Justice delayed is justice denied: longstanding struggle for land rights by rights holders of World Bank housing projects in Tamil Nadu, India

by Alessandro Ramazzotti, Vaishnavi Varadarajan and Vanessa Peter

Photos by IRCDUC

Gudapakkam, one of the resettlement sites of the World Bank Financed Tamil Nadu Sustainable Urban Development Project (TNSUDP) in Chennai, Tamil Nadu (Source: IRCDUC)

Raja (not his real name to protect identity) is one of the rights holders of the Madras Urban Development Project (MUDP) by the World Bank. He applied for a sale deed¹ for his house in December 2022, at the age of 89. Way back in March 1997, he paid INR 5,565 (USD 155 at that time) to Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB), saying it was the final settlement to receive the sale deed for his house. However, in December 2022, the Information and Resource Center for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) conducted a door-to-door assessment of the settlement and found out that Raja did not receive the sale deed along with 70 more residents from his settlement.

IRCDUC supported some of these families to apply for their sale deeds in the Division Office. In Raja’s case, he submitted all the necessary documents last December 2022 but TNUHDB requested an additional payment amounting to INR 25,722 (USD 314), which was raised to INR 27,771 (USD 335) in January 2023. Although the payment was revised multiple times, his ailing health forced him to pay the additional amount at the end of January 2023 so that he would receive the sale deed. In March 2023, the TNUHDB sent Raja’s Legal Heir Certificate to the Taluk office to ascertain its validity — thanks to IRCDUC’s constant pressure on the officials, it ended in May 2023. It was not over because in June 2023, Raja was again asked to submit for more documents by the Division Office and the TNUHDB requested an additional “pending payment” of INR 6,500 (USD 78), that was paid on July 31, 2023. More than 26 years after paying the “final settlement”, submitting documents, and after numerous additional payments, the TNUHDB finally released Raja’s sale deed last August of this year. Though Raja received his sale deed, due to long-pending technical glitches, he has been struggling to apply for a patta². Despite several rounds of follow-up, this issue is not addressed yet.

While Raja was still lucky to get his sale deed with the support of IRCDUC, unfortunately, many of the other rights holders across the state, are still waiting for justice, 35 years on.

The World Bank has had a long history of providing investment support in the form of loans and grants to the Government of Tamil Nadu since 1958. Among these, there have been several projects on housing and urban development that have severely impacted the lives of urban communities in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu.

IRCDUC works as a community-centric information hub designed to educate and empower the deprived urban communities in Tamil Nadu. Through their work, they have been supporting urban communities and rights holders of World Bank-financed projects to leverage government institutions and international financial institutions to ensure they are provided access to housing and basic services.

Engagement and Advocacy by IRCDUC and IAP on World Bank-financed Housing Projects in Tamil Nadu

IRCDUC began its work on monitoring the implementation of World Bank-financed housing projects in 2015 when they received information about the Tamil Nadu Sustainable Urban Development Project (TNSUDP) from the International Accountability Project (IAP) via the Early Warning System (EWS). According to the project documents, 330 families from Paadi Kuppam in Chennai were going to be evicted because of this project. IRCDUC reached out to the 330 families and conducted a participatory assessment to document their concerns and demands which they compiled in the form of a Citizen’s Response. IRCDUC and IAP collectively advocated to address their demands by engaging with the United States (US) Treasury and the Executive Directors of the World Bank with whom the reports were shared. The ‘Citizens Response’ report resulted in increased scrutiny of this case which led to the US Executive Director abstaining from voting to approve this project. The US government also published a public statement urging the World Bank to monitor the implementing agencies at state and local levels, to ensure that the consultation processes are robust, and that resettlement policies are implemented properly. As a result, the evictions connected to this project were reduced by 70% and resettlement took place in a just manner with the participation of the affected communities.

Project-affected communities of TNSUDP and IRCDUC discuss resettlement plans with members of Chennai Corporation

This opened avenues for IRCDUC to continue monitoring old World Bank-financed housing projects to ensure that these projects address the rights of urban communities to adequate housing and services. Since 2015, they have conducted multiple assessments on the conditions of resettlement projects in Chennai and continued to advocate for the housing rights of urban communities directly impacted by World Bank-financed housing projects in Tamil Nadu.

On September 15, 2023, IRCDUC and IAP released a report titled Implementation of World Bank Financed Housing Projects in Tamil Nadu and its Impact on Urban Deprived Communities’ in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’. This report is a compilation of the findings and recommendations from the various citizens’ reports and participatory assessments conducted by IRCDUC over the years, highlighting the longstanding issues faced by rights holders for more than 4 decades in several housing projects financed by the World Bank in Chennai and Tamil Nadu. This report has uncovered legacy and continuing violations during the implementation of these projects which have trapped rights holders in a vicious cycle of bureaucratic inconsistencies, delays, increased penalties, and debt.

