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Chennai’s displacement dilemma: Will 2 lakh residents be resettled?

With the Tamil Nadu government expected to make a decision on the eco-restoration of the Buckingham Canal this month, over 2 lakh residents are keeping their fingers crossed.

With the government expected to take a decision on the eco-restoration of the Buckingham Canal, the people living along its banks face an uncertain future. Blamed for encroaching on the waterway and releasing sewage into it, they face the threat of being uprooted and resettled in the suburbs.

Given the experience of other oustees, residents hope the government will adopt a more humane approach this time and not resort to ad hoc resettlement The city is set to witness the largest ever resettlement of residents shortly. With the State government expected to make a decision on the eco-restoration of the Buckingham Canal this month, over 2 lakh residents are keeping their fingers crossed, worried about possible relocation from their homes in the city.

According to estimates, more than 29,000 families were identified in 2009 as encroachers on the Buckingham Canal. A new survey this year is estimated to have identified at least 60,000 families. The resettlement of these residents remains a major hurdle to the eco-restoration of the Buckingham Canal.

  • The State government expects very tough resistance from more than 50% of the residents in the slum neighbourhoods along the canal for the resettlement project
  • Owing to the resistance to the ecorestoration project, residents along the canal may get attractive packages as compensation, which may even include parcels of land measuring at least 600 sq ft and assistance to build houses. Residents may also opt for an apartment worth Rs.13.5 lakh in the city outskirts. The government is yet to take a final decision
  • Commercial buildings in the Buckingham Canal right of way will be demolished without any compensation for the owners
  • The funds required for the project will be more than Rs.1000 crore in the short term
  • The project affected families will be categorised into two different types: those in objectionable land on the ‘right of way’ and those on government lands away from the right of way
  • The detailed project report is set to be finalised shortly, after which the State government will make a decision on evicting those in government lands away from the right of way

Sorry state

  • Buckingham Canal is 48 km long from Ennore to Muttukadu in the city, and is in desperate need for ecorestoration and rejuvenation. The canal plays a critical role in flood mitigation in city and the State government is planning to restore the canal. But the ecorestoration of the canal has been delayed by four years after the floods in 2015
  • Even after declaration of the city as open defecation free as part of Swachh Bharat Mission, the canal remains a hub of open defecation
  • The reduction of the right of way by construction of retaining walls along the canal by the water resources department is a major challenge to flood mitigation. The decision to restore the canal to the original width after demolition of the encroachments remains the most challenging one for the State government.

    List of flood prone areas

    1. Lock Nagar
    2. Neelam Bashah Durgah
    3. Anumandapuram
    4. Ayothikuppam
    5. Sivarajapuram
    6. Canal Street
    7. Ambedkar Bridge
    8. Slaterpuram
    9. Sunnambu Kalvai
    10. Kailasapuram
    11. Nadukuppam
    12. Ram nagar
    13. Ottakuchi
    14. Machakori
    15. B M Durgah

    N. Ravi, a resident of a slum along the canal, said 21 families who were permitted by the District Collector to build houses in a neighbourhood in Triplicane along the Buckingham Canal are also worried about resettlement. The families allotted land in the area belong to a community that carried out solid waste management for city residents.

    “All those who were allotted houses belong to the socially weaker sections. Hundreds of other encroachers have also developed houses later, polluting the canal. Now, we are also worried. We are yet to get patta,” said Mr. Ravi, whose family members received the land several decades ago.

    Most houses along the canal have been letting sewage into the waterway, affecting public health. Open defecation has been reported along the canal even after declaration of the city as open defecation free under the requirements of the Swachh Bharat Mission.

    Some residents who supported the move to demolish encroachments along the canal said the government would get huge parcels of lands in areas such as Ice House to develop a bus terminus. A few residents suggested an alternative road along the Buckingham Canal to decongest Kamarajar Salai and Santhome High Road. However, officials are planning to landscape the area, to improve disaster preparedness for the entire city.

    Former Corporation Councillor S. Mangala Raj of Mylapore said the eviction of the residents along the Buckingham Canal is not possible. “Unlike Cooum and Adyar, residents along the Buckingham Canal are those who were allotted land by the government. It is impossible to evict them. Officials are trying to evict them without understanding the social condition of the people along the canal. They will resist any move to evict them,” he said.

    “My estimate is that there are 3 lakh voters in the area, covering at least 20% of the Corporation wards in the city. There are more than 80,000 families along the canal, higher than the official estimates. Some people will welcome the move as the value of their property will increase. Even my property value will increase in the event of a major demolition drive. But I do not support the move to evict residents along the Buckingham Canal. They should restore the canal by developing new houses in the same area with additional floor space index. It was the government that allotted land to the people. For example, residents of a particular community were permitted to build houses in areas such as Slaterpuram and Shanmugam Pillai Street near Ambedkar Bridge. All the residents belong to socially weaker sections,” said Mr. Mangala Raj.

