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When the Poor Have No Voice: A Brief Summary of the Hearing at the National Green Tribunal in a Case Related to the Cooum Restoration (September 2015)

The community outreach team at CAG recently learnt about the Government’s plan to evict 14,200 households from 58 slums located on the Cooum river banks in the guise of the Cooum River Eco-restoration Project. After a thorough perusal of the project documentation, we see it as a plan not to clean the waterway but as an excuse to raze the slums and develop the riverfront. We started collecting every piece of information that could help the poor people living in the slums on Cooum banks to defend themselves against the arbitrary eviction and relocation to slum board tenements located in distant places like Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam where access to livelihood and other basic facilities are admittedly inadequate.

Commercial establishments and private buildings seen on the Cooum bank near Maduravoyal: Are these not encroaching on the right of way line?
Commercial establishments and private buildings seen on the Cooum bank near Maduravoyal: Are these not encroaching on the right of way line?

While looking through old news reports to read about the various projects that are being implemented to clean waterways in Chennai, we learnt about an on-going case in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a specialised body established under the National Green Tribunal Act 2010 to handle cases relating to environmental protection and forests and natural resource. The NGT has the power to enforce any legal right related to the environment, and can provide for relief and compensation for damages to persons and property.

This particular case was lodged at the NGT in 2014 by a resident of Purasawakkam, Chennai named Edwin Wilson. Mr. Wilson filed a petition seeking directions from the NGT for the restoration of Cooum. In its response to the petition, the government submitted that they are serious about cleaning the waterways and the project to clean the Cooum is already underway through the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT) that is implementing the Cooum River Eco-Restoration Project. As a result, this case paved the way for the NGT to closely monitor the Cooum project and enforce its implementation. We learned that this case came up for hearing on 09th September 2015, and Vijay, Jacintha, and I went as observers to the hearing. Counsels to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT), the petitioner Mr. Wilson, and the industries that were charged with polluting the Cooum River were all present.

TNSCB resettlement tenements at Ezhil Nagar seen flooded with sewerage water: a sorry state of affairs

TNSCB resettlement tenements at Ezhil Nagar seen flooded with sewerage water: a sorry state of affairs

As we observed the proceeding, what we found most shocking was that the case was registered in 2014 and till date there was no one to represent the cause of the slum dwellers during the hearings. The counsel for the CRRT had free run to put the entire blame on the slum dwellers for polluting the Cooum and he even sought the direction of the Court to evict the slum dwellers with the aid of police. During an informal chat with the Counsel to the petitioner, he said that he felt sorry for the slum dwellers that they had no representation to put forth their arguments. He insisted that someone should implead in the case on their behalf.  He added that in the High Court, the Government could not press ahead with slum evictions because the slum dwellers had representation and defended their own cause. However, at the NGT it has become easier for the government to tag all slums - both declared and undeclared - as encroachers and polluters. Unfortunately, as petitioners, he said that they themselves could not argue for the slum dwellers though they sympathize with them.

The following is a brief summary of what we observed in the court.

  • The hearing started with the judge reminding everyone of his direction  to the CRRT and Chief Secretary during the previous hearing: to identify all polluters of the river, including industries, and  directing the Chief Secretary to hold meetings every two months with all departments for better coordination between them to ensure smooth implementation of the project.
  • The judge sternly asked about the identification of the industries that pollute the Cooum. The counsel for CRRT said that they had held a joint inspection along with TNPCB and MetroWater and identified 15 outlets that release fetid water and raw sewage along the Cooum. These outlets came from government agencies like the Metropolitan Transport Corporation and MetroWater as well as 3 large industrial units and a few small private automobile repair units. He also said the Chief Secretary had held a joint meeting with all the departments involved in the project.
  • The counsel for CRRT stressed that it is the “encroachers” (slum dwellers) who contribute a lot to the pollution and said that they do not allow them to enter the slums for inspections. The counsel added that the moment they enter the slums people assume that they are there for evicting them and start quarrelling. He requested the judge to direct the Corporation of Chennai to use police support to enter the area and relocate the encroachers, and that houses in the relocation sites are ready for occupation.
  • The judge asked why the NGT should give a direction to anyone to do their duty as per law, such as to evict slum dwellers if they are encroachers. He observed that the problem is that the departments are not doing their duties, whether it is checking pollution or encroachments. The judge observed that the NGT cannot issue any direction on this and asked the government agencies to do their duties as per law.
  • The counsel for CRRT said that they had feared NGT’s rebuke if they removed encroachments, but now that the judge had made it clear what he wanted, the government agencies would push ahead in removing the encroachers.
  • At this point, the counsel for the petitioner intervened and said that the slum dwellers were being unnecessarily targeted. He argued that the CRRT is trying to divert attention from the real causes of the pollution in the Cooum. Because of the focus on slum-dwellers, whom he believed were not the primary cause of pollution, he questioned whether the government was serious in trying to clean the waterways. The counsel for the CRRT immediately objected, and said that encroachers are very much responsible for the present state of the Cooum River.
  • The judge asked about the action taken on the 3 polluting industries that were identified. The counsel for the TNPCB said that during the inspections that they carried out it was found that the industries have stopped releasing the untreated effluents into Cooum and said that the report of the inspection was  submitted before the bench. The judge sternly asked how the Board could give the industries a clean chit so soon after they were identified as polluters.
  • At the end, the judge directed the TNPCB to do an inspection of the industries again and write an Action Taken Report. He directed the CRRT to proceed with the inspection of sewage outfalls and polluters and to implement the Cooum Eco-restoration project within a fixed time period and with coordination of all departments. The judge asked the government to come out with a report on the work done by the next hearing which was scheduled for 18th November 2014.

As a project which will have a direct adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of thousands of slum dwellers, it is very unfortunate that so far no one was speaking on behalf of the slum dwellers at the NGT. Now that the government is going ahead with the plan to evict the slum dwellers and relocate them to Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam, Chennai slum-dwellers urgently require representation at the NGT and it is the responsibility of civil society organizations and slum-dwellers to come together and fight for the rights of slum dwellers to live in the city.


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