Chennai Floods

New homes, old challenges: Why a resettlement plan for Chennai’s poor will not bring relief

The Tamil Nadu government wants to relocate 10,000 flood-affected families to colonies that were inundated too.

The Tamil Nadu government has come up with a peculiar rehabilitation plan for many of those rendered homeless by the recent floods – sending them to other areas that were inundated.

On December 7, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa announced that 10,000 poor families will be relocated to tenements in the colonies of Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam on the outskirts of Chennai. There are 29,864 flats in the two areas, according to government documents, and of these 5,650 are occupied, says a study by the non-profit Transparent Cities Network, CAG.

Built at an estimated cost of Rs 1,775 crores under the centrally-sponsored Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam are plagued by problems.

For one, they do not have a comprehensive storm water drain network, because of which the tenements were swamped during the recent spell of heavy rain and flooding. “The water was at neck-level,” said one resident who moved out of Perumbakkam during the floods. “There was no way I could stay there.”

Those who stayed behind had to break into and take refuge in the empty flats on the upper stories, says Babu, another resident. “We did not have water or electricity for a week,” he added.

Lack of infrastructure

Though conceived of as “integrated townships” with modern facilities, Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam lack essential urban infrastructure and services. Even in normal times, there is a shortage of water and electricity outages are common. “We get water only once or twice a day and the electricity supply keeps getting cut,” said a resident of Ezhil Nagar.

The colonies have only one primary school each, no ration shops or public health centres, according to fact-finding reports of the Transparent Cities Network, CAG.

Only two buses ply from the bus stop at Ezhil Nagar and they are invariably late, says Murugan, another residents. Residents undertake long journeys to the city because there are no jobs available here. “Many of us are fishermen,” Murugan says, and “here there is no sea”.

Because of the lack of infrastructure, services and livelihood opportunities, many residents of Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam have illegally rented out their flats and moved back to slum settlements in the heart of the city. Others too want to leave. “It is not convenient to live here,” said a resident of Ezhil Nagar.

The present occupants of Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam view the state government’s plan to resettle 10,000 flood-affected families here with apprehension. Says one resident, “If they come here, then they will face endless difficulties. It will be a setback, not a relief package.”

Controversial project

The tenements of Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam tenements have been controversial from the start, according to activists and researchers.

A report by the Right to City movement – a coalition of slum residents, researchers and activists – found problems with the way funds for the project were accessed under the JNNURM. It also questioned the design of the tenements and the quality of their construction. The report found that the project was completed without environmental or social impact assessments, both of which are required under the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 2007.

“Ezhil Nagar is near a water body and Perumbakkam is built on a lake bed. Both areas were badly affected during the recent floods,” said Priti Narayan, a researcher and activist studying at Rutgers University, US. “Moving flood-affected victims from... one precarious location to another is not only counterproductive but also increases their vulnerability. Locating them in houses where livelihoods are difficult to find will make it impossible for them to recover from the devastation caused by the flood.”

Narayan added: “An alternative to resettling the poor outside the city is to focus on the rehabilitation of slums in-situ where possible, or at least in central city areas, so that the livelihoods of slum residents are not impacted and municipal services are of better quality.”

But the government, it seems, has not learnt its lessons. It wants a quick-fix remedy, not a long-term solution to the problems of the poor.

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