Government, Urban Issue

Defence waging war against Slum Dwellers; calls them Trespassing Occupants

A big yellow board with “Defence Land” written in big bold black letters welcome people into the slums behind it in Vannarpet, Shanthinagar ward.

There were other boards too. A board inviting people into a church on the walls of which were Tamil inscriptions of quotations from the Bible. There was a Dalita Samraksha Samithi (DSS) board, providing the office address and contact details in Tamil, Kannada, and English. A temple with a hoarding as big as itself announced in Tamil the programs for an upcoming festivity.

“There are Telugu speakers too,” said Narayana Rao, the ward President, to underscore the multilingual characteristic of the slum areas in the ward. “They even have their own section called Andhra colony with 250-odd hamlets.”

The settlement, with small grocery shops, temples, churches, and shops providing services for every possible necessity didn’t seem like a slum settlement at all. It even has its own community centre, funded and run by its Christian residents. Like in a tiny town in Italy, all its houses were painted a certain blue, and, incidentally, most of its male, working residents are painters.

Referring to slums in the adjacent Neelasandra, Narayana said that the majority who live there are Muslims. “In our Shanthinagar ward, and her in Vannarpet slum area, we mostly speak Tamil, and, even though, it is our mother-tongue, we speak Kannada with equal passion, consider ourselves Kannadigas, and even celebrate Kannada Rajyotsava, the state festival.” The percentage of people in these slum areas whose first language is Kannada is said to be 20 per cent. “This results in the representation problem. These slum dwellers are labelled as migrants. And, hence, they suffer.”

Noah, who runs a photo-studio attached to the community centre speaks Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu. He plays the role of a ‘Discipline Coach’ at the centre and according to his estimate, about 100 children from the slum attend the sessions. In the last 20 years of his life, he converted to Christianity, lived through the fear of rowdy-ism in the surrounding slums, and witnessed the conflict intensifying between the defence administration and his people.

He revealed another conflict in the area. Many Christians in the slum are Protestants. The famous roman-catholic Infant Jesus Church is situated a kilometre away, and ‘nothing much has come from them in terms of funding.’

The pressing conflict still remains the battle between the Karnataka & Goa Sub Area Army administration and the slum dwellers in Amrithamma Slum and adjoining areas. Following years of forcing people to move out, the Sub-Area administration disallows renovations and construction on what it says is ‘Defence Land’.

An offer to give up the land for 20 crore rupees presented to the Karnataka Government was ignored. “This political will became evident,” said Narayana Rao. “We have been living on this land since 1960s. Doesn’t living here for half a century make this our home?”

The slum is located next to Army Cantonment and Officer’s quarters. The defence personnel can be seen loving about in the peripheries of the slum making use of the services offered by the slum dwellers – tea, uniform altering and tailoring, bike repair and maintenance…

Whom should the people approach to get street lights fixed, public toilets cleaned, and roads patched and tarred? The Sub-Area Army Service Corps centre. Who should represent them? The elected civic body official – the Corporator. Many corporators could not reach the defence authorities, under whom the land is legally under control. The three-way tension among defence authorities, civic body officials, and people is tearing the seams of what could be a peaceful ‘status-quo’ like situation that the slum dwellers hope for.

“When it rained heavily in the last monsoon season, this house fell,” said Suguna Selvakumar, pointing to a rubble. “The people who were living here had to relocate. They could not rebuild their home because of the reconstruction rules the defence authorities have laid down.” Defence authorities have appointed an overseer, who comes on a bicycle. He makes his rounds meticulously and reports to his department if any renovation or construction is taking place, according to the people living in Amrithamma slum.

Suguna, a maid by profession, is married to a painter, and the couple send their kids to a private convent school. Although they are happy with the schooling their kids are receiving, fears of disease-carrying mosquitoes, and water-borne illnesses worry them endlessly. There is only one Prathamika Aarogya Kendra (Govt. Primary Healthcare Centre) for the ward and for all the slums in it.

“When we take a bath, the used water can’t be drained to the main sewage line that runs through the slum. We have to manually flush water out of the toilet. We have to do this after taking a bath,” said Shreesha David, who works in a nearby incense sticks unit.

The main sewage line has been clogged for years. One crack and the sewage stuck in the pipe will rush and spray out into the houses in the slum, the residents fear.

Women in the slum line up every morning in front of a pay and use toilet with 3 rupees in their palm. The toilet is installed 3 kms. away.

“Often, I take my children with me,” said Shreesha. “I can’t let them bathe and use the toilet here.”

Another major concern is water. “We all live in rented houses. We pay for using the toilet. Even for cooking and drinking purposes, we have to pay[for water],” she added.

A house nearby has a borewell and a motor connected to the tank which receives corporation water. Women from the slum take several trips on every alternate day between 1 and 2 am to fetch water from the single tap by paying 100 rupees for 10 buckets. The tap is open just for an hour.

