“Pushing for declaration”

Shared by Transparent Chennai- an action-research group housed at the Institute for Financial Management and Research that works on neglected issues in the city

(Cross posted from the Transparent Chennai blog: www.transparentchennai.com/blog/)  

 On July 21, 2012, the Transparent Chennai team kickstarted our work on slums and informal settlements with a workshop on slum history. We had nearly 100 people attend the meeting, including members of slum-based organizations and trade unions, NGOs, researchers and academics, and students.

 The workshop was meant to be a stocktaking – we wanted to survey the entire history of programs and policies towards slums in the state and see how these policies had been implemented in the city, and the impacts they had on the urban poor. In addition to presenting the findings from our own research, we also invited slum-dwellers to share their experiences of accessing services and eviction and asked local experts for their feedback on planning regulations in the city.            

 What we found from our research was shocking to us. In the 1970s, Chennai had a fairly progressive history of policymaking towards slums. The state passed the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act in 1971, which essentially stated that the government was only supposed to intervene in slums for the purpose of improving them (and not, for example, to move slums to make way for infrastructure as happens now!). It said that the government needed to first identify slums according to the definition given in the Act, officially recognize them or ‘declare’ them under the Act, and then improve them by adding basic services or by building better housing in-situ.

 They declared 1,202 slums in 1971, and spent the next few years building thousands of units of tenements in-situ to benefit slum-dwellers all over the city. Under the World Bank funded Madras Urban Development Programs (MUDP) and the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Programs (TNUDP), the city built thousands of “Sites-and-Services” plots in large mixed income colonies. Today, many of these original allotees have built second and third floors and are earning substantial rental incomes from their homes, providing their families with stability and helping them to permanently escape poverty.[1]

 But since then, the government has not followed the dictates of the Act. No new slums have been recognized for 27 years. But many new slums have come up as the city has grown, and the Corporation boundaries have expanded. This means that hundreds of thousands of city residents live in a limbo: they live in constant fear of eviction, and they are not eligible for any of the government programs to improve services in slums because the government does not recognize the slums they live in. This has had predictable consequences: a 2002 survey by the Slum Clearance Board in undeclared slums found dismal levels of access to water and sanitation.

 The government has also been evicting large numbers of slum-dwellers from the city to make way for new infrastructure projects and as part of city beautification projects. Our research found that at least 20,000 households were evicted from the city between 2005 and 2009 alone, and more evictions have taken place since then.

 And the government no longer builds in-situ tenements. Almost all of the money spent by the Slum Clearance Board in the last 15 years has gone towards building large-scale resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city, where evicted residents from both declared and undeclared slums have been sent – in defiance of the guidelines for intervening in slums set down in the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act. The money for these colonies has come from the JNNURM, despite the Mission’s stated emphasis on in-situ rehabilitation. Residents of slums who attended the workshop shared harrowing stories of evictions that took place as a result of these practices, and others described the inhumane levels of services in their neighborhoods.

 So what now?

 The individuals and groups that attended the workshop agreed that they needed to work together to push the government to declare existing slums, provide better services, and stop the practice of resettlement into far-away ghettos. The groups agreed to call the network the “Right to City Movement: Chennai for all,” and members agreed to organize events together to bring attention to the flaws in slum policies and the way they were being implemented in the state.

 We are very excited about the creation of this network, and hope that we can play a role in supporting its activities. We also believe that such an active network is important because new urban development schemes are on the table including the Rajiv Awas Yojana and the JNNURM II. As the central government plans to spend much more money for the urban poor, we are hoping that there will now be a strong voice advocating that this money be spent in ways that really improve conditions for slum-dwellers in the city.


[1] This observation comes from research we recently conducted for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation where we surveyed residents from a sites and services site in Kodungaiyur. 

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