Having lived along the Cooum for years, Vasanth recalls the impact the 2015 floods had on his community. “People who live down by the river really struggled during the flooding,” he says. “Water entered all the houses.” Many families lost their dwellings completely. Vasanth’s home was located above the bank, however, and was spared any damage.
When the TNSCB came to evict the first batch of 500 families, Vasanth’s included, he couldn’t understand why. “They didn’t give any reason, like flooding—they just told us it was dangerous to live near the river,” he recalls. Such life was dangerous for some, he says, but his family had been spared over years of cyclones and floods.
For Vasanth, Sathyavani Muthu Nagar was more livable than Perumbakkam, the resettlement colony where he was delivered early this year. In his old neighborhood, everything was nearby: food, work, his community. Perumbakkam, he says, is too far removed, and if he traveled back into the heart of Chennai for work, most of his money would have to go to paying for bus tickets. “I miss everything,” Vasanth says. “Everything was near to us.”
A 2017 report from the IRCDUC found that resettlement job programs were lacking and had little follow-through. Faced with overcrowded, mismanaged schools, students dropped out at high rates after being displaced; if they decided to keep their existing schools, the average daily commute would be between three and five hours. Parents were also hesitant to send students to school, citing poor educational quality and safety concerns, especially for girls.
The tenements themselves are also barely livable at times. Residents have reported having to sleep outside the buildings until their apartments were finished being built; when they were, some had to still wait for electricity. If elevators don’t work, some residents must carry heavy water jugs up as much as eight stories, a near-impossible task for older or disabled residents.
When Vasanth’s family arrived, they were originally assigned a seventh-story apartment. However, the elevator did not work, and his pregnant sister-in-law couldn’t make it up the stairs. The only other available apartment lacked water and electricity. The new community comes together to share resources, but, still, Vasanth says, it’s unbearable. “Right now, the situation is the same. It is very difficult. Five months they have not done anything. There are so many people struggling hard in our apartment.”
He wishes they could have stayed in their home along the Cooum. “If they cleaned the river and gave a house in the same place, I would have been happy,” he says. “What is the point of them evicting us here? There is no electricity, there is no water.”
According to data collected by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, more than 16,000 families have been relocated as a direct consequence of river restoration along the Cooum and Adyar rivers. Some 42,000 more are slated to follow from around Chennai. For now, however, evictions have halted as COVID-19 spreads throughout the city.