A toilet built for the slum dwellers at the entrance to the slum has four latrines. All the doors are off the hinges and outsiders and passers-by also use the toilet.

The toilets that, from the outside, look maintained hit the users with a nauseating stench.

For the main drain pipe that has been clogged for years and the public toilet poorly maintained, the residents of the slum blame the civic authorities.

There are nearly 15,000 houses that are situated in and around Vannarpet – Amrithamma slum, Yellaranagar, Ambedkar Nagar, and Rajendra Nagar.

“If you shoo the people away, they will occupy government and private land. Private land occupation are the most difficult and the most violent. The owner thinks his right to the land is absolute,” said Narayana Rao.

Relocations were promised and the new that slum dwellers from areas such as Andhra Colony were relocated.

“No shifting took place. Old Andhra Colony was renamed as New Andhra Colony. The government tends to do this. No relocation happened,” he added.

Amrithamma Slum, Nanjappa Garden, John Bull Street, Rudry’s Garden, and Jayraj Nagara are all slums that suffer a conflict with defence authorities.

There is one Anganawadi for all these areas. One Girl’s School. One Boy’s High School. All the schools need renovation and repair. Roofs have fallen. Water seeps in. And the retention rates are low.

One bright spot is the Corporation School. Harish, a 10 year old boy, listed his entitlements – mid-day meal, uniform, shoes, Pulao, Bisi Bele Bath (Hot Dal Rice)….he gets them all.

Government, Urban Issue

Beach becomes desert on Republic Day

CHENNAI: The crowd at the 68th Republic Day celebrations on Kamarajar Salai was sparse with people deciding to stay away from the parade following a week-long Jallikattu agitation on the Marina Beach.

“The crowd was not even 5 per cent of what it was in the previous years. Last time, lakhs of people had come to celebrate the Republic Day, but this time, as you can see, there is no one here,” said Raja, a flag and tri-colour merchandise seller, who had managed to make record sales each succeeding year and was sitting with hundreds of unsold lapel-pin flags this time.

On the eve of Republic Day, Marina Beach had become a desert after the Police evicted thousands of protesters. For two days, the Police maintained strict vigil and enforced blockades at entry points to the Beach. Although security arrangements were tight for the celebrations, the task for the Police was made simple because the traffic was lesser than what they had expected, according to a policeman.

“Even though I was a protester yesterday, I am here to show my patriotism today,” said Ashwin Irudayarajan, who was one of the few protesters who chose to participate in the celebrations. “I could’ve watched the event on TV but I am here,” he added.

The Police had made several announcements at the beach asking the protesters to vacate the area for Republic Day preparations. “The crowd was evacuated just in time. After what happened, many youngsters I know didn’t want to return. Many youngsters were denied entry,” said Deenadayal, an engineer from Mylapore.

Ashwin Irudayarajan said that he was detained at a police station for wearing a black T-shirt while protesting on the Marina Beach. On the Republic Day, he was asked to keep his dark coloured handkerchief with the Police and collect it after the event.

Ashwin sports a man-bun – long hair tied into a bun at the back of his head. “The policeman at the checkpoint literally touched it and accused me of being a rogue. He assumed that a young man having a man-bun is a rogue and that he would wave his dark coloured handkerchief in the air in protest,” said Ashwin. “Why will people attend Republic Day celebrations when the Police do this?”

On asked if people’s non-attendance at the celebrations was a form of protest, Vignesh Ramanan said, “Republic Day is unrelated to Jallikattu. Most people are still patriotic. People forget protests easily but celebrate Republic Day every year. Many are here. Shows patriotism, right?”

Climate Change, Urban Issue

Lost children of dying mother Earth

Let’s define climate refugees: lost children of dying mother earth.

One such child, a Bangladeshi boy, who hasn’t seen glaciers, reminds us of those in Marquez’s magically realistic Macondo, where the sight of ice was a rarity – even mythical. Forced to pack his notebooks and two sets of clothes to flee from the ocean scooping out land mass upon which he played, the boy wonders at the Beast that has woken up from a long snore-less sleep.

He would scoff at elderly explanations – chopping down forests, blowing greenhouses gases into the air…has led to rising temperatures.

He has heard about tsunami, the big wave that rushed out of the ocean and hit all lands in its way, flattening constructions and restoring earth’s primordial nature – if only for a while. Soon, the land was bulldozed, dug, trenched, pillared, roofed, and built.

Now, a climate refugee, he hears more stories while walking inland with his parents. Farmers show their flood-affected fields. Further along the path, some more farmers, dig parched and cracked drought-ridden land.

On the journey, the boy sees submerging coasts and drying land, and thinks if a curse has struck his homeland. Half the population in his country lives just under five feet above sea level. By 2050, flooding can devour 17 per cent of his country’s land and displace nearly 20 million people, who like him will become climate refugees.

