Slow violence and the Spectacle – Dispossession, segregation, and the Chennai Floods: Priti Narayan

Guest post by PRITI NARAYAN

[This article is followed by a detailed survey report on the losses sustained by people during the Chennai floods, which can be read here.]

“How, in an age that venerates the instant and the spectacular, can one turn attritional calamities starring nobody into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment,” asks scholar Rob Nixon, in his discussion of Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring. It is a question worth asking now, in the aftermath of the floods in Chennai.

The floods were spectacular, the initial neglect by the national Indian media notwithstanding. Enough has been written about both about the floods themselves, and the spectacle of thousands of Chennai residents pouring onto the streets and into the water to undertake rescue, relief and rehabilitation work. Now that the spectacle is fading and the celebration of the city’s spirit is dying down, perhaps we can examine the floods more objectively. Not that the deluge has not deserved the attention it has received – reports estimate that over 400 lives have been claimed, and anywhere between 1.8 to 2 million people have been displaced.

But we do not talk as much about the “attritional calamity” that involves the dispossession of the poor of their land  and their subsequent displacement to the peripheries of the city.The lack of affordable housing stock has historically led the poor to occupy land in the central city, from where they access livelihood and educational opportunities. Their location in the city has enabled them to contribute invaluable labour and services to the city’s economy. Off late however, development projects are putting immense pressure on land in the Indian city. Strategies to make a world class city –“beautification”, “development” and “eco-restoration” – envision no place for the poor in Chennai.Transparent Cities Network estimates that at least 1,50,000people from 63 slums have been displaced for development projects over the course of the last 15 years. Not all those displaced have been rehabilitated: at least 22,000 people have been left homeless. There are no estimates of the number of people who have died during displacement or after resettlement, but the instances of crime(including trafficking, prostitution, and mafia-style murders) and suicides in these government-created ghettoes tell a sordid tale.

This is not to compare in a facile manner,the impacts of urban displacement in Chennai with the floods that recently ravaged the city, or to argue that displacement gets less attention. It is to establish that slow violence unfolds alongside, even aiding and abetting  the spectacle. It is these very development projects spearheaded by the government, and private constructions encroaching on water bodies that were largely responsible for flooding in many parts of the city. According to multiple analyses,floods in Chennai were caused by unbridled development and governance failures.

Dispossession has reared its head post the floods as well. The government, while reluctant to accept culpability or accountability for the floods, was quick to announce that slum households who have lost their homes in the floods will be relocated to tenements constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in Perumbakkam outside Chennai Corporation boundaries. A month since the deluge, monetary compensation promised to flood-affected has not reached them yet, but over a thousand families living along river banks have been relocated.This move is consistent with the government’s attempts this far to resettle the poor so that the takeover of lands occupied by them in the city for various development projects can continue.

Slum residents and activists have long been protesting against resettlement as a housing option for the poor because of the poor access to livelihoods, education and basic services. Resettlement in Chennai has been a failure by all measures: less than 50% of the original beneficiaries of tenements in Kannagi Nagar continue to live there. But the floods have turned into an opportunity to evict the poor from the city, in a desperate attempt to “rehabilitate” the affected in light of the upcoming elections. This has happened before: disaster relief was the face of dispossession after the tsunami in 2004. Land on the beach near Loop Road was freed upthrough the resettlement of slumdwellers from Pattinampakkam, into tenements in Ezhil Nagar in the outskirts, whose construction was funded by the Emergency Tsunami Rehabilitation Project (ETRP) funds.Now again, disaster has become the perfect excuse to throw the poor out of the city.

As memories of the floods fade and normalcy returns, the development project continues to progress, quietly, inconspicuously, with land claimed from the poor being used for infrastructure and private development exclusively for the consumption of the middle class and the rich. For the displaced poor though, the story will be the same as it has been for the thousands of families resettled before them. Even if the government is trying its best to mitigate the short term ill-effects of resettlement by providing a moving allowance and a subsistence allowance for a year, they are sure to face the same problems that are being faced for residents of resettlement colonies for over 15 years now: poor access to education and devastation to livelihoods especially for women. Irreversible, permanent damage will have been done to them in the garb of flood relief.

