The Chennai police and slum clearance authorities forcibly evicted around 3500 settlements along the Cooum river near Triplicane on Sunday. The move sparked protests among the residents, which included school-going children who have been left homeless overnight.
There were around 3500 families living in Gandhi Nagar, Satyamoorty Nagar and Indira Nagar, along the Cooum river near Triplicane in Central Chennai.
“We are about 12,000 persons living in the area, which belongs to the 59th zone of Chennai Port. We haven’t settled here overnight but have been living here for more than 50 years. The government is now trying to displace us in the name of river restoration,” said G Selva, CPI(M)‘s Central Chennai District Secretary and one of the residents protesting against the illegal eviction. He led the protest on Sunday, along with CPI(M)’s District Executive Committee member M Damodaran, Harbor member Kumar and Gandhinagar branch secretary Asithambi and the people who oppose the eviction of civilian occupations in the name of encroachments.
The eviction of settlements along Chennai’s rivers are being done as part of the river restoration project in the city, in order to clean up and plug sewage flow into the Adyar, Buckingham Canal and Cooum rivers.
Residents settled along Cooum river near Triplicane told TNM that in November the authorities had promised that only one line of settlements along the river would be evacuated. However, officials gave residents no intimation on when the eviction drive would take place.
On December 29, Sunday, officials from the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board along with 250 police officers from the Chintadripet police station and Triplicane Deputy Commissioner’s office landed up at the site at 9 am. Residents allege that no warning was issued and the families were asked to pack their belongings and leave. According to the protesting residents, over 178 houses were demolished on the same day, while others are yet to be demolished. However, the electricity connection to these houses has been cut off.
Kumar, one of the protesters and a resident who was evicted from his house in Gandhi Nagar, told TNM that as per the government order, only houses located within the catchment area of the river (about 20-30 metres along the river) have to be cleared. "This would mean that only 150-180 houses located close to the water body would be cleared. However, this is only on paper. In practice, the Slum Clearance Board evicts all settlers, claiming it to be illegal encroachment,” he added.
Even while the protesters resisted the eviction, the police forcibly ousted them from their houses and cleared the area, residents told TNM.
“We questioned the police as they were attempting to convince us to move to Perumbakkam. This is when they began manhandling us. They verbally abused us and manhandled women who were protesting along with us. None of the assistant commissioners, inspectors and senior officers, who were stationed to oversee the eviction, intervened to stop this law and order overreach,” Selva claimed.
‘Eviction will affect livelihoods, academics’
The evicted residents have been ordered to shift to Housing Board colonies in Perumbakkam, located 27 kilometres away from their original settlements in Triplicane. The move, the residents say, will not only drastically affect their daily work, but will also trouble children living in these areas who attend schools in the neighbourhood and have exams to prepare for.
“All of the residents here belong to the SC/ST community and work as auto drivers, domestic workers, daily wage labourers etc. They earn a living as helpers working in middle and upper middle class houses in the city. Displacing them can also affect the lives of these employers. Moreover, there are many students here who will be appearing for their board exams in March. Their academic preparation could be significantly affected by the sudden move,” said Kumar.
He added that if the authorities were planning to clear out the entire settlement, then the local Gandhi Nagar Corporation School located near the premises would also be cleared, leaving several students and their parents in the lurch.
“The government is supposed to protect the rights, resources and livelihoods of SC/ST and other vulnerable communities by extending support. With this government, it is the opposite. They are bent upon inflicting suffering to already vulnerable and oppressed communities by portraying them as occupies of waterways,” added Selva.
Demands of the residents
Instead of being displaced to a neighbourhood 27 kilometres away from the city, residents here ask what is stopping the government from building housing board units in the land that they have cleared.
“The area along the river bed is an open space land. During the 2004 Tsunami and the 2015 Chennai floods, this area remained relatively unaffected. We have also been settled here for half a century. The government, which owns this land, can use it to build better houses for us after clearing the line of settlements close to the river. None of the residents here is going to oppose the eviction if the state government promised to rehabilitate us with dignity,” said Selva.
Speaking to TNM, Triplicane Assistant Commissioner Saravanan said, “Our job is to ensure that there is no disruption to law and order. Rest of the matters related to eviction and resettlement and dismantling of electricity connection are being handled by the competent authorities. Only a section of the residents have been causing trouble. Yesterday (Sunday) there was a road roko organised by these families and we had to intervene to ensure there are no traffic disruptions. Hundred and thirty families have already been shifted to housing colonies in Perumbakkam. Many of them are eager to shift as there are better facilities there,”
Meanwhile, many residents continue to sit near Cooum river where their houses stood until Sunday night, while others sit in their yet-to-be demolished houses sans electricity. They await a positive response from the government officials.