Municipal authorities have demolished around 40 houses in Chennai and carried out eviction drives throwing many poor people from their houses in multiple localities in Chennai, including at Sathyavani Muthu Nagar and Thangavel Street
Such apathetic eviction drives, especially in the midst of a pandemic, that only seem to prey on the historically oppressed and the marginalized communities, reveal the casteist and elitist leanings of the state machinery, in the garb of ‘development’ and ‘city planning’.
It is commonplace knowledge that eviction of people living in slums like SM Nagar or Thangavelu Street is not isolated incidents, but part of the systemic apathy, furthered by neo-liberal notions and actions of ‘development’ championed by the Central government and several state governments.
Municipal authorities have demolished around 40 houses in Sathyavani Muthu Nagar (SM Nagar), a few weeks back, leaving many families homeless. SM Nagar is one of the largest slums in the country where around 2,100 families lived. However, in the last two years, close to 80 per cent of the families have been evicted for ‘river restoration’ projects.
Exactly in the winter of last year (Dec 2019), officials from various departments including the Chennai police, slum clearance authorities, and the state public works department forcibly evicted “around 3500 settlements along the Cooum river near Triplicane” under the Cooum river eco-restoration project. The move left the residents including school-going children homeless overnight, sparking protests among the residents. However, authorities continued the demolition process despite protests. There was resistance from many of the residents who have been struggling against these arbitrary evictions, including those who stayed neck-deep inside the sewage-laden water, without any food or water.
Evictions at Thangavel Street
In a more recent development, on 28th December 2020, the Chennai Corporation authorities along with the police visited Thangavel Street, T Nagar and threatened the 77 families living there with eviction. After hours of protesting, the people requested time till the end of January 2021 to move. Indifferent to their plight, the authorities proceeded to demolish the houses of 21 families and now are continuing with their coercion by depriving the people off necessities like electricity.
The 77 Dalit families have been residents of this area for over 50 years. Despite an order passed by the Government of Tamil Nadu that Housing Pattas can be issued for families that have been residing on Government Poramboke land for a period of 5 years, these families, who have lived here for over 50 years, have not received any Patta.
Some major concerns due to the arbitrary evictions are-
Impact on livelihood: Many of the residents are workers in the unorganised sector, daily-wage labourers, domestic workers, etc who have already suffered immensely due to the pandemic and the lock-down. Such forced evictions during a pandemic have only worsened the adverse impacts on their lives and their livelihood.
The residents worry that even if ‘relocated’, the move might drastically affect access to their daily work if the relocation is outside city limits. Such a move will also affect their children who attend schools in the neighbourhood. It may be noted that this is not mere apprehension, but based on multiple past experiences of shoddy ‘rehabilitation’ of thousands of other evictees who were literally thrown out of the city, miles away from their work sites.
The main demand of the residents, therefore, is that they need housing within the city limits as most of them are labourers, auto drivers, or from other informal sectors.
Uncertainty in relocation and rehabilitation:
As of November 2020, only 1,750 families were relocated from SM Nagar to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board tenements in Perumbakkam. However, the remaining 350 families are living a life of uncertainty.
The families currently living in SM Nagar live amid the debris. Newspaper reports note that children in the area study and play amid the debris of houses.
Many of these families are now cut off from basic facilities like electricity and water supply.
Reportedly, under the new ‘eco-restoration’ initiatives, close to 60,000 families have been earmarked for eviction from the banks of Chennai’s rivers, according to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), The families are considered to be living in “objectionable locations,” which means in low-lying, flood-prone areas. Many have already been relocated.
This anti-working-class development model continues to cause the suffering of millions who are displaced in the name of development and renders this suffering invisible. Any restoration or development project must include community participation. In 2019, the Delhi High Court (Ajay Maken v. Union of India) observed Right To The City as an “extension and an elaboration of the core elements of the right to shelter”. A right to the city, as examined by activists and scholars, is a right of all the residents of a city to “an equal share of the benefits offered by the city as well as the right to participate equally in the planning and creation of the city”.
Thus, any such project that excludes the local communities from participation breaches this right. Further, any such project that requires the forced eviction of persons without adequate and better-off rehabilitation measures is but a mere beautification exercise aimed at making life easier for the city’s dominant sections. ‘Development’ or ‘ecological conservation’ cannot be sans fairness and equilibrium, impoverishing the working people, even further. That these “few” are often the most marginalized, stigmatized persons in the region reflects the iniquitous ideas of growth plaguing the nation and begs greater attention.
The right to shelter is an internationally recognised right. On multiple occasions, Courts have acknowledged the right to shelter as an important component of the right to life as enshrined under Article 21 of our Constitution (as early as from Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, (1985) 3 SCC 545). Numerous international covenants that India is a signatory to, also provide guarantees against forced evictions. Despite this, persons (often the most marginalized and stigmatized) are rendered shelterless by the state without any concern for their life, dignity, and access to the minimum basics of “food, shelter, and housing”.
A statement released by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HRLN) on 19th November 2020 notes that over 54,000 people have been affected by eighty-three forced evictions and demolition incidents by Central and State governments across India between 15th March and 31st October 2020 alone. This, at a time when the nation was reeling under the combined effect of pandemic, lockdown and unprecedented economic distress.
In numerous cases, the affected persons were not provided prior notice or resettlement. They have been rendered homeless and face heightened exposure to the coronavirus as well as the cold weather and air pollution, which compounds their health risks. Reasons for the documented evictions include construction and infrastructure projects, government and forest land clearance, ‘beautification’ projects, and implementation of court orders. Regardless of the rationale provided, evictions cannot be justified during this severe pandemic.
It is indeed a monumental institutional crime that despite the acute public health and economic crisis, human rights violations continue to be perpetrated by the State by way of forced evictions and displacement, landlessness, homelessness, agrarian distress, gender-based violence, attacks on civil liberties, and persecution of human rights defenders.
The article was first published on NAPM website