Chennai's resettlement colony shows a grim picture of Inequality

Chennai's resettlement colony shows a grim picture of Inequality

In 2008, the state government declared that Chennai would be slum-free by the end of 2013. By January 2011, over 1,00,000 people were evicted from the city center to make way for new commercial and apartment buildings. Photojournalist Shuchi Kapoor visits a resettlement area, Semmancherry in Chennai and documents the gross inequalities that forces almost one lakh residents to be devoid of access to quality healthcare and education- a life devoid of dignity. 

In the four decades since its founding in 1970, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board has largely failed to fulfill its objectives of improving the living conditions of slum residents and preventing the development of new slums. Between 1971 and 2001, the city’s slum population grew from some 7,00,000 to nearly 11,00,000.

Reclaiming the city’s many waterways has become the administration’s priority, and the perceived key to achieving that goal is clearing the slums along those waterways. In 2008, the state government declared that Chennai would be slum-free by the end of 2013. As of January 2011, over 1,00,000 people had been evicted from the city center to make way for new commercial and apartment buildings. The advocacy group People’s Union for Civil Liberties published a report showing that, in the rush to meet slum clearance goals, evictions and resettlements had violated a number of national and state government guidelines.

One such area where the violations are evident is Semmancherry (meaning Semman - Red soil, eri - river), where tenements were constructed by the government as a rehabilitation measure. Semmancherry is a lowland which is prone to flooding even during regular rainfall. With no basic amenities, waste disposal or drainage systems, the dwellers were one of the worst affected during the floods in 2015 as it was impossible for any relief to reach to them. In theory, each lane in the new settlement has a freshwater well, but the well on some lanes is filled in with rubble and garbage. Running water first arrived in Semmancherry two years after the families had been resettled here. It took five years for electricity to come and six years for the city to send waste collectors.

There is one sparsely stocked market on the complex’s main road. Vegetables and rice cost twice as much as in other parts of town, so most of the women carry their groceries for miles on their way home from work in the city. The settlement zone doesn't have a police station to address.

Families were each being allotted 160 square feet or less to live in, instead of the 540 square feet they were entitled to. Some of the apartments held families of 12 or more people, spanning three and four generations. People from different settlements all over the city were housed in a single building. To them, it was like combining people from different countries, so different were their customs and habits and even their dialects. The residents describe simmering mistrust and periodic violent clashes.

The relocation of these people far away from the economic hubs of the city is essentially cutting them off at the fringe, forcing them to continue the cycle of ghettoization, leading to nefarious activities and stagnancy that the urban centre conveniently ignores as far as it stays out of its way. Those settlements already existing at the fringe, for instance in the district of Ennore, have never witnessed models of inclusiveness and have no say in the effects of encroaching industrialization on their lives.

The question that begs to be asked is- Where do people on the fringe go for a better life? Why must they have to go anywhere? What is rehabilitation if it only means allotment of another space, far removed from the hub, with nothing sustainable about it? This cleanup act of the centre only furthers the divide and living on the fringe is what is being showcased through this series.

What you won't be able to see is the stench and the alienation that is a constant.

Rising Inequalities in India as result of poor policy decisions

"They push us out from the heart of the city where we have a livelihood and throw us to the fringes of the city, then they come asking for votes. What choice do we have? There is no hospital, no police station, no job opportunities here."

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series


Inequality leads to lack of access to quality education and healthcare

Houses provided as a rehabilitation measure might be built of concrete but are so cramped and claustrophobic, that these barely one-room houses which are meant for one person are homes to entire families of 5-6 people. 

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series


Lack of opportunity is also a byproduct of inequality in India

The distance between the houses is quite less and as they are located near a composting yard, there is a constant stench, and swarm of mosquitoes and flies that the slum dwellers have got used to, but it is resulting in spread of diseases. During the floods in 2015, Semmancherry slums were completely drowned nearly up to the first floor and no help reached them for days due to lack of drainage systems.

