After Floods and False Promises, Dozens in Chennai, India Forcibly Evicted
On Thursday morning, at 8am, at least 43 families living on the banks of the river Adyar in Chennai, India were faced with distressing news. They were going to be evicted that very day to make way for a development project.
With no prior warning and with heavy police presence, authorities from the city’s Slum Clearance Board and other government departments threatened families with the loss of any compensation or alternative housing if they failed to leave by sundown.
Evictions in Chennai are not uncommon. According to data collected by the Transparent Cities Network, it is estimated that at least 150,000 people have been evicted by development projects in the past ten years alone. But this time was supposed to be different. The very same families who were evicted on Thursday had been negotiating with World Bank and local officials for almost a year to avoid this very situation. Many months ago, they had learned that they would be evicted as part of a storm water drainage project funded by the World Bank. In the space of 12 hours, those negotiations were rendered irrelevant, as local authorities decided to evict anyway citing other reasons.
Vanessa Peter and her team were present during the evictions. As a researcher with the Independent Resource Center for Deprived Urban Communities, Vanessa has been working with the families for months as they participated in consultations and public meetings to come up with a fair resettlement strategy. “We were optimistic about consultations. Especially when the World Bank and Corporation of Chennai initially agreed with most of our recommendations. But despite alerting the World Bank India staff about the evictions in JJ Nagar, they failed to safeguard the rights of the families affected.”
Vanessa’s team interviewed residents and documented the evictions as they happened. One resident, Krishna*, expressed his frustration at the turn of events “We have been living here for over 30 years. We never had any problems here until the government came and informed us that there is some canal restoration work. The government promised us that we will be shifted to Thirmazhisai but suddenly they are telling us that we will be shifted to Perumbakkam. We may have some livelihood options in Thirmazhisai but we will not have any in Perumbakkam.”
The evicted families belong to vulnerable communities. Single women head many households and a majority belong to castes that have been historically discriminated against. Many families also have young children who attend schools in the neighborhood. Communities had asked authorities to delay resettlement until after the academic year. With two months left, the children will now have to commute up to 3 hours every day to continue their education. Employed as domestic workers or day laborers in surrounding areas, most families’ livelihoods are also dependent on the location of their homes. Shoba*, another resident commented, “If they want to evict us why can’t they provide houses for us nearby? There are vacant lands nearby. Why are they moving us to areas 30 kilometers away? How can we come back to resume our livelihoods every day if we get shifted? This is almost like annihilating us.”
The community has already experienced a fair share of hardship these past few months, following the devastating floods in Chennai late in 2015. The floods were the worst recorded in a 100 years, leaving over 500 people dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced. Many families are only now getting back to their normal routines only to lose everything to evictions. Sarah Ramya, a volunteer researcher who witnessed the evictions, believes the timing is deliberate. “The Government of Tamil Nadu is known for evicting slum residents when they are at their most vulnerable. For the communities who were already badly affected by the floods, they did not want to be left with no houses. This is not a new trend.”
Ending Poverty or Eradicating the Poor
Forced evictions are not sanctioned under World Bank policy and yet the magnitude of physical and economic displacement resulting from their projects is staggering. According to an external investigation over a 10-year period, projects financed by the Bank have physically or economically displaced at least 3.4 million people around the world. Facing mounting criticism from communities and civil society, the Bank had promised to take steps to remedy the situation.
The World Bank has known for almost a year about communities’ fears of evictions around this particular project. As early as March 2015, a petition had been sent to the World Bank’s Board of Directors highlighting the many concerns communities had about the proposed plans. Subsequently, the Board acknowledged the “substantial risks associated with environmental and social safeguards” and the United States government even released a statement urging “the (World) Bank to closely monitor the implementing agencies at the state and local levels to ensure that the consultation processes are sufficiently robust, that the letter and spirit of the resettlement policies are followed…”
It is troubling that despite months of negotiations and meetings with decision makers, families in JJ Nagar faced the exact situation they feared and worked so hard to prevent. After pleading and protesting the authorities for hours, all 43 families eventually gave in and moved to the state-approved resettlement site, abandoning their homes and possessions. It is unclear if they will receive any compensation for the loss of their homes and livelihoods. They had until the end of the day on Friday to collect their belonging before the bulldozers moved in.
For Vanessa and her team, they are already confronting the next big challenges. What will happen to the 300 plus families who were also identified under the same World Bank project? Are they next? It’s a decision that, unfortunately, they may not know about until it’s too late.
Names changed to protect the safety of those interviewed. Via the Early Warning System initiative and with the support of the International Accountability Project, Center for International Environmental Law, Accountability Counsel and other partners, community representatives sent their research and recommendations to the World Bank Board of Directors in March 2015. Read more about communities’ efforts to participate in consultations and negotiate resettlement policies with World Bank staff and local authorities.