The inequality problem has seemed to exist since time immemorial. At least in certain pockets of Chennai (formerly and personally preferred – Madras), apathy seems abound in plenty. How people exist in thatched huts in utmost filth and still adamantly strive to hope for the best from the state, whom they consider their utmost guardian angels, still beats me.
A regional Chief Engineer of the Slum Clearance & Relocation board of Tamil Nadu seemed nothing less than flummoxed when I put forth the question “How many slum dwellings do you think would roughly exist in the city?”. He looked back as if I had asked the forbidden question, bits of wry sarcasm affixed around certain parts of his face that conveyed the net emotive result : “How in heaven’s name can one say that with pinpoint surety?”.
My team and I were more than happy that we had at last found a bureaucrat who didn’t direct us to the extreme left wing on the third floor of the building, where you’d find another person prepared to politely direct you further back to the east wing on the ground floor.
We were tracking a recent case of a supposed fire accident that had razed around 600 slum dwellings in a single area in the city on one fine Sunday evening. Our first visit to the infamous Ripon Building, where the “Worshipful Mayor” (honestly quoting the board description hanging within) was seated proved to be very uneventful. We were refused permission to obtain either a sound byte or a video byte from the ‘Worshipful-ness’ himself : ” Yaen paa enkitta byte’u byte’u nu kettu enna bite panrenga?! ” (Why are you guys always hounding for bytes, bytes and biting me?)
Unfazed and rather confused by the valiant attempt at satire coming from our Mayor himself, we went in search of greener pastures. Perhaps he was already in frustration about the renovation of the Ripon building which also had the Chennai Metro Rail construction work sneakily encroaching into its premises.
We also stumbled upon the fact that the city’s Corporation body cannot interfere with cases where land belongs to the State Government and hence is practically legless when it comes to dealing with slum destruction/relocation. But the Mayor made sure that his presence was felt as soon the huts were gutted down and even stated relocation efforts would be kick-started soon. A case of pointless publicity achieved.
The parent slum relocation board located on the Marina Beach Road alongside the Public Works Department complex made sure that we completed a Golden Triangle pilgrimage of sorts : ” Saar. This slum area where fire occurred does not come under our division. Please contact Mr V. Subramanian in the T Nagar branch for further details”.
And so formed the final set of questions we posed to Mr Subramanian. Below are brief transcripts from our conversation.
Q: Has the cause of the fire been established yet? Were there any casualties involved?
A: No, not yet. But only the forensic police & the fire brigade members would be aware of this classified information. And no, no casualties recorded.
Q: What steps have been taken by your department so far to help the victims?
A: Currently we are looking at moving them to a temporary location like a corporation school or a nearby marriage hall where we can give them some necessities until the housing board finishes their rebuilding work.
Q: How long would that usually take?
A: We can’t say. That usually depends on the housing board authorities.
Q: There has been word going around that this fire might have involved foul play with a political backing behind it. What do you think?
A: (Shrugs) Might be, can’t say. Nothing has been established yet from the investigative reports. The slum dwellers are usually a congested lot too. A small kitchen accident in one corner can set the entire dwelling ablaze at times.
Q: What has been the state of this slum according to your records so far?
A: Firstly it has never been a declared slum officially. Its a case of pure encroachment of migrating people. The land where they live has been under dispute since 1976. We really hope the police would assist us in these matters to make it easier.
Q: How would your board proceed usually when the relocation process starts?
A: See, there is usually the actual owner or the landlord of that slum in the records somewhere. But going by the book, we usually hand out 1/3rd of the original area back to the slum dwellers and the rest goes to the landlord. The victims will be given opportunities to become self dependent once again.
Q: But what about the existing damage caused? Who would be answerable to that?
A: That would lay in the hands of the revenue officials under the ambit of the State government. Due compensation would be provided by them and we cannot interfere with that. We have our duty to do and that’s that.
Q: What are the challenges the Slum Board faces in these cases?
A: Enormous ones. Its a well known fact that most of the slum population is unaccounted for, they’re mostly the floating population who come out of villages searching for jobs in the city. They are a nuisance in our view.
And here comes the double edged sword of politics. The politicians’ vote banks lies in these areas. Empty promises are swallowed by these gullible, naive people. Voting cards are provided the quickest for them when elections arrive. They sit still adamant with more hope.
Q: But not all has been a failure from your side. There have been many cases of successful relocation carried out right?
A: Correct. But you will not believe the unbelievable rates of further encroachment that happens. Its not possible to stop it immediately. And the slum people do not utilize the facilities we provide. If we build a multistory housing, additional maintenance is required for things such as the elevator. They dirty it frequently. They have no sense of hygiene. Do not even get me started about the latrines and kitchen sewers. Its horrendous. They continue to live as slum dwellers inside the new housing.
Q: What do you personally see as a cure for all this?
A: We need to acquire more land obviously. But with the recent skyrocketing of prices its impossible to do so. We initially thought of buying out lands in the outskirts, but even then there’s a roadblock. The outskirts are through and through, the living premises of the IT/Software people now. And they earn so much they can buy out that land in a few years. Where will we go?
The only possible way out is with the total cooperation of the police. They have to employ a special task force to monitor the entry of population into the slums. But I don’t see that happening at all honestly.
One side of the story had been thus, recorded in our books. But what of the ground reality? Our video team managed to bring some perspective from the actual spot of the accident. Things do not seem bright either way.