G Visesh and his family have been living in Surya Nagar slums in Chennai for the past 40 years. He grew up around here, found a job nearby and lives here with his family. Life isn’t easy in the slums, he says, but this is the life they are comfortable with. But now, the government is threatening their life and livelihood. They have been ordered to shift to government housing colony in Perumbakkam, 25kms away on the city’s outskirts. This a part of the government’s resettlement project, and the recent deluge has given them another reason to move the slum-dwellers to ‘safety’.
The shift however will only affect them adversely, said Visesh. “I am an electrical engineer and my office is in Guindy. Both my father and brother work near Kotturpuram. Shifting to Perumbakkam will affect out livehood.”
The story is similar for the 860 families who have been living in Surya Nagar for decades. They have been asked to shift to the housing colony in Perumbakkam. "For the past four days, police has been threatening us to shift to Perumbakkam. But how can we shift? Most of the people living here are daily wage workers and work in this area. All their children go to the nearby schools," said Visesh, "The police is protecting the government officials and are saying that we are not forcing you to leave.”
About 600 familes have already been shifted from Surya Nagar. The rest have been protesting for the past three days. "The police threaten us by saying that they will disrupt electricity and water facilities to this area. So, slowly more people are leaving from this area," he said.
As one walks through Surya Nagar, or whatever is left of it, one can see several demolished houses. Some have been marked with an ‘X’, which indicates that those houses will soon be demolished. "This morning, they came and demolished our rented house. They did not even give us any prior notices. Where will we go now?" said Nagamani, when TNM visited the slums on Monday.
Many residences of Surya Nagar have a similar story to tell. "As soon as one gets a token which denotes that they are ready to shift to Perumbakkar their house is demolished," said Shanti, a domestic worker who lives in Surya Nagar.
Some claim that the houses that are being provided to them in Perumbakkam was also heavily flooded area during Chennai rains. "It is next to Satyabhama college that whole area was flooded more than our area. The Government never came and helped us during floods. We were completely supported by NGOs. Why are they showing so much concern now?" asked Mahesh, another resident.
Their tales are a grim reminder of what happened to the residents of Semmanchery housing colony during the Chennai floods. They too were forcibly resettled. During the floods, Semmanchery was one of the worst affected areas, and with the colony being far away from the city limits, no help for forthcoming for the residents for first few days.
Government officials claim that this is the rehabilitation process and no one will be forcefully evicted from their houses. Murgesan, Assistant Executive Engineer, Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board said, "We are not forcefully evicting anyone. This is a rehabilitation process and these people are being rehabilitated to Perumbakkam but about 300 families are objecting the move and saying that they will not move. So, I will inform this to higher officials and the final decision will come from there."
The residents of Surya Nagar are asking the government to build them concrete houses in the same locality instead of Perumbakkam, but that seems unlikely.
For residents of Surya Nagar, there are memories attached to the slums, "My mother was born here who is 55 years now, I was also born here and I'm 35 now. My children are also living here. So, how can we leave this place and go?" asked one of the residents.