5000 when they reach the shelter, said sources from TNSCB.
“We are evicting these slum dwellers since these dwellings are encroachments on the Cooum riverbed that makes them prone to flooding during heavy rains. Since they’ve been living here for years, some of them are opposed to moving, but around 95% of the people are willing to shift,” said P. Rajasekaran, Police Inspector, Thousand Lights Police station.
A high degree of police protection ensured that the eviction process went smoothly. The houses were numbered and tokens provided after a verification of the residents’ IDs and documents before the houses were cleared.
“I lived here as a tenant. My house owner registered with the Corporation and has got new accommodation at Perumbakkam. Our house was just brought down and we have no place to go to now. If I want to rent a new house, they ask for a minimum advance payment of Rs.30000, which we can’t afford,” says Arul Mary Kalidas, as she stands on the street next to her belongings packed into huge plastic covers, alongside her mother and daughter.
Three days after the start of the eviction drive, Arul Mary continues to remain on the streets with her daughter and her mother. “I haven’t even changed my clothes in the past three days,” she says.
“They might not have been at home when we alerted them. We’ll re-alert the area soon and will continue this whole procedure of moving more residents in the coming days. We’ve continuously tried to keep them informed through local bodies and we’re taking this action in compliance with a court order,” replied Rajaram, an official from the Corporation, when asked about the uncertainty that tenants like Arul Mary face today.
On the other hand, some other officials said that the tenants had not participated in the enumeration process itself, fearing the house owners.
Voices of protest
The eviction started a day after women from the slum protested and caused a road block at Greams Road. On November 22nd, members of the Unorganized Workers’ Federation and other activists organized a protest against the eviction drive in Thideer Nagar at Valluvar Kottam. Many of them claim that Thideer Nagar is an allotted slum area as per the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act.
However Jayan, a social worker, points out that the said Act of 1971 identifies two categories of slums: those notified by the TNSCB and those not notified. Post 1985, no slums have been recognized, and the slums along water bodies like the Adyar or Cooum river ought to be cleared since they are encroachments.
“Neither can the Government regularize these slums, since they are next to water bodies, nor can they build tenements in situ, since the land is under the control of the PWD,” he said.
In 2015, the NDA Government initiated the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) with an aim to provide affordable housing to all by 2022. It would achieve its mission through Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) as well as credit linking subsidies. Projects at Mahakavi Bharati Nagar, Ambattur and K K Nagar are being completed by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB). The project at Guduvancherry started by XS Real Properties under PMAY called ‘En Veedu’ was the first in the state.
But while those continue to be under construction, areas like Perumbakkam and Semmencherri, outside the city limits, are the ones to which slum dwellers are moved. This has been among the most consistent problems with slum rehabilitation as conceptualized by urban governments. Activists as well as think tanks have repeatedly pointed to the many issues created by resettlement of slum communities outside the city limits or in remote areas.
“Most of the women here work at nearby apartments as housemaids and most of our children study in schools nearby. The new shelter is very far from here and we don’t know if we’ll be able to come to work,” said Maneka, a resident of Thideer Nagar.
The children of Thideer Nagar, too, would now have to either change the schools in the middle of the academic year, or endure the long commute. A journey from Perumbakkam to Thideer Nagar by bus, takes around an hour with the usual traffic. “Most of us here can’t even afford the daily bus ticket worth Rs 17 from the new house to their schools every day,” adds Maneka.
“It’s as if the Government does not want our kids to study or become IAS officers,” added another resident, whose son is taking his 10th standard Board Examinations this year.
In November this year, the Mylapore Institute of Policy Research (MIPR), an urban policy think tank, released a policy paper titled ‘A model for affordable housing in Chennai.’ The paper proposes an alternative model of Government-Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) partnership, under which slum dwellers can be rehabilitated within the city limits, using land from slum areas as well as from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR & CED).
But with proposals and policy discussions far from moving into the realms of implementation, the lives of the poor, whose homes have been razed, remain in limbo.