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Chennai’s land transformations and implications for its resilience

Edition: July - September 2018

From the eightfold expansion of the Chennai Metropolitan Area, the Smart City Mission, evictions of slums for infrastructure projects, to the destruction of the Ennore Creek for development is enough evidence to demonstrate that Chennai’s land use is rapidly and irreversibly changing. The rising global demand for land and natural resources has made its protection an urgent priority, particularly in situations where there is little or no legal protection against government-sponsored land use changes and land acquisition. It was in this context that CAG organised a public talk on the topic of Chennai’s land transformations and the implications for its resilience. This talk was hosted on 18 August 2018 at the Madras School of Social Work. 

The talk featured three speakers: P.V Rajagopal, founder of Ekta Parishad and activist, Bhuvaneswari Raman, Professor at Jindal Global University and Priti Narayan, PhD candidate at Rutgers University. Narayan and Raman shared their experiences on working on land rights in Chennai. The talk largely focused on the changing nature of land rights in India and the current development model. Discussions focused on forcible land acquisitions under the pretext of public welfare, the need for legal protection from government-sponsored land use changes and the poor implementation of existing laws. The talk revolved around the two main actors responsible for land transformations in the urban context- the government and neoliberal financial institutions, like the World Bank.

The politics of slum resettlement in Chennai can be traced back to the establishment of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) in accordance with the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, 1971. The policies of the TNSCB evolved from a legitimate public welfare institution that sought to improve conditions of slum dwellers to a predatory body that evicted and displaced slum dwellers under the pretext of public welfare schemes. Initial beneficiaries of public welfare schemes fell prey to vote bank politics. These schemes initially focused on in-situ tenement construction. Votes were provided to different political constituencies influenced by parties like the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in return for housing and the upgradation of slums in various areas, leading to the creation of party strongholds in these areas. The World Bank started funding shelter policies launched by the TNSCB in 1972, through a Public-Private Partnership model with three verticals: the Sites and Services Scheme to provide land on the peripheries while providing tenure security; an in-situ slum improvement vertical that also assured tenure security to slum residents; and tenement creation for the poor under the pretext of rehabilitation. This was implemented through the Madras Urban Development Programme (MUDP) and Tamil Nadu Urban Development Programme.

Strong political links between the TNSCB and the DMK led to the depoliticisation of the process in the 1980s through the MUDP programme. The World Bank changed the institutional functioning of the TNSCB because they felt that that the implementation of the scheme had faltered due to political meddling. The Board slowly changed the focus of its policies from in-situ development to providing welfare through sites and services schemes due to the interference of neoliberal actors. This led to the creation of slum tenements on the outskirts of the city. Narayan went on to describe how the current model of development now involves forceful eviction through the policy of tenement creation, leading to gentrification. This problem is magnified exponentially because the slum dwellers that are involved in this process often do not have legal pattas, or land titles. The classification of slums into objectionable slums and unobjectionable slums is also being warped to help acquire land occupied by slum dwellers for infrastructure projects. 

Objectionable slums refer to slums that lie on roads, rail and river margins, or environmentally hazardous areas. The potential of land use for urbanisation within the city led to the use of ‘objectionable slums’ to evict slum dwellers from any land that holds high real estate value. Narayan elaborated further on the environmental angle of evictions using Naomi Klein’s framework of disaster capitalism, pointing out that the 2015 floods were used as a pretext for evicting slum dwellers from the interiors of the city to low lying areas lying in the peripheries through the use of “objectionable slums”. This is because institutions like the TNSCB have been reconfigured to cater to a “modern and urban Chennai”.

The lack of legal tenders for slum land also plays into the politics of land. This model in an urban context does not offer the poor the chance to own land within the city. This is interesting because slums are geographically created in response to livelihood opportunities and needs. This informality does not incentivise landowners to develop their land. This land is later taken up by affluent builders to create a modern city. Currently, public-private partnerships and top-down government schemes like the JNNURM provide hire-purchase agreements that do not provide complete tenure security whereas sale agreements provide full tenure security.  The relocation of slums not only denies the people their right to live on the land but also affects their livelihoods.

This neoliberal policy of development was further elaborated on by Raman, who shed light on how land is implicated in wealth. The urbanisation and development of urban metropolitan areas led to the heavy contestation of scarce land in and around the city. This involves land grabbing through real estate development through institutions like banks and real estate markets that use finance as a means to access land. This reconfiguration of financial and government institutions takes place along the same trajectory of the World Bank reducing the CMDA and TNSCB to mere “project support units”. Large developers who are involved in this model of land acquisition can be linked back to the national and international stock market. Similarly,  common land is also obtained through eminent domain, making appropriation a lot more subtle. The creation of Special Economic Zones, industrial corridors, and industrial parks involving agencies such as SIPCOT and FDIs help enable the acquisition of land.

Raman shared examples of land acquisition using examples of private real estate projects on the peripheries of Chennai. This whole process is based off the principle of land value capture, wherein real estate developers capture land only to create a land bank used for integrated townships and affluent residential areas. This is facilitated through land grabbing under the basis of eminent domain and Public Private Partnerships (PPP). The state plays an important role in acquiring land through the Land Acquisition Act, and providing the acquired land to developers. These townships cater primarily to expats, upper-middle class Indians, and Non-Residential Indians, and are partially occupied. 

Raman also addressed the issue of farmers giving up land for massive real estate 100-acre projects. She pointed out that the rates of compensation were very high because of the wilful destruction of agricultural infrastructure through urbanisation. Landowners outside the city were forced into giving up land. This plays into the structure of the judiciary, wherein people are unable to fight land grabbing through eminent domain, but instead can only fight for better compensation. The major actors that play a role in this model of development are actually institutional players like financial consultants and big architects who influence the finances of land grabbing. This can be traced back to a denial of what Lefebvre calls “the right to the city”, that has been replaced with the right to housing through policies of the TNSCB. This form of acquisition denies people their right to the city, both inside and outside. Raman called for a need to change institutions to cater to the needs of the all the people who have “the right to the city”.

The last speaker for the evening, P.V. Rajagopal linked the top-down development model to rural displacement and alienation. He pointed out that displacement also takes place in a similar fashion through the destruction of agrarian livelihoods and land resources for development projects, resulting in the drainage of rural India’s national resources, spurring rural to urban migration. It ties in with Raman’s narrative of the destruction of agriculture infrastructure, forcing farmers into a position where they have to migrate and sell the land for “development”. He stressed the fact that India’s top-down model of governance involves many institutions that are supposed to be responsible for people’s welfare, like the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board. He drew upon Anil Kapur’s theory of public institution degradation, claiming that the sheer number of institutions has led to its corruption, changing from a liberator to an oppressor of the people. He believed this was so because justice is delivered by people living in buildings, instead of people working on the ground. India has a need for officials who are hardworking and rooted in the principle of justice, instead of people who work for their personal benefit. He elaborated on this using the example of land pooling, wherein farmers’ lands are pooled into commons only to be given away for development, bypassing the Land Acquisition Act. Additionally, district collectors conduct public hearings without delivering justice.

Injustice aggravates levels of conflict and violence, leading to more resistance from common people. On this note, he called for a rework of the current top-down model to a bottom-up one that involves the people. He stressed the need for inclusive, community-level governance. Rajagopal also spoke extensively on rural resilience. He shared information on the identity and land-based yatras (pilgrimage) being undertaken in response to this model of development. He provided an example of a yatra that is marching to Delhi from Trivandrum for M.S Swaminathan’s 2011 Women farmers’ bill. He stressed on the need for urban solidarity with these movements, as the poor are invisible compared to the more visible and influential middle class. Land grabbing in both rural and urban areas is supported by an elite urban class of people. This argument for resilience can be extended towards slum dwellers who have been evicted to the peripheries of the city. Narayan emphasised that forceful eviction will not work as slums are geographically created based on livelihood: for instance, 50% of the population evicted to Kannagi Nagar moved back to the city because they were unable to sustain themselves on the peripheries. This would only lead to recurring evictions creating more settlements that are uninhabited. 

Part of the difficulty faced by the people is that the government rarely organises public consultations where ordinary people can learn about the changes and take part in government decision-making processes for infrastructure projects and land acquisition. Moreover, they cannot negotiate on equal terms with consultants and firms proposing such plans. This is because the idea of land is implicated in real estate value. This problem is compounded by poor enforcement of laws and regulations. India has a very poor record of compliance with environmental and social regulations, and violations have real and profound effects on the lives of people. There is a need to include local communities and residents into the processes that oversee social and environmental assessments.

During the post-talk discussion, P.V Rajagopal’s aide, Ravi Badri, shared some interesting insights on the need for transformation. He pointed out that this urban solidarity with people’s movements went beyond people attending talks and seminars. He said that those informed in the urban middle class have the important duty to create spaces for discussion and information dissemination, as the government now looks to the middle class as a bigger vote bank. The production of knowledge and action needs to be in a manner that is non-violent in nature, to counter the violence resulting from India’s current model of development. He stressed on a four-pillar model of transformation - the power of people to bring about change; the power of young people to organise violence; the power of nonviolence; and the power of solidarity. This extends itself towards the goal and vision of CAG.

The talk provided insights into the model of development that operates in India today. The talk highlighted the role of citizens in ensuring the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. Citizens play an important role in extending solidarity towards those marginalised that are fighting for their rights through non-violent methods. The need for natural resources and land puts an emphasis on participatory and bottom-up methods of governance as methods of nonviolent protest. In the context of slums and eviction, community methods of data collection and governance could help provide ad hoc tenure security to slum dwellers by providing evidence of long tenure in areas. These non-violent methods of resilience, however, have to be extended to both rural and urban India, as the failure of agriculture is linked to the development and misuse of land for urbanisation and development.

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