Water, Citizenship and Women in the Urban Fringe: the Story of Perumbakkam

Water, Citizenship and Women in the Urban Fringe: the Story of Perumbakkam

About the author: Miranda Sculthorp is a Master’s of Urban Planning student at McGill University, currently based in Chennai, India.

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Photo: A scene from Perumbakkam, Chennai (by Miranda Sculthorp)

Perumbakkam is a slum resettlement site located on the outskirts of Chennai, India, which was built to house families affected by the floods that devastated the city in 2015. In the aftermath of the floods, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board undertook a large resettlement scheme to remove slums from the banks of Chennai’s waterways, under the guises of protecting the families from future flooding. However, the real motivation behind this eviction, like many others in Chennai, is clear: the government sees the slums as ‘filth’ in the city that need to be removed, to make room for new development and trendy infrastructure. While the government used flood-risk as a justification for the forced evictions, the new relocated housing tenements continue to be at risk for flooding. The relocation area was built directly on marshland that becomes a drainage area for the city’s water overflow during the rainy season. Simply put, the Perumbakkam resettlement site is a government-built housing scheme which was consciously planned to house vulnerable residents in a known flood-risk area.

In Chennai, like in other large cities in India, the relocation process happened without consideration to citizen’s choice and rights. Residents from various parts of Chennai were notified of their eviction and were promptly relocated in mass – they were given no choice in the relocation site, and received little to no information about the process. Upon arriving to their new homes, families were forced to submit to monthly payments to pay off their allotted unit. Despite paying for their home, they are not guaranteed any security of land tenure. Therefore, just like in the areas they were forced to leave behind, in Perumbakkam, any hope of formal citizenship continues to be out of reach for its inhabitants.

As part of my Master’s degree research, I visited Perumbakkam in January 2018. I saw that in some material ways, the resettlement site of Perumbakkam seems to provide some basic provisions and infrastructure that were lacking in the former communities. Each household is allocated a housing unit in an apartment block, which has an individual water connection and toilet facilities. This means residents are relieved of the daily task of collecting water from water holding tanks. However, the quality of the water infrastructure and service in Perumbakkam is poor. The water quality is questionable at best – many residents say that the water irritates the skin and causes rashes. Drainage pipes, built only a few years ago, are already leaking, creating pools of stagnant wastewater throughout the community. Sumps, located on the ground-level areas of each building are also leaking, creating even larger pools of stagnant water. The stagnant water pools, along with the surrounding marshland, are a breeding ground for mosquitoes which bring illness to the community. Water is available for only a few hours each day, and many residents do not get enough water for their family’s needs. In short, water and sanitation here continues to be problematic.

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Photo: Street life in Perumbakkam (taken by Miranda Sculthorp)

Some civic amenities, such as paved roads, and a sewage system are present. However, basic public institutions, such as schools and hospitals are either inadequate or lacking completely. There are no community centers or maintained public spaces. Walking around Perumbakkam, you can feel that there is a lack of activity: few opportunities to be occupied, productive or engaged. This is in stark contrast to the neighbourhoods of Chennai that I’ve come to know so far, all of which are full of street vendors and small shops, a constant play of commercial and social activity. A typical street corner in Chennai has a coffee stand or juice bar, which is a gathering place at all times of the day: a bustling corner full of movement and interaction. On the street corners of Perumbakkam, it seems that the only thing to do is to sit still and watch life pass by.

On top of all of this, during my visit to Perumbakkam the residents told me that the biggest challenge they face is the distance from the city center and the lack of employment opportunities. Following relocation, many residents had to quit their jobs because they could not afford the cost of commuting to the city. For those that can afford the bus fare, it can take hours to get to their place of employment. While there are some employment opportunities that are located nearby in the IT sector, most residents do not have the skills or trainings to access these jobs. The distance from the city center also severely restricts educational attainment: following resettlement, children were forced to drop out of school because they were unable to access their former schools. Overall, residents told me that although some aspects of their lives were better in Perumbakkam, they prefer their previous living situation. At least in their old homes, they told me, they could get to work and send their children to school. Effectively stripped of economic and education opportunities, the makings of substantive citizenship are denied for residents of Perumbakkam.

For women, girls, and other vulnerable groups, this is all the truer. Women are disproportionately affected by the conditions and processes in both the former settlements, and the resettlement areas – particularly when we consider existing water and sanitation practices. In the former areas, women are tied to the task of finding and securing water for their household. Women base their working schedule around when the water taps open, so that they can collect water for the family’s needs. They must balance their tasks as water-managers, along with their work lives, and their daily emotional obligations as the care-giver of the household. In many ways, these obligations reduce the educational, economic and social opportunities available to them. At the same time, the formal water-decision making power is left in the hands of men of the community, who have never carried a pot of water in their life.

In the resettlement areas, women and marginalized groups continue to be disempowered by the relocation process, and by the lack of basic infrastructure and services. For instance, in the relocation areas, women are not freed from the task of securing water for their families – after all, someone has to be home for the two hours a day when the water taps open. While the amount of distance required to collect water has been reduced, unit design and block layout is inappropriate to women’s daily needs. For instance, when water does not come (a fairly regular occurrence due to electricity outages), women are required to fetch water from the ground floor and carry it up narrow staircases. The narrow staircases and dark corridors, along with few functioning elevators, restrict daily movement and create regular dangers, particularly for those with limited mobility. Residents of Perumbakkam told me of two incidents where children had fallen from the highest floors of the building – one of which died – largely as a result of inappropriate design.

Women often feel unsafe in resettlement communities, due to the ‘ghettoized’ design of the blocks, as well as the lack of street lighting. This feeling of insecurity keeps women at home, restricted from participating in daily and civic life. Following the move, a greater proportion of women tend to lose their jobs compared to men. And, the lack of social infrastructure such as good healthcare facilities, largely affects women, who are some of the greatest users of these services, particularly throughout motherhood.

When I visited Perumbakkam, the women – as women are accustomed to do – were making the best out of the situation. I stopped to talk to a group of women who had gathered along the side of the road to boil a pot of coffee, using a fire of their own making. The roadside – not a particularly safe location due to the nearby traffic – was the one of the few places that they could successfully claim as a place of their own. As I passed by they offered me – a stranger and a foreigner to the community – a cup of coffee. It was a small gesture, but for me it was much more than that. It represented the kind of hospitality, giving and acceptance that can only come from a group of steadfast, resilient women that are well-versed in community building – not only out of choice, but also out of necessity.

The story of Perumbakkam brings up serious questions on the equitable access to urban land and resources like water, and the real experiences of citizenship on the fringe, both within and outside of the city. Unfortunately, in its slum resettlement approach, the Government of Tamil Nadu has showed no signs of changing course– some residents that I spoke to, had been relocated less than two months prior. While the very existence of these tenements should be questioned, there are opportunities to make them more inclusive and equitable spaces, for instance by implementing a gender-based design approach for new blocks, and by supporting women’s livelihood activities with the participation of local women’s groups. Until the Government of Tamil Nadu realizes these commitments, and more, women and marginalized groups will continue to be relegated to the fringe.

Water, Citizenship and Women in the Urban Fringe: the Story of Perumbakkam

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