The promise of a pucca house with an attached toilet and bathroom along with other facilities like running water connections, electricity, etc. would seem like a welcome idea for any resident of a slum without any of these basic facilities. But it is not so for the residents of Konnur High Road slum who have been asked by the Corporation to vacate their houses and relocate to the tenements of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) in Ezhil Nagar. Although the slum is ‘declared’ under Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement & Clearance) Act, the Corporation of Chennai wants it to be razed for the purported reason that it is on an objectionable land. This is despite the fact that this slum has existed since the 1960s and was recognized as such by the government in 1971.  It is also worth a mention that the authorities have already demolished 25 houses arbitrarily and relocated the residents to the Ezhil Nagar tenements without following due process like serving eviction notices. Faced with the arm-twisting tactics of government officials, the remaining households in the slum, with the support of Pennurimai Iyakkam, challenged the government’s arbitrary actions before the Madras High Court and got a stay order against eviction. What made the residents of this slum resist the authorities’ move towards evicting them and why they are reluctant to leave this place amidst all the pressure is interesting to study as it raises many pertinent questions about the state’s policies towards relocation and rehabilitation of slum dwellers. The aim of this blog is to flag and draw attention to the threat to livelihoods that arbitrary relocation poses to the people and how unilateral decisions of government towards slum dwellers in the guise of welfare measures is often counter-productive to them.   

The many visits that Vijay, Jacintha and I recently made to Konnur High Road slum for a study gave us the opportunity to observe and interact closely with the residents through focused group discussions and personal interviews. Through our discussions with the residents we found that even though they had many reasons for their unwillingness to relocate to Ezhil Nagar, there was one reason that stood out. Everyone was invariably scared about the question of livelihoods. Of course there  were other important reasons like losing access to facilities like schools, government hospitals and factors like easy commute and safety that the residents cited. But for them losing their jobs could be a matter of life and death. A closer look at what works these people carry out for living and analyzing in what way it would be affected will help us understand why their fears about livelihoods is not unreasonable.

People in the Konnur High Road slum predominantly work in the informal sector. Most of the men in the slum work as construction workers, drive auto rickshaws, pedal rickshaws and motored tri-cycles, work as carpenters and electricians, and a few who are employed in nearby shops as well. Majority of the women are engaged in flower selling, as domestic help in houses nearby and a few work in a nearby Appalam factory. Some women and elderly run petty shops and small eateries near their houses to eke out a living. It is also worth highlighting that people do not travel long distances to reach their work places and they find jobs through contacts and acquaintances they have built over these years in and around this area.

Residents in the slum that we interacted with said that moving to a place like Ezhil Nagar which is far from the city would cripple their current mode of livelihoods and would render them jobless. Their fear is not unfounded. They are aware that many of those who were relocated earlier either could not continue in their jobs because of the distance, or now have to travel back everyday for work as they could not find a job near Ezhil Nagar. The latter category face a lot of hardships, having to start their day as early as 4.00 in the morning. Often it gets too late for them to return and they stay back in a relative’s house in the slum. For the former, the problems that accompany the loss of income for a poor family in the city are self evident.

For the flower vendor women, engaged in this work for generations, a move to Ezhil Nagar would be disastrous. They go to markets in Broadway and Koyambedu to buy flowers. They tie the flowers at home and sell them in markets, temples and residential areas like Ayanavaram and Perambur. As these places are nearby and well connected through public transport, work and family care are easily managed. The women we spoke with said that they could not even think about continuing their work if they had to move to Ezhil Nagar. The commute from Ezhil Nagar to Broadway and Koyambedu is too  long and finding a market for flowers around Ezhil Nagar was doubtful.  

The story is not so different for the auto rickshaw drivers and others as one auto driver pointed out, “I do not own an auto rickshaw and I only drive a rented auto. Who will rent out auto for me if I go to Ezhil Nagar?   I have lived here since I was a child. I get an auto for rent on the basis of trust that has been built over many years. I will only have to change my job if relocated”.

The same is the case for people in other trades working as construction workers, electricians and carpenters as the lack of acquaintances in the new place will make it very hard for them to find a job in the nearby areas, forcing them to come to their original places of work. This would mean spending more time and money on travel as well as increased levels of stress. The feeling of insecurity is also quite palpable among the residents as one carpenter we interacted with said, “Even if we try to start a business of our own how will the people who are already there would allow us to do it? They will look at us as their competitors and cause trouble for us.” A woman who works in the housekeeping department of a private concern said, “I found this work because of  a referral from a relative and I do not know anyone around Ezhil Nagar. I either have to travel all the way from Ezhil Nagar or leave my job”. Others living in the slum like this woman are worried about the lack of a network to assist them in getting a job and a support system in helping with home and children.

These are the fears relating to livelihoods that the people have about relocating to a far off place like Ezhil Nagar, not to mention the other main concerns related to health, education and safety. The government’s current approach towards relocation and rehabilitation completely overlooks the threat to livelihood security that people would face as an immediate consequence of relocation. Though the TNSCB claims that it helps the relocated people with skill training and job melas, the fact finding study that Transparent Cities Network, anchored at CAG, conducted in one of the relocation sites revealed that there was hardly anyone who was benefited out of these trainings and job fairs. For Instance, of the 6 respondents who said  that  they  attended  training  programmes  organized  by  the  TNSCB only  1 respondent had said that she continued doing tailoring work after the training.

It is important for the government to recognise that its role in achieving a “slum-free city” is not just about the exercise of allocating houses to people but in ensuring their welfare through continued access to sources of livelihood, and a recognition of the role of the community. This would only happen if the government reviews its policy towards slum relocation and focuses instead on in-situ developments or building houses for slum dwellers closer to their current areas. The current practice of forcefully evicting slums and relocating residents to areas that are far from their current living and working places only adds to their vulnerabilities, excluding them from the city and denying them their inherent right to city and livelihoods.