Delve
Gomaspalayam is located in the heart of Madurai city, and has the main bus terminus and several markets around it. The slum is surrounded by buildings, offices, and shopping malls.

Madurai, which is Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, is famed internationally for its tourist destinations. The city is famous for its temples, palace and museums, and the ruling AIADMK government aspires to make Madurai a top tourism destination in the country.

But the government’s plan to beautify the city includes the ‘cleaning up’ of one of the largest slums in the city – Gomaspalayam. Located in the heart of the city, the slum is considered an ‘eyesore’ by the middle class residents of Madurai, and by the government itself. And therefore, they want to relocate the thousands of people who live there to the outskirts of the city – and ‘redevelop’ the area.

The residents of Gomaspalayam, though, have refused to leave their homes.

Three families to a house

Gomaspalayam is located in the heart of Madurai city, Arapalayam, and has the main bus terminus and several markets around it. The slum is surrounded by buildings, offices, and shopping malls.

There are 230 houses in Gomaspalayam, and on average, three families live in each house. The residents say, they have been living here for 50 years now.

The slum was the first of its kind that formed in the main area of Madurai city; Madurai has slum settlements at Thidir Nagar, Poonga Nagar, Manjal Medu and Indira Nagar, which were formed as an extension of the Gomaspalayam slum area. With the number of families increasing every day, people from one slum move to another, and this in turn creates new settlements.

Gomaspalayam is almost completely populated with people from the Arunthathiar community – which is a scheduled caste in Tamil Nadu. Every house has at least one person engaged in manual scavenging, or housekeeping jobs.

Life in Gomaspalayam is tough. The houses are extremely small – not more than 10 ft x 10 ft per unit. Each house has a room and toilet attached to it. The room serves as a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom, all at once.

Many of the residents do not have access to even basic amenities. Several common toilets in the locality do not have taps or pipes, Residents are forced to fetch water from and store it on a daily basis.

The hygiene conditions are also poor here. An underground sewage tank was not constructed for almost three years. In fact, it was only recently that one portion of the settlement got a new underground septic tank. Many others still await a sewage tank.

The government plans to demolish the slum and move people to Melur – and since most of the the residents have work around the locality, they fear that moving to Melur will impact their livelihood.

“This is not what we want,” says Kasthuri*, a resident of Gomaspalayam and a social worker.

The residents of Gomaspalayam insist that if the government wants to do something for them – it has to be right there, where they live.

“During every election, parties would promise us welfare schemes; but once they get into power, they only try to remove us from here,” says Kasthuri.

“In fact, one party demolished our houses promising us new houses. But it has been four years and the project isn’t complete yet,” she says. “Now there is another party in power that will not finish the plan as it was an initiative of their opposition party. Half of the houses in this area are still left unfinished,” she adds.

The government’s plan

Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), is the scheme announced by Government of India to eradicate slums and build better infrastructure for urban slum dwellers; it was adopted by the state government during the 2012-2017 period. The scheme plans to build 1 lakh houses within the five year period, under a budget of Rs 7500 crore. The Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance board is nominated as the State Nodal agency for RAY.

To attain the objectives of RAY, an action plan was formulated – that is, A Slum Free City Plan of Action (SFCPoA). The citywide plan of action consists of two parts – one is the Curative Strategy, that plans to bring about the improvement of the existing slums through the participation of the slum dwellers; and the other is Preventive Strategy, that aims to prevent formation of further slums.

The scheme is planned to be executed by conducting detailed Socio Economic Surveys of the Slums in the Cities, as per the report of Ministry of Housing and Urban affairs, Government of India. About 200 slums in Madurai Corporation have been opted for the project, after assessing the land ownership, land value and tenure details.

Details mentioned in the report of the MoHUA-Madurai Corporation draft are as follows:

“The overall project costing for Madurai Corporation for housing and Infrastructure provision is worked out to be Rs 2140.62 Crores with Physical Infrastructure component of Rs 87.33 Crores, Housing component of Rs.2049.54 and Social Infrastructure Cost is Rs 3.75 Crores. The costing for Housing is worked out to convert Kutcha houses in each slum into Pucca. Infrastructure requirement of each slum is arrived and from which the infrastructure costing is worked out.”

During 2013-2014 several protests were conducted by the people of Gomaspalayam along with the support of local political party members of VCK – including an attempt of self immolation at the Collectorate – demanding the construction of houses that were earlier demolished in 2012 by the government promising reconstruction at the earliest. For almost a year, most of the families lived on the streets and platforms.

After the protest the government started reconstruction but only half is completed so far. The rest remains unfinished.

‘Targeted for our caste’

The residents also feel that they are being targeted because of their caste.

“Just because we are from the scavenging community, we are considered as "pollution" by the people in authority,” says Sankari*, whose husband is a scavenger.  

“Our lives are of no value to them, which is why they delay every welfare scheme that we rightfully deserve as per law,” she alleges.

“Life in these tiny rooms is hard to explain; an entire family eats, sleeps and spends time in a space that is smaller than an ATM stall. We are further burdened by government to move away from here to a place that is not even related to us. Our work and schools for children are all within the city, and displacing us to places like Melur is dooming us,” she explains.  

In the face of the outrage, the government is now on the backfoot and the district officials are trying to salvage the situation. The officials in Madurai claim there is no wrongdoing, and say they’re merely following the instructions given to them by their seniors.

"We do not have any opinion about the Slum Clearance projects in Madurai as we are operating according to the instructions from our Chennai Head office. So any queries need to be clarified from there," says R Sethupathy, Superintendent Engineer of the Madurai Slum Clearance Board.

‘Why should only we sacrifice?’

The Slum Welfare Association is now rallying behind the residents. They are up in arms and want the Tamil Nadu Government to end their discriminatory practices immediately.

“We all know the reason behind slum displacement and constant torture to those residing in slums. It is based on caste discrimination and the people – like other citizens – deserve a life of dignity, and to live where they are living. It is not the infrastructural plans but caste that makes authorities bothered about our people living in slums at the centre of the city,” says Kumar*, a member of the slum welfare association.

“Would they dare to evacuate people from Anna nagar or Kalavaasal (main residential areas in Madurai) for the same reason? No. Then why are we made to sacrifice our homes for the betterment of greedy politicians and corrupt officers?” he asks.

“People made a living in this slum, they work as scavengers mostly in areas close to the slum or within city limits, and their children go to nearby schools. It is impossible for them to live in the outskirts. This sort of discriminatory actions by the authority needs to stop and people here need to live in peace,” he says.  

‘It’s not about the slum, it’s about us’

The prospect of leaving behind their home and settling in new housing board has upset the residents.

“We strongly disagree with the government, that wants to displace us from here, because it is not about the slum, it is about us. It would be expensive for us to travel from Melur into the city every day for work, school, college etc and with the job that our people do, it is absurd to make such expenditure on a daily basis,” Kasthuri says.

“The government always has a reason saying it is all a part of welfare schemes for our people. If they are to do any good for us then let them do it right here, where we live. Not by displacing us beside a highway far from our native area. Despite all the struggle, the prospect of living here was made possible by our unity. Few of our people protested against the authority while rest of us stood in solidarity with them. It was that spirit of oneness that is making us lead a life here,” she says.

The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup.