Sixty-Thousand Evictions in the Name of Environmentalism

The Indian state of Tamil Nadu is relocating whole slums to help restore polluted rivers. Is it doing more harm than good?

Sathyavani Muthu Nagar
Theo Whitcomb

In a resettlement colony on the outskirts of Chennai, a sprawling industrial city on India’s Bay of Bengal, rows of beige tenements rise out of marshland in clusters, blocking out the sky in a uniform grid. Construction materials line the first floor of buildings, and bulldozers roll through the wide and dusty streets. Vijay Vasanth says he arrived here in early January on government-provided transport. His family and their belongings were left on the sidewalk in the middle of the settlement, named Perumbakkam. “When we came here, we had to be homeless,” Vasanth says. “They just lifted us and dropped us here. Now we have to stay.”

Chennai is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. Vasanth says he grew up in the heart of the city, in a neighborhood called Sathyavani Muthu Nagar alongside the Cooum River. But in late 2019, officials evicted 500 families living there, Vasanth’s included, without initially informing residents why they were being evicted or where they were going. They were among the first batch of 2,092 families set to be evicted. “They started marking our houses by writing letters and numbers on the door,” says Vasanth. He asked why, and was told it was because his home was along the river. The markings on the door were to tell the families their house was set for demolition.

Those families—like tens of thousands of families before them—were moved to settlement colonies like this one, miles from the city center and far from the sources of work and income that they once knew. When the families arrived, many of the apartments they eventually moved into lacked running water or electricity. “There was only one light—an emergency light on the veranda,” says Vasanth, who has struggled to find work. It is too expensive to travel the nearly 19 miles to central Chennai, where he once sold electronics. “For three months we struggled hard,” he says. “We were stir crazy.”

It’s a familiar sentiment. Vasanth’s former neighborhood of Sathyavani Muthu Nagar is one of dozens of informal settlements in the process of being demolished by Chennai officials—part of a vast effort, they say, to restore the city’s heavily polluted and constricted waterways. The government’s first step, according to project documents, is what’s officially called “slum clearance,” or the removal of “encroachments.”

Supporters of these restoration initiatives say they are sorely needed. Chennai’s rivers are plagued by rampant pollution and overdevelopment, leaving them uniquely vulnerable. Science suggests that both problems are only amplified by climate change and will continue to be so in coming years. The long-term goal, officials say, is the restoration of crucial riverbank wetlands that can act as buffers against both flood and drought.

The neighborhood-clearance projects are carried out in coordination with various government organizations, including the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT), the state Public Works Department, and the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB). The problem, critics say, is that implementing these otherwise well-intentioned programs weighs heavily on—and has little regard for—the thousands of low-income inhabitants eking out already-difficult lives in dozens of informal communities along Chennai’s rivers.

Indeed, under the new eco-restoration initiatives, it is not just the 2,092 families from Sathyavani Muthu Nagar—including Vasanth’s—whose lives will be impacted. Nearly 60,000 families are currently marked for eviction from the banks of Chennai’s rivers, according to the TNSCB, which handles the relocation of residents. The families are living in what the officials call “objectionable locations”: low-lying, flood-prone areas. Many have already been moved.

But experts worry that at best, these environmental initiatives—while ostensibly for the common good—will continue to result in severe consequences for the city’s poor. At worst, they say, climate change and ecological restoration are being used as pretenses for evacuating the city’s slums so that new and equally imprudent infrastructure can be built. “Even without climate change, we are a city that has been built to drown itself,” says writer Nityanand Jayaraman, who works on environmental justice campaigns in Chennai. “We don’t need extreme weather events. Regular weather events are enough to finish us off.”

Either way, what is officially referred to as “resettlement and rehabilitation” of families invariably results in them being sent, often against their will, to distant settlements that housing advocates call ghettos, or satellite slums. “Is this restoration?” asks Vanessa Peter, a researcher at the Information and Resource Center for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), a Chennai-based information clearinghouse for the city’s poor. “Or is this just another way of convincing everybody that we should get rid of our slums?”

In a video posted to YouTube in 2015, a crowd stands on a bridge spanning the Cooum River—one of three major rivers coursing through the city—watching the swollen water rush underneath. It laps against the bridge, threatening to rise up and over the wall onto the road. On either side of the waterway, rooftops are visible above the turbid, olive-green water. The structures are almost completely underwater. Another video, taken from a bridge near the neighborhood of Koyambedu, shows a similarly bleak reality: the Cooum flowing over more rooftops, with some houses completely washed away. Seen from overhead, the city’s vulnerability is staggering. Few areas lie above sea level; the rest is swallowed by water.

