On 16 November 2015, at about 3 am, hundreds of families living in the ground floor houses of the two-storey state-built slum resettlement tenements in Semmencheri, on the southern outskirts of Chennai, woke up to find their homes rapidly filling with water. By mid-morning, the ground floor houses had four feet of water inside them. Residents rushed for shelter to their upper-floor neighbours, whose 152-square-feet apartments could barely accommodate a single family. A few days later, as the water receded, they began returning to their homes. But on 1 December, torrential rains severely inundated the southern parts of Chennai and its peripheries. Submerged roads rendered the colony, comprising 6734 apartments, unreachable for several days. Twelve people are reported to have lost their lives in Semmencheri.
A few kilometres away, the two newer, partially occupied resettlement colonies of Perumbakkam and Ezhilnagar in Okkiyam Thoraipakkam were under neck-high water. All three sites, constructed on floodplains, marshlands or lake catchment areas in Chennai’s southern peripheries, routinely face flooding of at least a few inches during monsoons. But this time, the breaching of the Thalambur lake turned routine seasonal flooding into an overnight disaster.
On 7 December, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, announced orders to immediately allot 10,000 houses in these new resettlement tenements to inner-city slum-dwellers, particularly those living along the city’s rivers and canals, who had lost their homes in the flood. The irony of this was keenly felt by relief volunteers who were still struggling to reach and assist flood-affected families in the drowned resettlement sites. “People in Ezhilnagar (Okkiyam Thoraipakkam) were furious that not a single official from the government had come to visit them. They were left to fend for themselves,” said Jacinta Chitra, a relief volunteer from Citizen, Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), a non-profit voluntary group that works with consumer issues. All they received was food dropped by helicopter. “They had to go to the main road and scramble for these supplies.”
Against this backdrop, the chief minister’s announcement sounded more like a threat than a promise of succour, bringing with it a sense of déjà vu. In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the government rushed in to remove fishing villages from the coast under the guise of protecting fishermen from future risk. That effort largely failed, but the intervening decade has seen Chennai’s southern coastline explode with high-rise housing, luxury resorts, institutional campuses, and a large desalination plant, all springing up amidst the shrinking fishing villages of Neelangarai, Nemmeli and Kovalam. The city has taken a large stride toward the shoreline, revealing amnesia with regards to the tsunami and its message of coastal vulnerability.
The targeted appropriation of spaces occupied by the urban poor in the city has become a predictable offshoot of disaster. From the late 1990s on, bulldozers have rolled in promptly to sites of devastation in slums, intent on advancing the state’s agenda of removing informal settlements from coveted city spaces. Seasonal fires and routine flood-related events display a small-scale model of this. In the summer of 2009, a series of fires broke out in slums including MGR Nagar in Nandambakkam on the banks of the Adyar, and Avvainagar on the banks of the Cooum. This was a fairly routine seasonal occurrence, but this time officials were at the sites immediately afterwards, handing out tokens for resettlement, their solution to everything.
Similarly, following the December 2008 floods, the Public Works Department unleashed a concerted drive by to demolish several thousand squatter homes from the banks of waterbodies in Ambattur, Tambaram, Manali, and other areas. The agenda of slum removal and land appropriation has also been systematically pursued through the vehicle of river restoration schemes commissioned by the Tamil Nadu government. Multiple projects and several thousand crore of rupees spent on cleaning the river Cooum since the 1990s have not yielded a cleaner river, but they have succeeded in removing over 9000 families from the riverbanks.
The state’s post-1990s environmentalism, focused on the “restoration” of lakes, canals and rivers, proclaimed the clearing of encroachments as its key strategy (as evidenced, for instance, in the Tamil Nadu Protection of Tanks and Eviction of Encroachment Act, 2007). A closer look reveals the exclusionary slant of this rhetoric.
Firstly, Chennai’s landscape history shows that the state is the single largest builder of encroachments on waterbodies through explicit schemes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB) and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority created schemes to fill in “defunct” eris (lakes) to create land for housing, markets, and bus stands. In Ambattur and Mogappair, TNHB housing colonies for middle and high income groups (MIG and HIG) were built on lake-beds, as part of World Bank-funded “Eri Schemes.” Not surprisingly, TNHB colonies were among the worst-affected housing developments in the recent floods, even in places like Avadi that otherwise remained relatively safe.
