Chennai / New Delhi: It is difficult to know what, or whom, to believe about the woes of Kannagi Nagar.
On the one hand, there are the mounds of uncollected garbage in the colony, and incomplete sewage pipes that jut out of first-floor flats and go nowhere, for sewage to drop like noxious rain on the ground below.
On the other, there are sturdily built flats of brick and concrete, where electricity does not have to be stolen or bought from self-appointed merchants in Rs100 units. For many of the residents who were moved here after December 2004, when their beachfront homes were pulverized by a tsunami, this seems to be a step up from thatched hutments or tarpaulin roofs.
Flooded dreams: Families at the temporary shelters that are housing the tsunami-hit people at the Marina, Chennai. Sharp Image
And as with so much else to do with the housing situation for the tsunami-afflicted, “the truth lies somewhere in between”, says C.V. Sankar, who served as officer on special duty for tsunami relief and rehabilitation until November.
It has taken four years after the tsunami, almost exactly to the month, for authorities to draw up a final list of recipients for state-provided, World Bank-funded housing in Chennai. The process has had to negotiate some systemic inefficiency, but it has also had to ward off multiple interest groups, legal hurdles, opportunism, jurisdictional uncertainty, and even occasional violence.
The last four years have become, according to nearly everybody involved, a classic case study in how complex urban rehabilitation can be. “It didn’t go as well in the city as in the rural areas,” says Christoph Pusch, World Bank’s regional coordinator of its disaster risk management unit. “But it wasn’t a weak performance; it was just a very unique challenge.”
The list, finalized in December, names roughly 6,500 families who still live in temporary shelters. “And it’s obvious, if you know the numbers, that we’re providing more houses than were actually damaged during the tsunami,” says Sankar. “We’ve given houses to people who were just living under a plastic sheet propped up with four sticks, although you won’t hear the NGOs talk about that.”
The primary problem, it turned out, was land, easier to come by elsewhere on the coast, but far rarer near Chennai’s seafront.
In the northern suburbs of the city, the government got relatively lucky, finding 35 acres of fenced-in land that was once part of an All India Radio broadcasting enterprise during World War II.
“Permanent tenements for 3,600 families are just going up there now,” says Sankar, who is now a project director at the National Disaster Management Authority in New Delhi. “On another plot of just over four acres, donated by Hindustan Unilever Ltd, 1,392 flats have already been built, and they’ve been occupied for one year.”
Very soon after the tsunami, Sankar started to observe cross-currents that muddied the flow of events. “First, some NGOs went to court on behalf of fishermen, saying that we were forcibly moving them away from the seafront, into temporary shelters outside the coastal regulation zone,” he says. “Then others went to court saying exactly the opposite, that they weren’t being moved to temporary shelters fast enough.”
But north Chennai soon began to resemble the proverbial stroll in the park when compared with south Chennai. Three months after the tsunami, around 1,300 families engaged in trades other than fishing, living by the sea in residences of dubious legality, were offered a move into pre-existing housing projects in the suburbs of Thoraipakkam and Semmanchery. One such project was Kannagi Nagar.
The move itself was controversial. A national people’s tribunal meeting in December in Chennai concluded that this was simply the state government’s “back door entry point…that heralds further privatization of the coast by alienating traditional communities.”
But government authorities argue that fishermen’s families are still being allotted housing near the sea to protect their professions. “If the state government did have that intention to privatize, it was never apparent to us,” says Sankar. “And I was not prepared to rebuild houses within 200m of the sea simply because it was risky.”
Lying just off the newly spruced Old Mahabalipuram Road, Chennai’s information-technology (IT) corridor, Kannagi Nagar was built by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 2000 to house resettled slum dwellers. The arrival of the tsunami-hit inflated the colony’s population past the 100,000 mark.
“These aren’t fishing families, but their livelihoods still revolved around the beachfront area,” says Vanessa Peter, a programme officer with non-profit ActionAid in Chennai. A Tamil Nadu government response, she adds, said that new work would be available all along the IT corridor. “But the original residents of this area threaten employers, telling them not to hire from the community of tsunami victims.”
