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The Human Cost of Slum Clearance

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This is the second article in a three-part series on the Indian city Chennai and its struggle with rapid urban development. The third part will be published next week.

By Kavitha Rajagopalan

Meena was 15 years old when her family was evicted from their settlement in Ayanavaram, in the western part of the Indian city Chennai. Her grandfather had built the hut in which her father, and then she and her three sisters were born and raised. “We had everything there,” she reminisces. “There were shops, jobs, buses, doctors. We got electricity and cable from nearby houses and water from the city. All of our people were there.”

One morning in 2006, as she was getting ready for school, men came by and told her mother that the bulldozers were coming that day. Two days later, they and 20 other families from their settlement were moved in large flatbed trucks to into the resettlement community Semmencherry in another part of town. As Meena approached the eerily quiet complex with identical buildings so far away and so different from her cheerful, noisy home now reduced to rubble, she felt dread rise up in her chest. “I had a headache for the entire first year we were here,” she says, “I had only tension.” She has lost contact with the families that dispersed elsewhere from her old community.

Meena’s fate is typical for many residents of Chennai, a commercial hub and bustling metropolis in southern India with 9 million inhabitants. As of January 2011, over 100,000 people had been evicted from the city center to make way for new commercial and apartment buildings. Reclaiming the city’s many waterways has become the administration’s priority, and the perceived key to achieving that goal is clearing the slums along those waterways. In 2008, the state government declared that Chennai would be slum-free by the end of 2013.

Slum clearance is by no means a new objective in Indian governance. The newly independent country passed its Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act in 1956 and both the tenth and eleventh national five-year plans made slum clearance a national priority. Slum clearance and rehabilitation efforts are underway in nearly every major city in India. Just this week, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced with much fanfare that Chandigarh in Punjab would be the first slum-free Indian city.

The state Tamil Nadu, which includes Chennai, established its Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) in 1970. In the four decades since its founding, the TNSBC has largely failed to fulfill its objectives of improving the living conditions of slum residents and preventing the development of new slums. Between 1971 and 2001, the city’s slum population grew from some 700,000 to nearly 1.1 million.

The public outcry against evictions has been long and loud, and yet they continue. The advocacy group People’s Union for Civil Liberties published a report showing that, in the rush to meet slum clearance goals, evictions and resettlements had violated a number of national and state government guidelines.

These violations are evident in Semmencherry. In theory, each lane in the new settlement has a freshwater well, but the well on Meena’s lane is filled in with rubble and garbage. Running water first arrived in Semmencherry two years after the families had been resettled here. It took five years for electricity to come and six years for the city to send waste collectors.  There is one sparsely stocked market on the complex’s main road. Vegetables and rice cost twice as much as in other parts of town, so most of the women carry their groceries for miles on their way home from work in the city. The settlement zone got its first bus stop just this past year.

There are still no schools here and although a hospital has recently opened, it isn’t staffed by any doctors or surgeons. An eight-month-pregnant neighbor of Meena’s took her sick five-year-old son to the Semmencherry hospital one night only to find one night nurse on duty, who couldn’t even take her son’s temperature because she had no thermometers.

Most alarmingly, the advocacy group’s report showed that families were each being allotted 160 square feet or less to live in, instead of the 540 square feet they were entitled to. Meena, her parents and her three sisters were moved into a 158 square-foot one-room apartment in a building with seven other one-room apartments. Their building was in the middle of an unpaved lane of several other eight-unit buildings, each separated by a small courtyard. Some of the apartments held families of 12 or more people, spanning three and four generations. People from different settlements all over the city were housed in a single building. To them, it was like combining people from different countries, so different were their customs and habits and even their dialects. The residents describe simmering mistrust and periodic violent clashes.

It is clear that the hopeful ideal of humane resettlement has become a reality of traumatic forced evictions, hasty and shoddy construction and uncoordinated service delivery. Evictions have rendered homeless the majority of urban slum dwellers in areas the state has designated as “objectionable,” and resettlements have removed the remaining slum residents from jobs, transportation, schools and food. These practices have destabilized an already weak social infrastructure, leading to greater food insecurity, unemployment, child labor, and violence among the city’s poor.

Most of these hardships have resulted from simple mismanagement and poor inter-agency coordination. This begs the question: why would the city administration take on the tremendous burden of relocating people in the outskirts of the city, where infrastructure has to be built up from scratch?

Bharat Jairaj of the World Resource Institute, a former activist with the Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), has an explanation. “Earlier, housing was considered a public good,” he says, “but the real estate lobby is powerful.” Now, what was once considered a right is seen as an entitlement. The government considers privatization a more efficient approach to managing the commons, he says. “Building on the waterways is intimately linked to the fact that the government already owns this land and has no need to ask for permission for how to use it. The government is considered the custodian of the public interest.” The subtext is that these public lands can be legally cleared for profitable sale.

But putting profit ahead of the public good is problematic. The latest thinking in urbanism is that it is far better to improve the conditions in the dynamic – if unstable – communities that have grown up organically in cities, and find ways to capitalize on their economic potential. As Benjie de la Pena, associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, points out, every major contemporary city – including New York – evolved from formalizing slums. Urban renewal projects launched within both the tenth and eleventh five-year plans emphasize in-situ development, but most Indian cities are under social, political and demographic pressure to clear the urban poor from the city center.

India’s leaders need to abandon a slum-clearance policy that has already left irreversible damage. Meena, now happily married, says she can never forget the trauma of those first years. “Things are getting a little bit better now, but for many people are still struggling to recover. There is no sense of peace for us.”

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Kavitha Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she specializes in urban informality and global migration. She is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Muslim Immigrant Families in the West.

[Photo courtesy of lecercle]

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