Additionally, mainstream environmentalism works through a highly selective notion of encroachment. The five star hotels and the high-rise office and apartment buildings of MRC Nagar on the Adyar estuary complex, the Phoenix mall on the Velachery lakebed, the elevated expressway on the Cooum River and the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) rail line on the Buckingham Canal, are only a few instances of mammoth structures that have been permitted to be built on waterways and waterbodies. “It is only the Dhideer Nagars, the Alamelu Nagars, the Ambedkar Nagars that are removed , because they are slums, because they are considered eyesores. This is discriminatory action in the name of environment,” A Devaneyan of Thozhamai, a housing rights organization in Chennai, told me on 17 December.
Finally, the evicted slums are then resettled on other waterbodies and floodplains in the south and west of the city. “All of these resettlement colonies are sited on low-lying, flood-prone areas,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, a biodiversity expert who has closely studied the ecology of the Pallikaranai marsh in south Chennai.
In 1996, about 1600 families were relocated to Velachery to make way for the Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System. But the scale of such relocation has expanded exponentially since 2000. Large parts of the marsh, designated as wasteland or poramboke (unassessed government lands), and marked worthless in revenue terms, were earmarked for slum resettlement. This enabled, in one stroke, massive pork-barrel housing construction projects on urban peripheries and the appropriation of high-value slum lands in the city. Since the early 2000s, over 43,000 resettlement tenements have been built in Kannagi Nagar and Ezhilnagar (on the Pallikaranai marsh), and in Perumbakkam.
The creation of mass ghettos of urban poverty in the middle of ecologically fragile lands exposes the fraudulence of both the environmental and the socio-legal rationale of resettlement. These resettlement schemes have been vaunted by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board as state-of-the-art “integrated townships” offering slum dwellers solid, secure housing with all basic services. But residents of these colonies have long complained about the distance from the city and consequent disruptions in access to livelihoods, schooling and urban opportunities. In addition, the small size of allotments, the poor quality of maintenance and services, and the ghetto-like character of these colonies offset their benefits and present the urban poor with a very high bill for “improved housing.”
“The categorization of wasteland is hugely inappropriate for these ecologically fragile lands.” said Vencatesan. “The entire stretch should not be opened to any kind of intervention, any developments will surely obstruct the surface flow, drainage and water retention functions of these lands,” before adding, “Kannagi Nagar and Ezhilnagar are a huge problem, ecologically speaking. They were developed on a large tract of marshland that served as a buffer for floodwaters moving eastward from the northwest and southwest.”
Vencatesan added that the area also has waterbodies such as the Thalambur and Perumbakkam lakes, which are part of historically established flood pathways. “During heavy rains they will fill up and breach their banks, whether naturally or deliberately,” she said. “That is why you had such intense flooding in the area,” Vencatesan explained.
The recent floods have starkly underlined the exceptional vulnerability of the urban poor resettled in these sites. Their relative isolation for several days following the disaster was due to a combination of distance, intensity of flooding, and official neglect. Their homes were filled with several feet of sewage water from poorly constructed drainage systems.
The state’s a priori determination to use environmental projects as a mode of removing slums has become increasingly evident. In 2004, a proposal was commissioned by the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) to provide low-cost sanitation to settlements along the riverbanks, to prevent direct discharge of sewage into the waterways. However, according to information obtained through an RTI, the consultant’s recommendations were dismissed by the Slum Clearance Board on the grounds that a decision had already been taken to relocate these settlements.
The supply-driven impulse of resettlement is also on record. In 2014, a project report for a proposal to restore the Cooum river, prepared by the private consultants LKS India Pvt Ltd, offered the government three possibilities for clearing the 14,257 slum houses along the river-banks. The first proposed to clear 87 percent of the project-affected slum households through a combination of in-situ development and partial resettlement. The second option envisaged a combination of in-situ development, in-situ reconstruction (creation of new residential areas near the existing slum sites) and partial resettlement. Option three was to resettle all the families to the tenements at Okkiyyam Thoraipakkam and Perumbakkam. The report stated that, while “all three options were presented to TNSCB in several meetings,” only the third option was deemed possible “as the tenements were built and ready for occupation.”
The roughly 12,000 built but unoccupied tenements in Ezhilnagar and Perumbakkam thus emerge as the tail wagging the dog of slum relocation to the peripheries of the city. No wonder then, that the government’s seemingly benign offer of resettlement housing as flood relief is being seen by the urban poor and by housing activists in Chennai as a forced eviction by other means. The drowned buildings in Perumbakkam, Ezhilnagar and Semmencheri highlight the ironies, inconsistencies and failures of Tamil Nadu’s environmental governance as much as of its housing and slum clearance policies.