From pavement to appalling govt shelter: The story of eviction of 50 families in Chennai

Egmore pavement dwellers were ‘forcefully’ moved to a shelter on October 16, where lack of bedding, hygienic food and safety were their biggest concerns. Officials are now responding to complaints.
Shelter for the urban homeless
Shelter for the urban homeless
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Fourteen-year-old Nila* was looking forward to returning to school in November. But the teenager’s desire to pursue education has been put on hold due to the ‘hurried’ eviction of over 50 families from Egmore pavements in Chennai, who are now housed in a corporation shelter for the urban homeless at Kannappar Thidal.

The relocation rendered sleepless nights for many, said Nila. “My father, a loadman, works for a daily wage of Rs 200 while my mother sells flowers. As most of their earnings are now spent on travel, it is not possible for them to get my uniforms stitched,” the teenager shared despondently, while consoling a toddler wailing for milk.

On the afternoon of October 16, government officials initiated the eviction process near the Egmore railway station without prior notice, reportedly to safeguard the pavement dwellers from rain. “When we refused to move, the officials gheraoed us and took away our belongings forcefully. They shifted us to the shelter amid huge opposition,” one of the pavement dwellers said. A series of protests were staged in front of the shelter for the next few days. Two pavement dwellers reportedly attempted to immolate themselves on different occasions, urging the government to ensure social justice. While the government officials continue to go back-and-forth on house allocation, the pavement dwellers staying in the shelter said they have little to no hope or clarity on the situation.

Also bitten by hunger and displacement trauma is the toddler’s mother, Muthulakshmi, 24. “Until a few days ago, we were happy under the care of the platform. Now, uncertainty is gnawing at us in the shelter. People in power themselves have no clue as to when the allocation of houses will actually happen. Here, we are struggling for food and livelihood.”

For Selvi, 50, a rag picker, the ‘forceful’ eviction has raised safety concerns like never before. The elderly woman, who is fending for her three orphaned grandchildren, said she is afraid of keeping them in the shelter as she has witnessed people trespassing from the neighbourhood. “Even police officials want us to safeguard ourselves and our belongings in the shelter. This worries us a lot,” she added.

Commuting to the workplace after leaving their children alone at the shelter has been difficult for many women. “During the eviction, some of our belongings, including pushcarts, were damaged. Recently, they dug up the ground at the shelter’s entrance for drainage work without prior information. This has made it difficult to take out the auto,” said Ezhumalai, 34, worrying about the loss of income.

Unhygienic food

In the past six days, Lakshmi, 29, a mother of three, has been shunting from hospital to shelter as she claimed to have developed fever and indigestion after eating the food from Amma canteen served at the shelter. “When the corporation workers brought food on a garbage vehicle, the issue got wide attention. Then, we sought permission to cook inside the shelter, which was given after initial opposition. However, the increased travel expenses have hampered that plan too,” she said.

A few of the evicted pavement dwellers also alleged that they were sometimes provided with the same food for lunch and dinner, and whatever was leftover at the Amma canteen. They also allege that a few children and adults have vomited after eating the food, but many have no choice but to eat what comes from the canteen.

However, some also worried that cooking inside the shelter might make it easier for the corporation officials to delay the allocation of houses.

When TNM visited the shelter, the corporation staff refuted the allegations. While serving lemon rice for lunch, they complained that the residents hardly ate the canteen food. “We serve them whatever is being cooked at the Amma canteen for each meal. Also, we unload 10 cans of drinking water every day at the shelter,” a staff member said.

‘Pathetic’ conditions

Describing the shelter as not appropriate for families to live in, Menat, a 45-year-old daily wage labourer, said that they are unable to use bathrooms at night due to water issues. “We have been having power cuts at night between 11 pm and 4 am, forcing us to sleep on the terrace and road. Even so, space constraints at the shelter makes it difficult for family members to stay together. For convenience, men have decided to occupy the first floor during nights while women and children take over the ground floor,” he said.

What worries the residents more is how they were deprived of their clothes and even bedding during the eviction. One pavement dweller stated, “The hasty relocation gave us no time to gather our belongings. Also, two of our boxes were never brought to the shelter. With no tarpaulin or bed sheets, we have been sleeping on the cold floor. Some of them developed temperature while one inmate had a sudden seizure.”

Asked about dogs straying inside the shelter and lack of drinking water supply, the corporation’s zonal officer (Zone 5) said, “This shelter is a temporary arrangement. We have already cleaned the place on request. We will make arrangements for additional cans of drinking water. Meanwhile, efforts are on to provide houses within a fortnight.”

‘Illegal’ eviction

Vanessa Peter, founder of Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), said, “The right of judicial review of the proposed administrative action, the opportunity to justify claims have been arbitrarily rendered otiose by the sudden and illegal eviction of people-uprooting their entire lives without even due notice.”

When TNM contacted the corporation to find the need for a ‘hasty and arbitrary’ eviction, a top official said that they have been trying to convince the Egmore pavement dwellers into moving to a shelter for the past four-five month. “When we tried to understand the reason for their reluctance to relocate, it was found that the community was worried about not being able to get the houses allocated for them. Following this, a decision was made to do the needful at the earliest,” the official said, reserving his comments on treatment meted out to the pavement dwellers during the eviction.

The pavement dwellers, however, claimed to have been neither approached for negotiations in the recent past nor consulted by the officials before relocation.

On the manner of eviction, a senior official with the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board seeking anonymity said that there is a standard operating procedure (SOP) for initiating the eviction process. “The government is pro-poor; it has been undertaking several measures for their welfare. We have a protocol to carry out evictions in a humane manner without causing distress to people. The Egmore eviction was done in the interest of people living in unsafe conditions, to protect them from rains. However, we will work on sensitising all stakeholder departments to ensure the same.”

The official further said, “Currently, we are building houses mainly for those evicted from the banks of Cooum river in Adayar. The corporation has written to us seeking houses for the pavement dwellers relocated from Egmore. The Board is in talks with the stakeholders to explore the possibilities for allocating houses.”

An unending wait?

Initially, the pavement dwellers were asked to wait for 20 days in the shelter. Egmore MLA I Paranthamen, however, has assured to provide them houses in two months. However, the Egmore pavement dwellers don’t believe they will be placed in homes anytime soon.

Commenting on this, the MLA told TNM in a telephone conversation, “Several issues cropped up while bringing pavement dwellers under one roof. We are addressing them one by one and expect cooperation from the pavement dwellers as well. To ensure cleanliness, I have arranged six dustbins inside the shelter.”

When TNM informed Paranthamen that many pavement dwellers from both shelters are not vaccinated against COVID-19, he assured to conduct a special camp for them on Saturday.

Meanwhile, on Monday, a pavement dweller in the shelter confirmed that extra 10 water cans, bedsheets, pillows and mats were provided to all 59 families. “The corporation also cleaned the entire premises, conducted a medical camp with COVID-19 vaccinations, assured police patrolling, and a change of food or arrangements to provide dry ration and groceries,” the resident said.

The zonal officer further said that all issues raised by TNM after the spot visit on Friday have been addressed swiftly. “As many as 57 people benefitted from the medical camp. Besides, 18 [residents] were vaccinated. The corporation workers also removed two stray dogs from the shelter,” he added.

Even if the pavement dwellers are to get houses in the next two months, the civil society members want the state government to ensure that justice for the ‘inhumane treatment’ is delivered.

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