TN’s policy for the homeless: From the margins to the periphery

Involuntary resettlement from ‘objectionable poramboke (waste) lands’ forms the basis of the first-ever slum resettlement policy of Tamil Nadu. When displacement triggers arbitrary ‘relocation’, a large portion of the homeless- that doesn’t even qualify as homeless- continues to live in destitute conditions devoid of human rights. 

This begs the question- do our resettlement policies assign to the homeless the status of ‘refugees’? 

Why are the homeless relocated?

Before the proposal of this policy, there were no real guidelines to govern the eviction, rehabilitation and resettlement of the homeless. Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board’s (TNHUB) policy talks about the identification of ‘vulnerable’ families and their ‘humane’ eviction from unassessed government lands. 

The reasons for the eviction of people living in lands that the policy deems as ‘objectionable’  range from disaster mitigation, implementation of developmental projects to something as insignificant as removing hindrance to water flow and facilitating smooth traffic. It is the ‘homeless’ who pay the cost for urban development. 

From deluge to displacement

Displacement generally occurs due to unexpected reasons, one of the reasons that destroy people’s daily livelihood. The primary reasons are climate change or natural calamities—typically, the people who don’t have proper housing in cities struggle. According to the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution, Article 21 talks about the protection of life and personal liberty. But still, numerous people all over India are getting displaced. According to an Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre IDMC study, 3.9 million new disasters were displaced in India.

In 2004, the national policy on families was affected, and later it was upgraded in 2007 as the ‘Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy.’ National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy’ reduced the number of large-scale displacements and ensured resettlement with the affected families. 

Urban displacement creates factors like unplanned urban growth. The people who are significantly below the poverty line face major issues because, for them, there’s a lack of affordable houses. The study of IDMC that was conducted in 2016 says that displacement is there because of the large-scale land acquisition, which creates a significant issue. The entrance of COVID made things worse. The arrival of the unexpected pandemic forced many labourers towards unemployed and sent them back to their village or hometown.

Relocation and Rehabilitation

Tamil Nadu’s relocation policy is a clear reflection of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) drafted by the Department of Land Resources, which talks about the comprehensive benefits to be provided to the displaced families.

To know more about this draft bill, watch this video:

The homeless, living on the margins already, are relegated to worse conditions due to development induced displacement (check infographic 2.0). According to the policy, the identification of lands for resettlement involves a collaborative effort between the Greater Chennai Corporation (District Collector) and the Revenue Depa

The policy says, “while selecting land, the distance from the nearest towns or source of employment should be considered. The daily livelihood activities of the intended beneficiaries should be borne in mind.” The policy also talks about closeness to employment opportunities and urban areas. 

While the policy encompasses a comprehensive framework of rehabilitating those rendered homeless by urban activities, the situation of slums (both pre and post displacement) tells a different story. 

Principal Secretary and Chairman, TNUHDB Hitesh Kumar says, “the government is supposed to play the role of a facilitator when it comes to implementing the already existing health and family welfare policies of the State. The board’s responsibility is just proper and ‘humane’ relocation of the slum dwellers.”

The misery that follows resettlement

Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar slum- run by the Tamil Nadu Habitat Board- houses people relocated from different areas in the city after natural calamities.   The narrow lanes connecting the Kutcha houses in the slum are used to wash utensils or dry laundry on common clotheslines. In the evening’s groups of women gather to chat and banter, and the men are busy playing cards in small open spaces while cattle graze nearby. Residents say that such empty spaces are breeding grounds for diseases and detection of diseases is poor since there are no clinics or PHCs nearby.

“It is assumed that since we (slum dwellers)have always been homeless, we have strong immunity and that our health requirements must not be a consideration,” says Mariyam Khatoon (name changed on request), one of the colony’s 75,000 residents. 

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“I was helpless when my daughter delivered her first child in unhygienic conditions here, we didn’t even have a cloth to cover her,” says a resident of the colony.  Pointing to a broken bed in her squalid shed, she says “The embarrassment of seeing my daughter deliver in such unhygienic conditions was more painful than seeing her go through labour pains.” The place near the Cooum river from which they were evicted three years ago at least had a small government clinic. 

Activist Vanessa Peter, the founder of the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), says that there is an imminent danger in talking about the public health of the homeless as it leads to the prejudice that says spaces occupied by the homeless are a source of health hazards and infectious diseases for neighbourhoods. 

The case of homeless children

It is to be noted that 51% of the children are of 6-14 years of age. 19% of children in the age group of 6 to 14 are school dropouts. 4% of the school dropouts are working in hazardous workplaces. Discussion with the dropout children reveals that they are employed in slaughterhouses, steel factories and other hazardous workplaces. 42% of the children of 15-18 years of age are school dropouts. Read more

Homeless children data

Discussion with the children reveals that they find it hard to continue their higher studies because of their rough street life.

Status of children of the homeless

‘Poromboke’- A plethora of prejudices

The term ‘Poromboke’- which is invoked time and again in the slum policy- has taken on all manner of implications and connotations that don’t really belong to it. While the policy uses the term to describe wastelands that belong to the government, in the popular imagination it has metamorphosed into a slur. An innuendo for destitution and homelessness, the term captures the prejudices directed towards those living on the margins. Amidst the compounding health and employment-related crises, societal exclusion and treatment as outcasts are other conflicts that the homeless are subjected to. The revalorization of the term and reclaiming spaces that the homeless are entitled to are central themes of the ‘Poromboke Song’, a product of the creative collaboration of journalist Nithayanan Jayaram and activist-artiste TM Krishna. Catch Nithyanan Jayaram speaking exclusively to ACJ News.