Report launch and consultation in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

Several representations on these issues, along with copies of the report have been shared with the TNUHDB, the World Bank office in India, and the executive directors of World Bank in Washington, DC. Concerns of rights holders impacted by MUDP and TNUDP were also addressed by IRCDUC and IAP directly to the US Treasury representatives at the Tuesday Group meeting, co-chaired by the Bank Information Centre and the US Agency for International Development.

Historical and ongoing issues with MUDP and TNUDP projects in Chennai and Tamil Nadu

Based from the IRCDUC’s monitoring, two incomplete projects with legacy issues highlighted in the report were the Madras Urban Development Project (MUDP) and the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project (TNUDP). MUDP was a World Bank-financed project implemented in Chennai (erstwhile Madras) from 1977 to 1987 to develop and promote low-cost solutions to Madras’ problems in the area of housing, employment, water supply, sewage, and transportation and particularly to make investments responsive to the needs of urban poor. MUDP II was followed by the implementation of the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Projects (TNUDP) in 10 other cities of Tamil Nadu, in three other phases. A component of both these projects was the ‘Slum Improvement Scheme’ (SIS) which focused on in-situ development and transfer of land rights. The SIS was implemented by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) renamed as the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB) in 2021. Through assessments conducted by IRCDUC in Chennai and Madurai in 2022, they found that 64% of the rights holders in MUDP settlements in Chennai and 67% of the rights holders in Madurai are yet to receive their sales deed till date.

Source: Implementation of World Bank Financed Housing Projects in Tamil Nadu and its Impact on Urban Deprived Communities, September 2023

According to IRCDUC, the four-decade-long delay in providing these sale deeds created multiple complications as many of the original allottees passed away which further led to problems arising out of family disputes and difficulty in accessing documents. As many urban communities live in vulnerable conditions, many of the rights holders lost the required documents due to floods, fires, or pests. They also were not provided the information by MUDP and TNUDP officials about which documents were essential and that the absence of documents, especially the payment receipts, were counted as non-payment. This means that those who did pay the fees but lost their documents had to make another payment, with added interest.

A power imbalance was seen in how the entire burden of proof was shifted to urban communities when even the officials of the implementing agencies often misplaced documents and provided inconsistent information on payment amounts which was continuously revised in many cases. One of the rights holders shared that “when TNUHDB was unable to maintain the records how are we to do the same? Especially for 40 years and we were not informed about the relevance of these documents and asked to keep it safe”. World Bank conducted a performance assessment of the TNUDP in 2007 in which they also noted that various issues related to upward revisions of payment, lack of transparency and accountability has led to pending payments and placed the beneficiaries of the project, many of which live below the poverty line, under a large debt burden and exposed to exploitation by money lenders’’.

Source: Implementation of World Bank Financed Housing Projects in Tamil Nadu and its Impact on Urban Deprived Communities, September 2023

The research conducted by IRCDUC also throws further light on the administrative issues that caused the delay in issuing the sale deeds. One of the reasons was the delay in the alienation of land from land-owning departments of the government such as the Revenue and Disaster Management Department, Urban Local Bodies etc. to the TNUHDB. The Public Works Department and TNUHDB developed these settlements only based on ‘Enter Upon Permission’ instead of completing the land alienation process. Despite the Government of Tamil Nadu constituting an empowered committee to expedite this process, IRCDUC found that the land alienation is pending in 148 settlements in Chennai, Madurai, Coimbatore, and Salem. In some cases, there are also pending legal disputes between land-owning departments resulting in further delays. In Kandha Pillai Street, Perambur, Chennai, rights holders of MUDP phase II have been forced to pay additional rent to the land-owning department, Hindu Religious and Charitable and Endowments Department due to a pending litigation with TNUHDB which is yet to be settled.

Some of the families who are rights holders of MUDP also find themselves vulnerable to eviction threats as they are residing on lands that are deemed ‘objectionable’. On August 23, 2023, the resettlement of 24 families from Neduvankarai Pillayar Kovil Street in Arumbakkam (rights holders under MUDP Phase I) was initiated under the Integrated Cooum River Eco-Restoration Project of the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT). These families were resettled to the alternate site which is located within two kilometres radius from their original place of residence. According to a news report last August 24, the lands allotted to these families via the Slum Improvement Scheme of MUDP have been canceled. IRCDUC’s assessment indicates that this threat of settlement also prevails for other settlements like MGR Colony Neduvankarai developed under MUDP Phase I and settlements like Beri Beri Road, NSK Nagar, and Manjakollai developed under MUDP Phase II. IRCDUC also found that out of the 50 settlements they assessed, only 7 of them are in watercourse poromboke lands (government lands reserved for public purpose) and they are also likely to be evicted. Due to the hasty implementation of these projects, many such legacy issues remain.