This particular flood in 2015, deemed a once-in-a-hundred-years event, damaged or destroyed nearly 500,000 houses, killed at least 470 people, and, together with the rest of the season’s flooding, caused $3 billion in economic losses, according to official estimates. The flooding disproportionately impacted the city’s poor, who mostly lived in low-lying settlements along the river.

Following that historic rainfall, a series of abnormally weak monsoons and a subsequent heat wave resulted in a severe drought that peaked in 2019 with the city’s main reservoirs running dry.

Of course, cycles of flood and drought have been a feature of life on the Bay of Bengal for millennia. But with climate change pushing the bay ever further inland, studies suggest that water-proximate, pollution-clogged neighborhoods like Sathyavani Muthu Nagar are facing a future of continued inundation. On top of a swelling sea, the city will encounter an increase of extreme weather events as the northeast monsoons get stronger.

But Chennai’s problems, critics say, are as much structural as meteorological. “People have the tendency to hide behind climate change,” says S. Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies and an expert on water management. Drought and flood, he says, are as much a result of Chennai’s rapid development as they are of extreme weather.

Ecologically vital wetlands, estuaries, and rivers fell victim to decades of negligent land-use policy and an insatiable urban sprawl. Over the past 40 years, paved surfaces have expanded more than eight times over, according to a report by Care Earth, a nonprofit that does extensive restoration work throughout the city.

These wetlands and waterways serve as systems for recharging the city’s aquifers, absorbing heavy rain and providing the city’s drinking water, so climate change will likely challenge the wisdom of those new developments. In the aftermath of the 2015 flood, a report published by the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group, a local consumer and environmental advocacy group, noted that the increased frequency of climate change–amplified events threatens to exacerbate already-pressing environmental problems. The report called for extensive mapping of the storage and carrying capacities of local bodies of water, which had degraded due to “incessant construction,” as well as “dumping of debris, and encroachments.”

Yet when it comes to addressing issues like these, Jayaraman says, blame too often falls on informal settlements like Sathyavani Muthu Nagar. The elimination of Chennai’s riverside communities remains a primary focus of the post-2015 restoration push. Because these informal settlements are often built directly into the riverbank, many officials—as well as Chennai’s middle- and upper-class residents—believe they’re making the flooding worse, mainly by blocking drainage areas.

And so ecological restoration of the Cooum has focused on “slum eviction as an achievable first step,” noted a 2010 analysis written by Karen Coelho, a scholar of urban ecology and associate professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and urban planner and community advocate Nithya Raman. “This shortcut approach is openly announced,” the paper continued, “confidently addressing a growing urban middle-class constituency who hold slum-dwellers responsible for the state of the rivers, and regard their summary removal as the crux of eco-restoration.”

As climate change increasingly lays bare the city’s complex ecological crisis, nearly all interventions seem to start with this familiar logic. “For some strange reason,” says Jayaraman, “they believe that the only encroachers in the city that are problematic are the poor.”

Such thinking leaves some of the more complicated realities of citywide ecological restoration unaddressed, Jayaraman and others say. These include more harmful ecological disruptions, like the decimation of vital wetlands outside the city, or mega-projects like the port expansion being pursued by the multinational company Adani, which will affect thousands of acres of critical tidal wetlands north of Chennai, threatening local fishing towns.

The eviction drive stems from a post-flood request from the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for massive investment in housing for the residents who were most affected. Yet despite a 2016 high court order that directed the local government to examine resettling riverside residents “near the area where they were originally relocated,” CRRT-driven evictions have increasingly sent these families to hastily built colonies on the city’s periphery. In a resettlement action plan prepared by the Tamil Nadu Housing and Habitat Development Project, with funding from the World Bank, the authors acknowledge the need for new housing—not just because of a housing shortage, but as a clear climate issue. The plan says CRRT’s work is expected to contribute positively in managing climate-induced extreme events.

But CRRT, a wholly owned division of the Tamil Nadu government, has long been criticized for using ecological restoration as a mere pretext for allowing new development projects. In their 2010 article, Coelho and Raman described CRRT’s first project along the Adyar River, which evicted hundreds of huts and threatened thousands more with demolition. The aim was to create an eco-park and restore local flora and fauna, as well as the river’s ecological function. But the Tamil Nadu government had already permitted new office buildings, multistory luxury residential complexes, and five-star hotels on what was left of the estuary at the mouth of the river, irreversibly damaging the location’s fragile ecology. “These efforts,” Coelho and Raman wrote, “were already moot.”

Further complicating matters, the relocation settlements are often built on wetlands themselves. The colony Kannagi Nagar, for one, filled in part of the essential Pallikaranai wetland to avoid flooding—but in the process blocked drainage of the Okkiyam Maduvu channel, an estuary so ecologically critical it has been dubbed the “aorta” of the marsh.