The very character of that community has been maligned, complains Stephen Raj, a tailor working out of his Kannagi Nagar flat. “Even the police don’t help us because they think we are rabble, that we are a bunch of prostitutes and drug peddlers and petty thieves,” he says. “There may be a few such cases, but the whole community is not like that.”
Kannagi Nagar also found itself in jurisdictional limbo, because its panchayat (local council) could not cope—or refused to cope, some residents say—with the civic demands of its suddenly vast populace. There is insufficient water, schools are understaffed, and the access road is a fraying ribbon of tarmac; once, Raj says, a pregnant woman had to travel so far to a clinic that she delivered her baby on the way.
Sankar admits that the Tamil Nadu government has to deal with this. “In fact, we’ve banged our heads again and again to the state government, saying that these small panchayats can’t handle the strain,” he says. “But we can only crib to them about, say, the need to upgrade a secondary school to a higher secondary school. We can’t do it ourselves.”
The state government, Sankar adds, has simply not felt the pinch yet. “Chennai is a big city with multitudinous problems, so sometimes the administration can become immune to such complaints.”
Other Kannagi Nagar grumbles seem to be more endemic to the process of disaster relief. “Whatever the conditions, there will always be people complaining,” says Pusch. So, for instance, Raj and his friends claim that they were forced to pay a monthly rent of Rs300 for many years, and that the flats were only 150 sq. ft each, smaller than promised.
Rebuilding lives: The state says fishermen’s families are being allotted housing near the sea to protect their professions. It has taken four years to draw up a final list of recipients for the World Bank-funded project. The process has had to negotiate considerable systemic inefficiencies. Sharp Image
But T.K. Ramachandran, managing director of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, denies that any rent was collected, and that each flat is actually 208 sq. ft in size. The board itself, he says, had recommended that Kannagi Nagar be considered a local body in itself, to be able to receive the funds it needed for civic infrastructure.
In another instance, after complaints had begun to emerge about Kannagi Nagar being underserved by bus routes, Pusch and Sankar took a trip into the colony—and saw eight buses pass them in the opposite direction, headed for various parts of the city. Sankar had to turn to Pusch and say: “Christoph, I promise, I didn’t stage-manage that for your benefit.”
Elsewhere in south Chennai, authorities say that they ran up against the might of obdurate local mafias. Near the Marina Beach, construction on a set of permanent tenements for fishing families was delayed by many months because the leaders of a community called Srinivasapuram refused to allow officials to enter and enumerate the resident families.
“If I’m ordering tea, I need to first know how many people there are in the room, don’t I?” Ramachandran asks, rhetorically. “But they didn’t allow us to enter at all. They’d just give us a list and demand houses for every one of the names on that list. There were several cases of our teams being beaten up.”
Sankar says there was no question of accepting such a list at face value. “One man claimed he owned 32 houses in the area, and demanded 32 flats in the new tenements,” he says. “It was a racket, and tomorrow the World Bank could come back and say we swindled them in connivance with these groups. We didn’t want to get into that at all.”
Over the course of nearly 30 meetings with local leaders, Ramachandran tried to persuade them to allow his team into Srinivasapuram. Even then, the job did not get significantly easier. “We’d be photographing residents in front of their homes, and a woman would stand outside one hut, then change her sari, put on some make-up, and rush to another hut, so that she could get on the list twice,” Ramachandran remembers.
The World Bank finally insisted that the truly eligible families be given biometric cards, and that housing allotments happen only on the basis of these cards. As a result, Ramachandran remarks, the list provided by Srinivasapuram was deflated from 11,700 families to 6,500. “And that still includes people who hadn’t even stayed there for a day,” he says.
Work can now begin on the permanent tenements near the Marina; Pusch thinks the project will take 30 months to complete, but Sankar ventures a more optimistic figure of 18 months. “The consensus had to be built gradually. The Marina is a violent area. It’s like a keg of explosive—mishandle it, and it’ll blow up,” Sankar says. “But we are moving in the right direction now, I think, even if it has been much delayed.”