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Slums and Informal Settlements

Indian cities thrive off the labor of the poor - domestic work, auto rickshaw drivers, street vendors, employees of small industries and shops, and more. Yet, governments - including the city of Chennai - have repeatedly failed to make affordable land available for them within a reasonable distance of their livelihoods. This has led to burgeoning informal settlements called slums, as migrants to the city squat on government owned lands and reclaim wastelands to build homes for themselves, find work, and improve their conditions.

Till 1985, 1,219 slums had been identified and recognised or “declared” by the Tamil Nadu government. “Declaration” resulted in the improvement of access to basic services in line with the progressive policy of ‘in-situ’ development provided for in the Tamil Nadu Slums (Improvement and Clearance) Act, 1971. These investments have resulted in many of the original slum dwellers in these declared settlements being able to pull themselves permanently out of poverty, and led to them making extensive investments in their own homes and neighborhoods that improved local services and allowed them to earn higher incomes through rentals and household industries.

However, since 1985 no more slums have been declared or improved. The government’s strategy, enabled by unprecedented central government spending in the urban sector, has been to instead construct large-scale resettlement colonies on the fringes of the city, to which slum-dwellers from central city areas are systematically evicted. These ghettos are far from residents’ sources of livelihood, good schools and health facilities, and opportunities for improvement. According to our research, at least 150,000 people have been evicted from their homes in the last 10 years alone. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of city dwellers live in undeclared slums that have developed in the last three decades, or have existed for much longer and were never declared. These city-dwellers continue to languish without basic services like running water and toilets, and live in constant fear of eviction. The survey commissioned by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 2014 to prepare the Rajiv Awas Yojana Slum Free City Plan of Action gave the last count of slums in the city as 2,173 and 29% of the population of Chennai resides in slums as per the 2011 census.

Our work aims at collecting and disseminating information about slums and informal settlements and their access to basic services to support advocacy for the right of the urban poor to the city, its resources, and its spaces. We work with a network of slum-based organisations, researchers, and activists to advocate for more inclusive and equitable policies towards slums and informal settlements.


Tenure Security and Access to Basic Services

A fallout of the informal nature of slum dwellings is that the uncertainty of continued residence prevents them from making investments that would improve their own access to services. Research confirms that tenure security has a direct positive impact on access to basic services such as water and sanitation. Residents are willing to invest in building their own toilets, installing taps, and improving their homes if they have land tenure. However, we have also found that the tenure security that declaration once provided is no longer sufficient protection from eviction. 10% of the evictions between 2005 and 2015 were of declared slums. In addition, some forms of tenure security can lead to rapid gentrification, especially given high real estate values. Developers are quick to convince and coerce slum dwellers with land tenure into selling these rights to build upmarket commercial and residential buildings. We are researching models and strategies that address these issues such as community ownership or tenure.

Informal Settlements and Environmental Protection

A majority of the city’s slums are located along canals, rivers, lakes, and the ocean. There is a perceived conflict between the existence of slums and ecological protection of water bodies. Slums are seen as dirty and polluting, and this view is often (wrongly) used as a justification for displacing informal settlements from their location along the banks of rivers and lakes. We work against this view of informal settlements. Research studies on the Cooum and Adyar rivers have shown that it is the government itself that is the worst polluter, dumping large amounts of untreated sewage and untreated effluents into the rivers on a daily basis. Slums’ contribution to pollution is miniscule, and can easily be addressed through improved infrastructure of sewage lines and better waste management services. Our research hopes to showcase models of development where local communities are leveraged to care for the city’s water bodies, recognising their symbiotic relationship.

Right to City: Chennai For All

The policy of the government towards slums of eviction and resettlement is resulting in ghettoization of the urban poor. The massive resettlement colonies at Kannagi Nagar, Perumbakkam and Semmencherri have been built to provide alternate housing to about 42,000 households displaced from their houses in more central and dispersed locations across the city, at the cost of about Rs. 6.5 lakhs per tenement. This is despite the fact that the alternative of in situ improvements would cost the government much less per household, and would prevent the concentration of poverty in tenement clusters, a strategy borrowed from the West that has failed in city after city.

In 2012, several activists, community based organisations, researchers, and slum-dwellers launched the ‘Right to City Movement: Chennai for all’ – a network with the objective of pushing the government to declare existing slums, improve infrastructure and access to services in situ, and stop eviction and resettlement to far-away ghettos. We at CAG are helping to take this movement forward, providing research support to the network and coordinating its activities. With research that reveals the inefficiency, irrationality, and inhumaneness of present policies, we hope to influence the government to act more responsibly towards the urban poor.