CRRT’s scope is limited, says S. Vishwanathan, an official with the trust. Their main focus is restoring the allotted project areas. The trust, officials added in an email message, has not prioritized aesthetics or “allowed any real estate agency to pave for individual interest.” For decades, they say, they’ve felt caught between environmentalists, who want to restore function to the city’s heavily damaged waterways, and social advocates, who criticize the resulting displacement of residents as unnecessary, unjust, and anti-poor. “CRRT gets sandwiched between these two,” Vishwanathan says.

Officials say they must walk the fine line of addressing flooding hazard and restoration, while meeting the needs of affected families. They also argue that they’re being more surgical in their removals than critics typically portray. “My focus is not to remove the entire slum,” says Vishwanathan. “We identified that part of the slum that lies within the river itself.”

The resulting impact on families is addressed in an official “Resettlement & Rehabilitation Scheme” for affected families—people like Vasanth and his family—who are deemed vulnerable to flooding. Officials point to social and community-development programs, financial relief, and a provision of utilities and basic services. Acknowledging the difficulty of the distant displacement, Vishwanathan says the alternative would be worse if the families stayed along the river. “They lose everything every year” to flooding, he says, and they have no facilities. According to Vishwanathan, the resettlement colonies are a step up.

Yet years of documentation and research by advocates have shown that the evictions have negative impacts on the residents’ livelihood. The issue—according to a World Bank report published in February—is that the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, which is ultimately in charge of the resettlement and rehabilitation of families, “does not have a standardized environmental or social framework” for projects. Instead, “it implements ad-hoc measures” to suit each intervention. The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed these deficiencies, as enforced lockdowns have left residents struggling to survive in isolation.

“While TNSCB is experienced in managing physical construction and delivering housing units, they do not have all the necessary expertise or experience in addressing key issues,” World Bank representatives wrote to Undark in an email. These issues include  ensuring residents can secure an economic livelihood and live in environmentally sustainable, climate-resilient housing.

They add that despite the grievances of evictees, removing families may still be necessary. While relocating families to nearby housing is always preferable, that often isn’t an option—and displacing families from the riverbank is necessary due to the area’s high risk and inhabitability.

As of now, officials say, the TNSCB has indicated willingness to expand social and environmental reforms.

In late June, the government of Tamil Nadu signed onto a $250 million project with the World Bank to “strengthen the state’s housing sector policies, institutions, and regulations.” It’s part of a two-pronged approach to shift the responsibility for the development of low-income housing away from the public sector and encourage more private-sector involvement. The program also indicates expanded environmental and social reforms to alleviate some of the current housing-development concerns.

So far, advocates have criticized the Tamil Nadu government for lack of transparency, citing the lack of participation with the most impacted communities, like Vasanth’s. The policy draft was unavailable for community input, they say—and furthermore, no copy was available in Tamil, the local language.

In the neighborhoods being razed, like Sathyavani Muthu Nagar, most residents were wage laborers, auto-rickshaw drivers, and domestic workers. Some families have had ties to the river area going back three or four generations. Now in the new settlements, many families are saddled with arduous, expensive, and often-impossible journeys to the city center in order to work.

At such distances, many displaced residents are effectively locked out of the predominantly working-class, cash-based network that undergirds Chennai’s dense urban economy. Schools, public safety, and health-care services are also scarce and inadequate in these colonies, according to a 2019 report by the IRCDUC. Other public services are cost-prohibitive for most settlement residents, according to research by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a New Delhi–based human-rights organization. The concentration of poverty contributes to high crime rates, and despite government efforts, access to electricity, water, and affordable food is often unreliable.

In December, the evictions in Sathyavani Muthu Nagar were temporarily halted amid widespread protest and civil disobedience. Two residents jumped into the putrid river to demand the government at least postpone the evictions until after their children completed exams. And even advocates for river restoration and better water resource management say that Chennai’s relentless displacement of poor and working families is unfair. The best-case scenario, they say, would be relocation to government lands located within the city center. “The worst-case scenario,” says Janakarajan, “is what we are seeing today.”

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.

Peter and Coelho have both worked to research these resettlements, which they see as a discriminatory intervention. In India, a caste system is implicit in social decisions. Most informal settlement residents are of lower caste backgrounds, says Peter. Coelho says that the World Bank has at least shifted support toward a more equitable relocation strategy by including project safeguards. But both researchers remain concerned that people sent to these settlements face unacceptable living conditions.

Meanwhile, river restoration has become an initiative prioritized at the highest levels in India. Restoration activities are seen as a pathway to a modern, cleaned-up, 21st-century nation, and ecological interventions will almost certainly be necessary to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, with stronger floods, droughts, and heat waves.

But Coelho suggests that so far these efforts have ignored, or given short shrift to, the most important questions.

“The first order of business when we are talking about ecology,” she says, “should be ‘What are we going to do about fifty to sixty thousand people?’”