India: “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?”

Efforts to restore the city’s rivers weigh heavily on poor riverside residents, who are being forcibly moved.

“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.””

Theo Whitcomb reports for Undark July 29, 2020.