    50 acres at stake

    According to estimates, more than 50 acres of government land may be retrieved from residents along the canal in areas such as Triplicane, Raja Annamalai Puram and Mylapore. The land to be retrieved is likely to be more in areas of South Buckingham Canal and North Buckingham Canal.

    Many have started building new huts on land reclaimed from the canal, expecting benefits from the resettlement drive. S. Kanaka, a resident of a colony abutting the Buckingham Canal near Ambedkar Bridge, Mylapore, fears losing her livelihood. Though relocation is yet to begin, she has nightmares of the house she’s living in being torn down.

    According to reports, Chennai’s slum population adds up to 3 lakh families. Most of the informal settlements are built along the banks of various waterways passing through the city. The 2015 floods brought to light the vulnerable conditions in which these families live as over four lakh households were inundated. The encroachments on these waterways, blocking the free flow of water, were among the reasons for floodwaters inundating the entire city, leading to loss of lives and property.

    Court steps in

    Following the catastrophe, the Madras High Court directed the State government to relocate 50,000 families living along the Adyar and Cooum rivers as well as the Buckingham Canal, in addition to waterbodies linked to them.

    Under the Integrated Cooum River Eco-Restoration Project, 14,257 Project Affected Families (PAFs) have been identified, and thus far 9,400 PAFs relocated. Under the Adyar River Restoration Project, 9,539 PAFs have been identified, of which 4,400 have been relocated.

    Though the work of preparation of a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for eco-restoration of the Buckingham Canal is still under way, it is expected to be completed this month. The State government in 2009 claimed that they had identified close to 28,000 families living on the 48-km stretch of the Buckingham Canal from Ennore to Kovalam.

    “There is no transparency about when and why the relocation is happening. I have seen officials coming as early as 6 a.m. with JCBs and police force and residents scampering to collect their belongings before their house is removed,” said Ms. Kanaka.

    Though the residents claim that they are not against relocating, they want the government to provide them houses in the city and not in the suburbs. Residents also complained that most of the evictions are carried without prior notice, information about time or date, and with no information about a rehabilitation package.

    Livelihood loss

    “Our main fear is loss of livelihood. We are seeing people who were relocated to Perumbakkam, Kannagi Nagar, Navalur, Gudapakkam and Athipattu suffer. They are forced to travel close to 40 km every day,” said Hemant Kumar, a resident of Elango Nagar in Raja Annamalai Puram.

    Residents also complained about lack of transparency. “The families here actually do not wish to live along the canal, thanks to many discomforts, including suffering from mosquito bites. However, we do not want to be pushed to some suburban areas. Our children will suffer, their access to education will be restricted and eventually they will drop out,” said Prem Kumar, a short film director, who lives in Ambedkar Nagar.

    A resident of Neelam Baashah Dargah in Triplicane pointed out that more than the slums, the MRTS and offices are the main encroachers and polluters of the canal. He added that residents do not allow dumping of garbage into the canal as it would adversely affect them. “Until the construction of MRTS began, the water was flowing. But after the pillars were erected, it became stagnant. In Perungudi, one can see waste from industries being dumped into the canal,” said K. Damodaran, a resident.

    Options ignored?

    Vanessa Peter, a policy researcher with the Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities, said that the act of evicting informal settlements and relocating them to sites in the periphery is an act of discrimination as the government is deliberately opting for the relocation option while ignoring possibilities of in situ development and reconstruction.

    “The final Report of the Integrated Cooum River Eco-Restoration Plan prepared by CRRT and TNUIFSL had proposed three options for the affected families: the first option is inside development wherever possible; the second is that of in situ reconstruction and only the third option is resettlement,” she said.

    Despite the Chief Secretary, in a meeting on March 1, 2010, commissioning a high-level committee to prepare a policy/set of guidelines on rehabilitation and resettlement, no such norms have been formulated.

    The State government has acknowledged the need for a policy on housing and habitat and a policy on resettlement when IRCDUC presented the findings of the report, Forced to the Fringes, Disasters of Resettlement in India, to the Secretary of the Department of Municipal Administration and Water Supply.

    “Despite the government acknowledging the need for a policy framework for housing and resettlement in the State, several resettlement sites are being constructed and people are being forcefully evicted and relocated, without any initiative to develop a comprehensive housing and resettlement policy,” added Ms. Peter. Activists also stressed the need for a Social Impact Assessment study. “It has been done only for the slums at Pallavaram Salai and Navalar Nedunchezhiyan Nagar,” she added.

    Sources in the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board said unlike previous relocations, residents will be provided housing within the city. “We will reconstruct the existing tenements with more floors and houses and they will be accommodated there. This way neither will they lose livelihood nor will their children’s education be affected,” said a TNSCB official.

    More importantly, with another monsoon upon the city, there is a genuine fear that if there are good rains, there might be a repeat of the horror of December 2015. While hasty resettlement cannot be advocated, it is imperative that the issue be put on the top of the State’s agenda, activists have stressed.

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