Eviction of a slum in Govindasamy Nagar. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.Men salvaged wooden doors and window frames. Women cried on the street, trying to keep their children away from the rubble and the machinery, as bulldozers tore down homes they had invested their hard-earned money on. Three years of research on slum evictions had not prepared me to watch for the first time, with equanimity, the actual lived experience of decisions made behind closed doors, in the high corridors of power.
Slum evictions and demolitions are not uncommon in Chennai, India. At least 150,000 people have been forcefully removed from their homes to make way for various development projects and beautification drives in the last ten years, according to data collected by the Transparent Cities Network.
Govindasamy Nagar's story is much like the stories of other slums in the city.
Govindasamy Nagar's story is much like the stories of other slums in the city. The lack of affordable housing stock in the city led people to occupy land alongside the Buckingham Canal. Residents have lived in the location for over 60 years now, accessing jobs and educational opportunities close by. In time, the government officially recognized it as a slum, conferring upon residents the right to continue living there.
Like any other resident of Chennai, the many residents of Govindasamy Nagar paid property tax and had access to basic municipal facilities like water and sewerage connections. So what changed? What allowed the brutal eviction of Govindasamy Nagar residents?
Eviction of a slum in Govindasamy Nagar. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.In 2008, a private landowner had gone to the Madras High Court, alleging that a small part of Govindasamy Nagar had encroached into his adjoining property. In addition, he had also filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) – legal action for the protection of public interest – against the residents of the entire slum for encroaching on the Buckingham Canal.
On the basis of the PIL, the court had ruled for the removal of the settlement. However, it was only when the Public Works Department (PWD) commenced surveys for evicting the residents that the residents realized that they had had a case filed against them, and that they had lost the case. The lack of timely information had ensured that they could not represent themselves in court effectively.
We thought we were going to disappear into oblivion, and no one would notice. (Damodharan)
Since then, it has been an uphill battle for them to raise money to fight the case, find willing, competent lawyers to fight their case, and gather the documentation to prove their rights to live on the land. Garnering legal, political or media support during this time was proving impossible. "We thought we were going to disappear into oblivion, and no one would notice," Damodharan, a resident said.
Following the issue of a contempt of court order in 2014, the PWD commenced eviction in July 2015, moving around 340 families living closest to the canal by August. The people have not been given a formal notice, nor have they been shown the court order on the basis of which they are being evicted. On being questioned, PWD officials asked why a formal notice was required to demolish homes when most occupants had already moved to resettlement tenements in Ezhil Nagar on the outskirts of the city.
The officials claimed that a 'peace committee' meeting had also been held with the residents weeks ago, during which the residents asked for, and got time to prepare for their relocation. The people themselves, on the other hand, revealed that they were intimidated at this meeting. "We were told that if we did not accept the tenements at Ezhil Nagar now, we would later be moved to homes even further away from the city where life would be more difficult. There was also the fear of a police crackdown, so we decided to move," Kamatchi, another resident, reported. No official record of the proceedings of this so-called ‘peace committee meeting’ exists.
Pallam Slum, Chennai. Jean pierre Candelier/Flickr. Some rights reserved.This absence of transparency and due process in eviction processes is not unique to Govindasamy Nagar. Data collected by the Transparent Cities Network on 63 evictions reveals that only in six cases was advance notice given to slum residents before evictions. In most cases, evictions happen in an arbitrary manner, with no stipulated notice period and no standard compensation package for evictees.
Different development projects planned on or near slum lands produce different eviction outcomes for slumdwellers. In many cases, slumdwellers have been evicted for projects that ultimately were never built. Often, there is a lack of clarity on the department in charge of eviction of a particular slum, meaning that residents do not know where to go to seek information or relief. In addition, residents often face intimidation and violence during evictions.
That you are a tax-paying legal resident does not matter if you live in a "slum".
The opacity in eviction practices and the lack of due process ensure that the urban poor do not have adequate opportunities to defend their homes legally or respond effectively to the threat.
The story of Govindasamy Nagar is a reminder that in this current landscape of city development, beautification and restoration that requires the erasure of every slum, even officially recognized slums are not protected from evictions. Govindasamy Nagar has been officially recognized as per the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act of 1971. Recognition allows residents of the slum to continue to live on the land, and receive services in situ.
Evictions in Govindasamy Nagar establish the new truth that official recognition by the government no longer offers protection against evictions. That you are a tax-paying legal resident does not matter if you live in a "slum".
Eviction of a slum in Govindasamy Nagar. Photo provided by author. All rights reserved.Slums located alongside waterbodies or railway lines are rendered particularly vulnerable because they are classified as ‘objectionable’ by the government, a vague term for which no meaning has been provided in government orders or slum law. The insecurities created in the minds of these slum dwellers are then preyed upon by the government.
Living in constant fear of eviction, people are manipulated into moving, often without being fully aware of the problems associated with faraway resettlement in tenements such as those in Ezhil Nagar – small homes, poor access to basic services, education and livelihoods – or being aware of their own rights to their land. The fear of losing the chance to obtain alternative housing often prevents them from coming together in a cohesive attempt to resist evictions.
The insecurities created in the minds of these slum dwellers are then preyed upon by the government.
The Govindasamy Nagar eviction experience tellingly illustrates the ways in which the opportunities for the poor are rapidly narrowing in Chennai today. The removal of slums has become a matter of 'public interest', and the Public Interest Litigation, a dangerous instrument in the hands of the rich and the middle class. A quick examination of the PIL filed against Govindasamy Nagar reveals that the petitioner has even cited wrong survey numbers to allege encroachment onto government property in an appeal to have the slum removed. The government's vision of a "developed", "beautiful" city has no place for the poor, proof of which lies in the PIL in Govindasamy Nagar's case, and the courts' growing hostility towards the poor over the years.
As was the case with previous urban rejuvenation projects such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), future projects are also likely to throw the poor out of ‘smart cities’ primarily created for the consumption of the rich and the middle class. The Cooum River Eco-Restoration Project is the latest of these, threatening the homes and livelihoods of thousands of slum dwellers. A public debate on this class-based apartheid is urgently required in order to create an inclusive city that protects the homes of its labourers.
As for the fate of Govindasamy Nagar, with the help of Pennurimai Iyakkam, a women’s rights organization in Chennai, 14 households whose homes have not been demolished yet have obtained an interim injunction against demolition. The hope is that if these households manage to obtain a stay order against evictions and garner enough popular support, the remaining 270 undemolished homes in the slum can be secured against the whims of a rich landowner and an unforgiving state.