When Lily, a domestic abuse survivor living on Rs 2,500 a month, realised she might qualify for a house, she was elated. Lily (name changed), a resident of a slum in Ramadoss Nagar, Old Washermenpet, Chennai, works as a house help and is the sole earner of her family of three—her ailing mother and two young children. Her neighbour Lakshmi, a widow working as a daily wager and earning less than Lily, was equally happy. Less than 500 metres from Ramadoss Nagar’s slum, at Moolakothalam, an 11-storey building was constructed to resettle them. But not one of the residents here has been able to get a house allotted to them, as they have been asked to pay a staggering Rs 4.28 lakh down payment.
The Ramadoss Nagar slum was established on a poramboke land (land reserved for public use) that belongs to the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC). In 2017, the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB) decided to resettle them under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana’s (PMAY) Housing For All (HFA) mission. The project was completed in 2021, but residents of the slum have been unable to meet the demand for the down payment.
Both Lily, Lakshmi, and 400 other families from their slum belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC). They are categorised as people who belong to the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) (income less than Rs 3 lakh per annum) of society by the state government.
Lily told TNM that she and the other slum dwellers weren’t aware of the down payment. “If we have to pay such a big amount all at once, we will all have to avail loans. The TNUHDB officers had offered to facilitate loans through banks, but a loan of Rs 4.28 lakh spread over say 15 years with an interest rate of 7.5% would mean that we must pay an Equated Monthly Instalment (EMI) of Rs 5,500 every month. We barely manage to earn half that amount,” she explained.
To show their resistance, 400 families from Ramadoss Nagar protested on January 11 against the down payment, at Old Washermenpet. They demanded the state government grant them houses without asking for money.
Murugesan, a resident of the slum and a member of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), was protesting at the forefront. He explained that with the interest of 7.5% the total repayable amount crosses Rs 10 lakh. “Even middle class people can’t pay that money. We are Dalit families and working class people. How will we pay?” he asked.
“Now let's say that we take out a loan and get a house allotted for us. We will have to pay Rs 5,500 as EMI every month for 15 years. Apart from that, we will have to pay a maintenance charge of Rs 500 in addition to electricity bills and water bills among others. We will also be subjected to paying property tax twice every year. That will eventually push us into more debt. To pay the bank, we will again borrow money from somewhere else and eventually, without being able to repay anyone, we will end up selling the house and again end up in the streets,” Murugesan told TNM.
Ramadoss Nagar’s slum dwellers aren't the only people suffering due to the down payment that is being mandated by TNUHDB.
A larger policy issue
As per the affordable housing scheme existing in Tamil Nadu, the beneficiaries who fall under the EWS bracket and don’t own patta land or property, will be shifted to houses classified as ‘greenfield projects’ by the TNUHDB. For acquiring a home, a family will be asked to pay an amount that will be calculated by deducting the government grant per tenement from the total cost of a tenement proposed in each project and the project cost varies depending on where it is located (peri-urban, urban, rural, etc.).
At the Moolakothalam site, the cost of each house is around Rs 13 lakh. Of this total amount, the state government bore Rs 7 lakh while the Union government bore Rs 1.5 lakh, leaving each beneficiary to pay Rs 4.28 lakh to avail a house. Illamparidhi, an engineer from TNUHDB told TNM that around 400 houses in the Moolakothalam site are dedicated to the slum dwellers of Ramadoss Nagar. A Government Order number 10, dated January 25, 2022, mentioned that preference should be given to beneficiaries who are being resettled from objectionable poramboke lands. “We are only operating as per the rules. We cannot allot a house without the down payment and to help them pay it, we are ready to help the residents secure loans from banks,” the official said.
When TNM spoke to C Samayamoorthy, the Secretary, TNUHDB, defended the policy. “I understand that Rs 4.28 lakh is not a small amount for people falling under the EWS, with no patta land and belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community, to pay for a house. But the subsidy offered under this scheme for them is the highest amount that the state government is offering across schemes. Per house, the state government is bearing Rs 7 lakh but the centre is only bearing Rs 1.5 lakh,” he said. “Usually the beneficiary amount in case of greenfield projects like these, doesn’t exceed Rs 2.5 lakh. This project’s cost is more because of where it's located. It's a prime area in the city. They are also refusing to move to places like Perumbakkam where the beneficiary amount is less than Rs 1.5 lakh,” he added.
Samayamoorthy also explained that the government has a policy to decrease the burden on beneficiaries by enabling cross subsidisation. “The Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare department, for instance, has in the past, helped by paying a certain percentage to reduce the burden on beneficiaries belonging to the community. But it must be understood that they are only able to offer to a limited number of people. The government is doing its best to reduce the burden,” he claimed.
Vanessa Peter, founder of the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), argued that the scheme did not reduce the burden of the people. She said that when the board was previously called the Slum Clearance Board, the beneficiaries were not asked to pay for a house and were instead only expected to pay rent every month for 20-30 years after which the property became their own. “That nominal rent of say Rs 800 itself was difficult for several families to repay. Now, this new policy and rule has completely diluted what was once a progressive scheme. This policy shift has been implemented without considering the repayment capacity of the people. Such changes should ideally be backed by logic and research since it is intended to benefit people who are affected by intersecting economic and social factors,” Vanessa said.
She also pointed out that the amount that the beneficiaries are asked to pay has steadily been increasing over the years due to the nature of the projects undertaken by the board. “Previously, they used to sanction three-floored buildings, or say a maximum of four floors. Now, they are building more than 10 floors because of the population boom and lesser availability of land. Naturally, the cost of each project increases and it also in turn increases the amount payable by the beneficiaries. At such high-rise buildings, there will be elevators, so once again, the maintenance charges go up. These are basic issues that the government seems to overlook but are becoming bigger hurdles for beneficiaries,” she explained.
G Selva, Communist Party of India (Marxist), district secretary from Central Chennai also expressed similar sentiments. He pointed out that the TNUHDB has gone against the spirit of a ‘social state’.
“Karunanidhi launched the Slum Clearance Board to provide for the people of the state. But the TNUHDB has washed off the state’s responsibilities towards its people,” he said and called for a complete revamp of the policy.