This is a guest post by PRADEEPAN RAVI
In an ongoing case at the Southern Bench of National Green Tribunal (NGT), the government of Tamil Nadu’s position is that slum settlements located on the banks of the Cooum river are the primary reason for its pollution and an impediment to carry out the restoration of the river. Not only is the data on slums as polluters insufficient, but slum dwellers cannot defend these allegations because shockingly they are not represented in the case!
During the hearings the counsel for the government used every opportunity to put the entire blame on the slum dwellers for polluting the Cooum and stressed that the encroachments by the slum dwellers prevent them from carrying out any work to clean the river. At one point the counsel for the government even sought the direction of the NGT to allow them to take the aid of police to evict the slum dwellers. To this the bench said that they cannot issue any direction regarding this but indicated that if removing encroachments is as per law then there is no need for any direction from the NGT to do that.
However, the data paints a different picture. A government’s own investigation as ordered by the NGT has found that its own agencies such as Metropolitan Transport Corporation and Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, government Public Sector Units such as Madras Fertilizers, Ennore Thermal Power plant and Chennai Petroleum; and a few other private educational institutions are releasing raw sewage and other pollutants into the Cooum, causing large scale pollution in the river. The NGT even ordered the suspension of all commercial operations of Madras Fertilizers for non-compliance to the standards prescribed by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) only to revoke the order during the subsequent hearing after the TNPCB gave them a clean chit. In the latest hearing on 16th March 2016 the NGT has slapped a fine of Rs. 40 lakh on Dr. MGR University for discharging raw sewage into Cooum for the last 26 years and directed the TNPCB to initiate criminal proceedings against the university.Why there is not a concomitant fine on the state government and the TNPCB for allowing this to continue for close to three decades is worth asking. It is also noteworthy that the government following an order from the Madras High Court in 2005 had demolished a portion of Dr. MGR University for encroaching into Cooum river bed. Encroachments and pollution along Cooum river by educational institutions and private enterprises are quite rampant that the NGT expressed shock and surprise when the Government submitted before the bench that they identified only 15 sewage outfalls along the Cooum river.
The consultant (LKS India who is preparing the DPR for the Cooum project) to the government (which prepared the plan for Cooum restoration had in its report indicated that the slums along Cooum had to discharge sewage into the river because of the lack of sanitation facilities. While it is the responsibility of the government to provide proper sanitation facilities in the slums, the government maintains a position against the slum dwellers at the NGT only to deflect the attention from its failure. The report also listed sewage, industrial effluents, and solid waste along with encroachments as the contribution factors for pollution in Cooum. The outfall survey by the consultant also found that raw sewage is also let out from storm water drains and the overflowing sewage network which is maintained by Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, a government agency. But the government position at the NGT overlooks all these facts and implicates only the slum dwellers as the primary reason for pollution in Cooum.
The government blames the slum dwellers, but what is most unfortunate is that, although the case was registered in 2014, no one has represented the slum dwellers before the bench. While those institutions and industries that were charged for polluting the Cooum were given a fair chance and time to defend themselves the slum dwellers are not even aware of this case at the NGT which is going to decide their fate.The lack of representation from slum dwellers has made it easier for the government to label all slums near the river as encroachments and seek for their removal irrespective of their legal status. Not only do slum dwellers have a right to be heard at the NGT but they also have a clear case to make as they are not the primary polluters of the Cooum river.
What dissuades the slum dwellers from fighting for their rights is the government’s attempt to tag them as illegal squatters and instill in them a fear that they will be evicted from their settlements at any time. But here again it is the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), a government agency, which is to be blamed as it failed to declare and notifyany slum in Chennai since 1985. The government, despite the options provided by LKS India for insitu development and reconstruction, tries to hard sell resettlement as the only option and attempts to create fear among the slum dwellers that if they do not take up the offer now then they would be left with nothing.Even organizations working for slum dwellers find it challenging to organize the slum dwellers against the eviction drive as they are not able to match the money and muscle power of the real estate mafia and politicians of vested interest.
LKS India also carried out Social Impact Assessment for the Cooum river project as part of its brief. It admitted in its own report that it was prepared without the relevant slum data being made available to them. Even though the consultant proposed options of reducing the social impact of the project through in-situ development, in-situ reconstruction and relocation to nearby areas, the government dismissed them and instead opted for resettlement of the 14,200-odd families across 58 slums to the Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam resettlement colonies built by the TNSCB, located at least 30 km away from the city and lack basic amenities like schools and health facilities.
Studies by civil society organizations have found that large scale resettlement of slum dwellers to colonies built in the city outskirts are detrimental to the life and livelihoods of the people. An audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has revealed that the Perumbakkam resettlement colony was constructed without even following the basic norms set bythe National Building Code and the number of tenements constructed was way above the permitted numbers. A fact finding report of Transparent Cities Network found that Ezhil Nagar, one of the resettlement colonies identified for resettling families along Cooum, was severely insufficient in basic amenities like schools, child care centres, primary healthcare centres, hospitals and transportation facilities. Of the total cost of 1,646 crore proposed for the Cooum river restoration project almost 1,087 crore is earmarked for resettlement of the project affected people. The government’s reluctance to consider the options suggested by its own consultant to minimize the impact of the project on the people raises doubts over the motive of the government.These are some of the points that the slum dwellers if represented at the NGT can flag to highlight how they are being given a raw deal by the government.
The ensuing election to the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly might have come as a blessing in disguise to the slum dwellers as the Government has halted the eviction drive for the time-being fearing erosion of support from the slum dwellers. But this could be only a temporary reprieve as it is well known that the policy of both the ruling party and the main opposition party in Tamil Nadu over evictions and resettlement is the same and the new government irrespective of the party that heads it might press ahead with the plan to evict the slum dwellers and resettle them at Ezhil Nagar and Perumbakkam. So it is in the best of interest of the slum dwellers that they are represented at the NGT in the case so as to put forth their views and demand for a better deal from the government than resettlement. Now it is the responsibility of civil society organizations and slum-dwellers to join forces and defend the rights of slum dwellers in the city and expose the double standards adopted by the government in taking action on industries, educational institutions and in many cases its own agencies for polluting the waterways.
Pradeepan Ravi is a researcher on slums and informal settlements in Chennai and is working with Transparent Cities Network