What was once a wetland – this is however not a picture of Bethel Nagar

That Chennai has several colonies built without permission and later regularised is well known. But sometimes the law does catch up though it is only the buyers of such properties who are made to pay the price while the original perpetrators of such land grabs escape.Tension is brewing in Bethel Nagar, Injambakkam, where residents have been on a prolonged strike against eviction orders issued by the Madras High Court. The matter is a classic instance of one wrongdoing in the past resulting in several complications later. While the Government has now been forced to comply with court orders, there is no denying that the present impasse has come about only due to poor governance in the past. But let us present the facts:

The residential community of Bethel Nagar, which is said to house more than 5,000 people, reportedly lies upon 164 acres of encroached wetlands. On January 24, the first bench of the Madras High Court issued stringent orders to remove the encroachments, censuring the revenue and district ­administration for failure to ­retrieve the land. It also warned that punitive action would be taken upon wilful ­disobedience of its orders. Following the mandate, the administration began the eviction process on January 27. Officials are said to have entered the area with earthmovers and demolition machines; they brought down the compound walls of empty plots and issued eviction notices for around a hundred plots. The power supply was also cut off for the commercial establishments in the area. An affidavit filed by the Chennai Collector J. Vijaya Rani before the first bench informs that 108 electricity connections were snapped and 84 sealed so far; seven compound walls have been demolished and 32 boards warning encroachers have been installed in the vacant sites and others in the process of being brought down.

The move prompted pushback from the residents, who questioned why the authorities failed to act at the time of registration. The families say that they have been settled in the locality for decades and are making their livelihoods in the area. The argument is that the residents have hitherto valid documentation including power connections and civic tax remittances. The people staged a road roko against the eviction drive, with women and children taking part as well. Police say that traffic crossing Akkarai to Injambakkam was stagnant for three hours due to the demonstration. A few residents are said to have been detained during the protests. Which brings us to the first question – how did power connections and civic tax levies happen if the land was illegally occupied? How can the Government have any moral authority to evict the residents if it has been complicit in an illegal sale? 

Further complicating the situation is a complaint reporting illegal sale of government land to the public in the area. The Neelankarai police have registered a case based on the complaint of the Sholinganallur tahsildar, arresting five men who are said to have encroached government property in order to sell it illegally to the public. In a quote to the media, the investigation officer said, “We are searching for a few more people involved in the racket. Many people had paid them money and got the plots registered in their names illegally.”

Clearly caught on the wrong foot, the Government is now offering to relocate the displaced persons in a phased manner. At first, around a hundred families who have given undertaking to leave will be provided alternative accommodation in quarters built by the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board before March 31. Meanwhile, a petition has also been filed before the court on behalf of the residents of Bethel Nagar. That brings us to the next question – given the recent reports on the condition of the TNUHDB houses, who will want to shift in there? And lastly, how about the vested interests that initially saw to the takeover of the wetlands and their sale? Will they go scot free while the residents who in all innocence moved in now have to pay the price?