The impacts of the floods have been borne disproportionately by a section of the people: to no one’s surprise, the Dalits. Over 2,000 sanitation workers have been brought in from various parts of Tamil Nadu to clean up the mess caused by middle class greed and government mismanagement, and they are, again, to no one’s surprise, mostly Arunthathiyars. Their own everyday needs have been neglected – according to a video doing the rounds on social media, sanitary workers have reported having to pay Rs. 25 everyday to clean themselves. Resettlement of the urban poor – constituting mostly Dalits – outside the city has been long considered a “neo-discriminatory practice” by the city’s housing rights activists. This claim rings especially true in the aftermath of the floods, if the way to “rehabilitate” the poor is by excluding them from the central city and its associated benefits. Can similar action be taken for the non-poor flood-affected in Kotturpuram, Ashok Nagar and Defence Colony?

Rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations in the city have been truly phenomenal. Yet, interactions with the poor during relief distribution, both on the part of the government and citizen relief workers,appear to have unfolded in essentially distant, and notably, paternalistic ways. The Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), while appreciating the timely help and generosity, reportson the insensitivity with which relief distribution was treated like charity by some ‘elitist’ relief agencies instead of as a right of the flood-affected. News platforms have featured pictures of flood victims in slums beseechingly reaching out for relief over their heads. Volunteers from relief centres have reported having to sort through smelly, torn clothes that were “donated” as part of flood relief. It turns out that while the floods were a leveller in many ways, relief has been discriminatory in some cases. People have opened their homes up to their ground floor neighbours, friends and acquaintances, yet in instances where the poor were accommodated in middle class homes, class and caste reared their ugly heads. A friend whose household help and watchman stayed in her house for three days during the floods is being reprimanded by her neighbours in her apartment complex in Brahmin stronghold Mylapore. These neighbours allege that because of her support during the floods, these servants have now begun to “talk back.” Caste pervades contemporary urban Indian life in small everyday violent forms. And it seems to have thrived in the face of disaster.

So what is to be done now? How do we, to go back to Nixon, turn attritional calamities into stories that can rouse public sentiment? A possible answer is, by using the dazzle of the spectacle. The floods have thrown into sharp relief, the invisible yet pervasive slow violence of dispossession and segregation. One of the major tasks lying ahead of us is to challenge the fickleness of public memory, and keep alive the memory of the spectacle and everything it has revealed to us about our world and our routine everyday lives. It is this memory that will perhaps show us a way forward. For instance, the floods have provided a unique opportunity to reclaim the word “encroacher”, historically used to identify slum dwellers living on riverbanks out of need. The floods now clearly point to encroachers acting out of greed, rich and middle class encroachers who made land where there was no land, and to governmental encroachers who constructed, and allowed construction on water bodies. We must remember their role in the making of this disaster, demand accountability and punishment of the guilty,and seek solutions that do not further marginalize and victimize the affected.

Priti Narayan is an activist researcher on slum policy in Chennai and is doing her Ph D at Rutgers. She is also associated with Transparent Cities Network


3 thoughts on “Slow violence and the Spectacle – Dispossession, segregation, and the Chennai Floods: Priti Narayan”

  1. Chennai flood devastation is a replica of the system’s inability to cope with disasters. The scale of unplanned constructions in many metropolitan cities is to such an extent that if Chennai-like situation arises, the extent of damage might be similar or even greater. The marginalised sections might face more troubles and the slums would attract evictions. Mumbai floods earlier is a case in point. Measures are taken aftermath and little preventive measures are designd before the prediction of floods. Lot remains to be done to avert loss of life and property in many other metropolis soonr than later.


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