On-ground interventions by IRCDUC in the cities of Chennai and Madurai to ensure access to justice for MUDP and TNUDP rightsholders

As a follow-up to the information gathered through the assessments, IRCDUC continues to work on-ground to support the rights holders of the MUDP and TNUDP in their sale deed applications. They have organised special camps in some of the settlements to assist rights holders in navigating the complicated process of sale deed applications. Due to their advocacy, division offices of TNUHDB are now sharing information through display boards on the documents required for applying for sale deeds.

Display board in TNUHDB division office in Madurai, Tamil Nadu with information on documents required for applying for sale deed under TNUDP project.

With the support of senior officials of TNUHDB, they have even been successful in availing sale deeds for 6 rights holders and their families in Chennai. Vanathi, a 79-year-old woman, who is a rights holder from a MUDP settlement in Chennai shared during the report launch in September “I have finally received the sale deed because of IRCDUC’s intervention, I hope to receive the patta before something happens to me, please help me get the patta as I have already waited long enough…”.

In June 2023, IRCDUC sent a petition to the District Collector of Madurai to address the issue of land transfer of settlements in the district. The response dated 4 September 2023 reveals that out of the 40 settlements that were developed under TNUDP, a government order for land transfer was issued for 25 settlements of which 11 settlements have completed its land transfer, and ongoing action for the remaining 14 settlements.

As a result of IRCDUC’s efforts to make the process of sale deed applications transparent and accessible for urban communities, many more families from MUDP and TNUDP are reaching out to address the long pending issues and delays in their applications. The interventions by IRCDUC indicate that if initiative and actions are taken by the World Bank and the Government of Tamil Nadu to provide support to the rights holders and address the pending issues, then the implementation of these projects can be completed.

Recommendations for the Government of Tamil Nadu and the World Bank

The report provides specific recommendations for the Government of Tamil Nadu and the World Bank on the measures that should be taken to address the legacy and continuing issues connected to World Bank-financed housing projects in Chennai and Tamil Nadu. The recommendations in the report highlight the importance of addressing the legacy issues through a social justice lens and acknowledging that people have invested their entire lifetime investment in the houses under the assumption that the house and the land were theirs. Land is a crucial tool for defining social mobility and in the case of MUDP and TNUDP projects, just because of the fault of the government in determining land classification and delay in land transfer, people have now lost their claims to the land for which they have paid and their houses which is their entire life’s savings.

There is a need for stronger mechanisms to be established by the Government of Tamil Nadu and the World Bank for monitoring and accountability to ensure that these projects are completed. A high-level committee should be set up in Tamil Nadu to monitor the progress of World Bank schemes like MUDP/TNUDP, at the earliest, for facilitating land alienation and to track and resolve the issuance of pending sale deeds and pattas across the state. There should also be special task teams set up in MUDP and TNUDP settlements, composed of community development officers and community volunteers to facilitate the process of applying and issuing sale deeds and to provide regular follow-up and direct support to the rights holders. There also needs to be a policy decision taken regarding land transfer in objectionable lands and for residents residing in watercourse poromboke lands. It is important that sale deeds are issued to rights holders despite the classification of the land and that they are protected from future evictions.

The continuing violations, gaps, and delays in these projects indicate that it is important for the World Bank to have clear guidelines on responsible exit with specific strategies on “closed projects”, especially when rights holders are continuing to face prolonged, adverse impacts. These should include regular monitoring to assess whether the proposed exit strategy is aligned with the agreed deliverables of the project, identify long-term impacts, and explore additional actions to address implementation gaps and challenges. IRCDUC and IAP also suggest that remedial measures on unresolved issues and prolonged impacts like non-access to tenure rights, mounting penalties, and increased debts can be addressed through ongoing projects in Tamil Nadu on housing policy reform supported by the World Bank such as the ‘Tamil Nadu Housing and Habitat Development Project’.

“There is a need to take up a joint campaign with participation of different civil society organizations, at different levels to ensure that the people who are entitled to their land rights receive it without any further delay” — Vanessa Peter, IRCDUC

IRCDUC and IAP call upon the World Bank and the Government of Tamil Nadu to urgently address the unremediated harms of their past and ongoing investments, and ensure that land rights of urban communities in Tamil Nadu are realized through secure land titles and other basic amenities as have been promised to them.

¹Sale deeds are documents that guarantee the security of land tenure.

²In India, patta refers to the land revenue record establishing the ownership of lands which is issued by the state government.


Vanessa Peter is a policy researcher, social activist, and founder of the Information and Resource Center for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC). She is based in Chennai, India.

Vaishnavi Varadarajan is the Community Organizer for South Asia at the International Accountability Project. She is based in Delhi, India.

Alessandro Ramazzotti is an Early Warning System fellow working with the International Accountability Project. He is based in Italy.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.