India saw a 25% increase in its slum population over the last two decades, reaching 65.4 million in 2011. However, only one-third of 13.7 million slum households have been notified by the Indian government. This is borne out by data in the Indian Census (2011), which reveals that Indian cities have high inequalities in access to housing and basic services. Instead of solving this problem through in-situ rehabilitation, the Indian government opts for a policy of moving slum dwellers to resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city so as to create a ‘slum-free city’. The policy ignores issues of livelihoods, land, and dignity by looking at slums as a housing issue. This forces slum dwellers to choose between substandard housing and their livelihoods. Critics also suggest that official data on slums would have been higher with better forms of enumeration, and part of this problem lies in the way slums are defined and framed. This brief piece will examine the framing of slum policy in Chennai, and elaborate on the need for a new approach.

The word slum was popularised by Bretton Woods institutions in the 1970s and 1980s to create awareness on urban poverty whilst providing modern infrastructure to urbanise third world cities. A slum is also complex because it has various connotations - it could mean poor quality housing and infrastructure; it could also refer to people who reside in slums as insinuated in the slur ‘slum dweller’. A distinction should be made between the urban poor and slum dwellers, as not all the urban poor are slum dwellers and vice-versa. Poor civic infrastructure in slums also leads to insecurity and associations with crime. Even though it is important to re-evaluate definitions as time progresses, agencies employ different definitions to understand slums. This has created discrepancies as there is no concrete definition that can be used.

A brief look at Slum Policy in Chennai
The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act 1971 was the first act to address the issue
of slums in India through the creation of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB). In its initial socio-economic survey in 1971, the TNSCB defines a slum as: ”hutting areas with huts erected in a haphazard manner without proper access, without proper water supply and drainage arrangements and so congested as to allow a little free flow of air to get in”.

The TN Slum Clearance Act, 1971 puts an emphasis on slum notification and in-situ rehabilitation, allowing eviction as a last option after slum notification. However, it has not officially notified new slums since 1985. This forms the crux of the problem in Chennai. As some slums are not notified, they lack legal protection, which in turn affects their ability to contest and avail government benefits and tenure security. The additional classification of slums as “untenable”, or “objectionable” provides government institutions legal power over slums without an opportunity to be heard. This has been used to relocate slums to resettlement colonies like Kannagi Nagar. JNNURM’s Basic Services for Urban Poor (BSUP) scheme has also been misused for the creation of these colonies. The Tamil Nadu Vision 2023 document further promotes a policy of a slum-free Chennai using the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.  

Adopting a Different perspective

The UN definition of a slum differs from others by addressing a slum household and not a slum. This definition does not depend on a specific population or designated area for slum recognition such as the 2001 and 2011 Census. Instead, it focuses on the physical and legal constructs of slums, like tenure security and provision of basic services. The UN habitat document also suggests that there will never be any homogeneity with respect to how slums are framed, as slums are relative. Adopting a different approach to slums involves legal, physical, infrastructural and socio-economic change rooted in environmental and social justice.

In Tamil Nadu, there is no real abolishment of slums, merely the shifting of them elsewhere. Slums will still come up due to economic necessity. Squatter settlements come up due to the need for informal labor in the urban economy. This is evident in the failure of the TNSCB’s policy. For instance, 50% of the population that has been dispossessed to Kannagi Nagar have returned back to the city in search for jobs and livelihood, implying that the urban poor do show some form of resilience.

Solving the problem of slums is beyond providing housing through resettlement; it should involve addressing civic infrastructure, capacity building, socio-cultural development, etc. Instead of providing social housing through gentrification, a better urban renewal policy would involve a rights-based approach focused on tenure security and in-situ development. A bottom-up approach involving the improvement of infrastructure through slum notification would lead to a more humane slum policy.

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