As the boy and his family scour the country-side for survival, they are called internally displaced persons (IDPs) experiencing environmentally induced population movements (EIPMs). While he saw his father move away from the disappearing wetlands, deeper into the sea, in search of salt water habitats that were fast receding, his identity of a fisherman’s son faded into history. Once he left his home with his parents, he was branded an IDP. He became one of 140 million IDPs from all over the world, who ran in search of safety in the last six years.

Once he reaches Dhaka, the country’s capital, his family’s problems sky-rocket, like the buildings around their slum. Of the 14.5 million people in the fast-growing metropolis, nearly 40 per cent reside in slums. Then, tired of battling for food, water, and jobs, his family will seek the last option and look west – towards India.

Several refugees he leaves behind in Dhaka will suffer, struggle and strive against poverty and sadly fall into those jobs that offer the least respect – drug peddling and flesh trade.

The hostility he faces on the other side of the border is motivated by an intense battle for limited resources. He only moved from one densely populated city to another within one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Bengali forms a shield around him. However, the cozy familiarity doesn’t last long – no documents, no house, no ration card, no entitlements.

International agencies offer no legal protections and thus by default refuse him basic human rights. Since, he doesn’t ‘fear being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a social group or political opinion and are unable, or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries’, he is different from every other kind of refugee. He is a refugee – for namesake. In truth, he is a lost child of dying mother earth.


Urban Issue

T Nagar sinks under Smart retro-fit promises

T Nagar residents dismiss Chennai’s progress as a Smart City even as four more cities from Tamil Nadu were added to the third Smart City list released by the centre on 20 September.

“I don’t know how T Nagar was selected as a test-site. Everything here is upside-down. They have to rebuild T Nagar,” said GV Jayaram, President, T Nagar Residents’ Welfare Association.

Under the area-based proposal for T Nagar, the corporation had promised solutions for critical civic issues such as water supply, sewage, storm water drainage, solid waste management, sanitation, pedestrian friendly pathways, and intelligent transportation system.

In T Nagar, water supply is regular but polluted. It contains excessive chlorine. Even though residents use water supplied for all the other purposes, they must use a good drinking water-filtering system or buy purified water in cans as a safeguard against water-borne illnesses, according to GV Jayaram.

The corporation was set to undertake projects to turn the congested shopping area at T Nagar into a pedestrian-friendly zone with footpaths and a dedicated cycle lane. “The roads are narrow and on roads like Usman road, there is no space for walking. The space is taken over by shops or hawkers. Shopping complexes are also violating the walking space by allowing car-parking,” said GV Jayaram.

Although plans to build multistoried parking complexes were announced several times, they are yet to materialise. “One of the major problems is the lack of parking space. Shoppers park on the either side of the road and on sidewalks – this creates problem for the residents,” said Basheer, a T Nagar resident.

Most of the shops on Usman road and Ranganathan Street receive consignment at midnight and leave them on the streets till morning. The commercial waste generated at night and during the day gets into storm water drains. Due to the absence of segregation of waste at the source, garbage, mostly plastic, dumped in the drains blocks the sewage pipes and chokes the flow. As a result, the drains overflow. Also, roads in the area were laid on top of the old layer and this raised level of the road results in the flooding of residences. Many of these residences have gone below the surface level. “If the storm water drains are not working properly, the water attacks houses on the lower level,” said GV Jayaram.

Increased motor-vehicular congestion in and around the locality and degradation of air quality over the last one and a half years, prompted the residents of T Nagar to file an RTI with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. The pollution control board is unwilling to measure the pollution levels here and divulge details as it knows that T Nagar is heavily polluted, according to GV Jayaram.

Smart city project has helped us rethink how we make decisions on urban infrastructure using information, according to Arvind Mahalingam, Building Technology and Construction Management Division, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Smart City is beyond basic planning. Smart City is not only about walkable spaces, urban mobility and transportation. These facilities form the basic layer of a smart city. A smart needs to have a good GPS system that can reroute traffic at congested hours. Smart City not only needs to deliver better quality of water but also needs to deliver it efficiently, for which a specifically designed information system becomes necessary. Information about the movement of citizens, flow of traffic, and progress of projects is necessary, he added.

Although there were plans to retrofit T Nagar with level sensors to track rising levels of water during monsoons, officials have admitted that it might not work as storm water drains in the area carry sewage.

“The qualities required to become a smart city is not available in T Nagar,” said GV Jayaram.

Several Smart City area-based projects set for implementation in T Nagar have been delayed by nearly 6 months as plans to create a special-purpose vehicle(SPV), required to procure funds from the centre, was stalled due to Chennai floods and elections.

“No one from the CMDA is authorised to speak on this matter,” said the public relations officer(PRO), Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority(CMDA).