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series


Right to Health is a fundamental right that is denied due to widespread inequality

Semmancherry has no hospital provided by the government, only a medical centre which is attended to by medical trainees more often than doctors. Especially on the weekends, there is no one in case of an emergency. The nearest government hospital is 30 kms away. Here the trainees are doing a survey on the number of pregnant women and ailments if any. 

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series



Widespread diseases leave millions at risk as quality healthcare remains unaffordable.

Tuberculosis is common in the slums of Semmancherry. This man is 50 years old and was hired by a government contractor to spray pesticides to kill mosquitoes in the area. His condition has depleted in a matter of a month and there is no medical support offered by the government towards his treatment.
Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series


Right to Education is a fundamental right for millions of Indians yet remains a distant dream.

Semmancherry has only a government middle and higher secondary school, along with some Balwadis. Children in primary have to go far. Private schools nearby charge Rs. 20,000 per year which is impossible for the slum dwellers to consider.
Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series


Inequality to access of water will be the most pressing issue of the future

This slum in Semmancheri gets water twice a day for a couple of hours, and that too is unfit for drinking. "The underground water and water from the Chennai Corporation is unusable for cooking or drinking. It stinks. It is mainly used to wash utensils, clothes, sanitation and cleaning the house. We have to purchase drinking water. A regular water can is Rs.30 per can. Don't you also use cans for drinking water? You must be buying Bisleri. That is too expensive for us. We survive on the regular can or from these water tanks."

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series
Loss of Jobs in India

I am a fisherman. There used to be good quality and good catchment of fish until the last decade. All these industries coming up in Ennore are building their boundaries for us, the natives of Ennore. Our livelihood has been fishing; the fish now stinks and tastes of chemicals. There is hardly any freshwater fish.
They release the hot water and chemical water from their factories into the river and it has affected the livelihoods of an entire community. Even when we work in the factories, they give us lowly jobs and ill treat us for low wages. When we protest for our rights, the government condemns us. How can we get better educated for better jobs when we don't even have basic amenities. Yet we try and send our children to better schools. No dignity of labour, no respect as a community."

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series


Loss of employments has a direct link to increase in violence against women and girls

Fishermen in this hamlet hangout at the community centre. Drinking and alcoholism is a major issue here as there is a local toddy shop that remains open 24x7 unofficially and there is no action by the police or the government against it. A few locals are raising awareness for better work opportunities in the area that have been affected by the industrialisation of Ennore and have affected the quality of the fish in the river, thereby resulting in lesser sales for this traditional fishing community.

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series
Inequality in india is high and rising

The slum is surrounded by upper-class apartment complexes. The gap between slum dwellers and the rest only widens further. Change for the better, wasn't a choice for them.

Photo Courtesy: Shuchi Kapoor/Oxfam India Inequality Photo Series



About the Author 
Shuchi Kapoor is a photojournalist known for her work on human rights, environment, gender, sexuality and mental health Know more here.

About Oxfam India's Inequality Project
Oxfam India believes that reducing inequality is fundamental to fair and sustainable development of any nation or society. Hence we have launched a campaign to create awareness about the widening gap between rich and poor, and take action. Every year (during the World Economic Forum at Davos in January) Oxfam releases a global report to track inequality in the world. This year, the report found that in India, Richest 1% population cornered 73% of the country’s wealth generated in 2017

For centuries, too many people have lived and died in poverty on the margins of society, suffering discrimination and robbed of opportunity because they are born girls, born poor, or born into the marginalized section of the society. Today these age-old disparities have been further entrenched by an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a small elite

Through the India Inequality Project, Oxfam India aims to create an engaging photo series (inventive, urban & youth centric) to deepen the understanding and emotional engagement of people with the inequality in India. 


Find out how Oxfam India is enabling communities by working to provide a life of dignity and equal opportunity for all.Get to know more about Oxfam India`s latest projects.

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