How many slums are there in Chennai? Officially, 1219. But unofficially there are 444 more. What is being done for the residents of these slums? Very little, apart from persistent and misguided attempts to relocate them to the periphery of the city, thereby simply shifting the problem to where the upper-class citizenry cannot see it. All this and more are some of the highlights of a study done by an NGO, Transparent Chennai, in 2013. Excerpts from this study were published in The Hindu and the figures quoted here are from there.

Slums, which were initially under the control of the Madras Corporation, were transferred to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in 1971 when that body was set up following legislation. The TNSCB had under its purview only the officially recognised slums, which then were 1202 in number. In 1985, a further 17 were added to the list. And the tally stopped there. What we hear now is that there are at least 444 more in the city and these do not have any form of governance, as the TNSCB claims it can only handle the approved ones.

Some of the statistics quoted is truly frightening. As many as half a million people reside in the unofficial slums which occupy just 4.8 sq km of Greater Chennai – the congestion can only be imagined. Periodic eviction drives are the only strategy that the city’s administration has towards these slums. The residents return after a while and the cycle continues. What is often forgotten is that it is this fringe population that provides most of the service in the city.

Coming to the official slums, the city had one of the best possible methods of handling them. Ever since the late 1800s when Charles Gower first mooted the idea of reconstructing slums in situ with better planning, access to water and ventilation, the Corporation had been doing just that. That way, the slums continued to remain where they were, but they were a lot cleaner and more habitable. The best examples of such activities were in the 1930s when Ayodhyakuppam was transformed. Work then continued sporadically with another burst of commendable activity in the years immediately after Independence.

Rather ironically, the setting up of the TNSCB was to see the decline in such efforts, though the sheer inaction in recent years is inexplicable. The TNSCB has to just look all around its rather shabby headquarters by the Marina to see several glaring instances of slums – behind Simpsons, near the Bodyguard Lines and, of course, all along the Cooum.

What has however been happening is the spending of huge amounts of money obtained under schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the Rajeev Awas Yojana (RAY) to build resettlement colonies for the slum dwellers.

These serve no earthly purpose whatsoever, as the residents of slums need to be near their places of work.

There have in the recent past been attempts to relocate the age-old fishing hamlets by the Marina in places far removed from the sea, such as Maraimalai Nagar!

As a consequence, many of these new settlement colonies have remained uninhabited. In some cases, people have taken possession, rented out the space to others and moved back to their original location. To what purpose then the huge amounts spent?

It is high time the TNSCB woke up from its sloth and began looking at creative solutions for improving the conditions of people living in slums. It cannot take cover under the fact that the Act that saw its creation mandates it to handle only ‘approved’ slums and the rest can fend for themselves. And it should also remember that even in the case of the so-called ‘official’ slums, it can afford to do a lot more than what it is doing.