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Anatomy of a Displacement

Recently, the Executive Directors of the World Bank voted to approve a “Sustainable Urban Development” program in Chennai, India. They voted to approve not just the costs of this program (400 million USD) but also, its associated impacts. This includes the physical and economic displacement of 330 families, many of whom have lived in their current homes for decades.

As part of my work at the International Accountability Project, I had been following this project for months, watching from afar as documents were drafted and published and speaking to people who wanted to intervene with these plans. Learning that a World Bank project had been approved shouldn’t have affected me on a personal level. After all, I lived thousands of miles away and my interest, although legitimate, was playing into a very peculiar kind of voyeurism. But it did feel personal.

For the World Bank, approving a project like this is not remarkable. From the Bank’s own estimates, between 1998–2009, its projects physically displaced over 480,000 people and affected around 2.5 million more. For those of us keeping score, 330 is not the worst number you can encounter. But that is not really the point. Behind those numbers are people; real people who have homes, families, jobs, communities, and ways of being and living in a city that are never fully captured by dry statistics or technical reports. This crucial information, about the nuances of people’s lives and livelihoods, rarely makes its way into the rigid, technocratic speak of Bank documents.

The project- or rather ‘sub-project’- that’s causing this displacement is a proposal to improve the stormwater drainage system for select areas in the city of Chennai. The people who will benefit from this ‘sustainable development’ project will not be the ones who are directly affected. In fact, those being displaced still don’t know when (or where) they will be forced to move. Resettlement was originally scheduled to take place in mid-February, 2015, and was then postponed to March, as the construction of tenements at one resettlement site had to be completed.

Despite hundreds of pages of documentation, I found that tracing the knowns and unknowns in a project like this was not an easy task. The documents present one story- the official story- that this project is an overall public good, that displacement is necessary and unavoidable and that compensation will be just and fair. I didn’t have to dig very far into the documents themselves to realize that much of this is fiction.

“…they don’t want to move out from this place”*

In projects like this one, those who are directly impacted are often the last ones to know about what’s going to happen. After clicking through three official websites, I encountered only one document in Tamil, the local language, containing a summary of the environmental and social guidelines. Without comprehensive information about these projects, how can communities be expected to consent to, let alone participate, in the process of resettlement?

In an effort to share this information with people who might need it the most, I reached out to two researchers who had extensive experience and expertise working on resettlement issues in Chennai; Vanessa Peter, a policy researcher with the Information Resource Center for Urban Deprived Communities, and Priti Narayan, an independent researcher. Over the past two months, Vanessa spoke to approximately 60 people affected by the project and together with Priti, compiled a Citizens Response that identified some of the more problematic implications of this project. The Response highlights, for example, that of the 330 families being displaced, 69 are headed by women. Many of these women earn a living as domestic workers and live within walking distances of the homes that employ them. Resettlement doesn’t just mean the loss of their homes, it means the destruction of their livelihoods.

The project also disproportionately affects marginalized communities. About 264 families belong to Backward Castes/Classes and Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, categories which encompass some of the most vulnerable populations in the country. In consultations with government authorities and other groups, people have repeatedly expressed that they do not want to be relocated. They are dissatisfied and in some cases, afraid of the options being offered to them.

“..requested to spare them from resettlement exercise.”

Such concerns are not unfounded. The two sites (Ezhil Nagar and Thirumazhisai) where families could be moved to consist primarily of large tenement buildings that can house thousands of people, many who will likely be moved there to make way for development projects like this one. These sites are often located in the outskirts of the city, with scarce facilities and far away from the economic centers of the city. Not only do they lose important connections to the rest of the city, compensation packages don’t account for these kinds of losses.

There is the possibility, however, that plans can be changed. Already, as a result of consultations with those affected, the number of people impacted has been reduced from 467 families to 330. World Bank documents have a record of recommendations and comments made at different meetings. Most recommendations have not been addressed- especially surrounding the problems with resettlement. Moreover, there is very little information about how decisions are being made and why certain suggestions were accepted while others were not.

In an attempt to get some answers and raise awareness about the problems with how this project is being carried out, Vanessa and Priti, with IAP’s support, sent the Citizens Response to all 25 Executive Directors of the World Bank. The Board ultimately decides whether or not a project will receive funding, based on feedback from their own officials, the borrower’s reports and in some cases, responses from communities themselves. The last part is crucial. Often ‘official’ information can be very different from what people say is actually happening.

“Why don’t you construct the drain in the middle of the road or construct a fully covered drain[?]”

This project is just one of many being planned in the city, not to mention the country. As these conversations become more detailed and specific, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture. As with all development projects, it’s worth asking- who is really supposed to benefit from this? Certainly not the people who are being forced to give up their homes and livelihoods.

In this case, it’s obvious that there is a lot that local authorities could learn from speaking to the people who are directly affected. The problem is not that communities lack ideas or expertise, it’s that governments and institutions don’t tend to listen or respond to them. With enough warning and the right information, there could even be a chance to avoid displacement completely.

(*Quotes in bold excerpted from consultations held between project officials and affected communities.)

This World Bank project was initially monitored and analyzed as part of the Early Warning System, a joint initiative by the International Accountability Project and the Center for International Environmental Law. The Early Warning System ensures local communities, and the organizations that support them, have verified information about projects likely to cause human rights abuses and clear strategies for advocacy. Read more about this initiative here.

International Accountability Project works to defend the rights, land and livelihoods of people threatened by destructive development projects.

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