The ups and the downs

When I first arrived in Chennai, my research went very quickly, so quickly that I thought I would be finished after a month!  I spent the first five weeks concentrating on the situation in Kannagi Nagar and the social movements there.  It was very easy to talk to people since many are unemployed and so are simply at home during the day.  The NGO employees and local government staff all work in Kannagi Nagar and so all my respondents were close at hand.  In the last month however, my research has focused on government officials from various departments, academics, journalists and activists and suddenly doing research has become a slow and sometimes exasperating process.

In the last few weeks, I’ve begun to experience the frustrations which I had originally anticipated when I imagined doing fieldwork.  One day, last week, I had three interviews pre-arranged only to have them all cancelled one by one.  After a hot, noisy and crowded bus ride, having an interview cancelled when you arrive is a rather annoying experience.  At times it is hard to remind myself that people are doing me a favour by talking to me at all and that I have no right to an interview with them anyway.  Still, on days like that it’s not so easy to be tolerant of the crowded buses and the constant noise of the horns and of people staring at me.  I have to tell myself again that it was me who chose to come to Chennai and so what can I really expect?

Yet, while there have been frustrating days, I’ve also had some unexpected luck.  One day, having not been able to find the person I was looking for, I was sent to a different resettlement site to look for ‘the engineer’.  I would never have planned to speak to an engineer from the other site but he actually gave lots of valuable information and opinions as well as the phone numbers of three other colleagues.  I may not be entirely in control of my research but it has its fruitful moments all the same.  I’ve also finally been able to speak to the managing director of the slum clearance board so things are looking up.  It was an interesting interview and he was very happy to talk to me.  He gave the usual answers for the poor conditions in Kannagi Nagar, blaming the expense of providing water to individual houses and the high land prices closer to the city centre.  He seems genuinely concerned by the problems with the infrastructure in Kannagi Nagar but he’s unaware of the extent of the problems.  I had to show him on a photo that some houses do in fact have to share a toilet.  Despite being managing director, he has never been to Kannagi Nagar and I have found that in general the higher officials have no real idea of the current conditions in the resettlement site.  The slum board only has to submit reports to the state government and these reports concern only construction details, not information on the public services provided or the welfare of the resettled people.

As I see it, the slum board is basically a construction agency, consisting mainly of engineers, whose focus is to build as many resettlement houses as quickly as possible. The nationwide goal for slum-free cities drives the relocation of slum dwellers to the suburbs to make way for large infrastructure projects like a metro rail and elevated expressways.    The government claims that is simply does not own any land in the centre but, by evicting slum dwellers from its land along the river banks and other areas, it can claim back small parcels of land.  Having said this, some of the reclaimed land has been made into parks, which to me suggests that the government prioritises ‘beautifying’ the city over improving the slums in the location where they are.

Ultimately, I think that urban development in Chennai is creating a city in which commerce and expensive housing is concentrated in the centre, ghettos of resettled slum dwellers are built in the outskirts and migrants and other poor people sleep on the pavements rather than searching for work in the suburbs.  The city population is growing, the land prices are rising, the housing shortage is severe and so unless the government makes affordable housing a priority now, I think the slum clearance board will have many more slums to clear in the future.

Politics and politicians

In the last couple of weeks I have been focusing more on the politics and politicians involved in slum resettlement.  Slum resettlement itself is not a very political issue.  The programmes for resettlement mainly come from the central government and are unaffected when the parties in power at the state or central level change.  The resettlement trend which emerged about 20 years ago is part of a more general vision to bring economic growth to Indian cities and to ‘beautify’ them so that they have the appearance of world class cities.  This involves building new infrastructure in cities, in particular expanding public transport and so, in order to make space for new bridges, roads and train tracks and to ‘clean-up’ the city, the slums are demolished and the people resettled to the suburbs.  The government claims its increasingly high value, city centre land back from the squatters to use for city development projects and the slums are no longer an eyesore in the city.  Killing two birds with one stone so to speak.

However, the reality of the resettlement process is that once the people have been relocated, they are no longer of much concern to the government.  The living conditions is Kannagi Nagar are far from adequate and so I have been investigating the role of politicians in bringing improvements to the area.  On the local level, I think that the political leaders have very little power.  Most have hardly had an education, some are even illiterate and many appear to be part of the ‘rowdies’ or yobs in the area.  I spoke to one lady who will stand for councillor in the upcoming local elections and asked her why she wanted to stand.  She said that the MLA (member of legislative assembly) from her party, for the constituency covering Kannagi Nagar, had chosen her to stand because she is a woman and from one of the lowest castes and so she fits the quota.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the MLA that she is illiterate and doesn’t appear to know anything about the problems or issues in Kannagi Nagar.  It just so happens however that her husband is also political representative for the area from the same party…  It is not uncommon apparently for the wives of (sometimes imprisoned) politicians to stand and win positions in local and even state governments acting as puppets for their husbands.

Despite all this, people in Kannagi Nagar still express a lot of faith in the local politicians and will ask them to take their problems to the slum board on their behalf.  Many admit that the politicians don’t provide immediate solutions but they prefer to do this than organise their own campaign.  The opposition leaders do sometimes organise a protest to demand improvements, such as a better water supply to the area.  This usually brings some temporary improvements since the protests attract media attention but the politicians’ ulterior motive is to damage the image of the ruling party.  While local leaders are not very influential, they are the community’s leaders and so they influence the way in which people living in Kannagi Nagar engage with the government.

On the higher level, the MLA responsible for Kannagi Nagar has more power.  He has government funds which he can allot to development projects for his constituency.  However, Kannagi Nagar is only a small part of the constituency and the MLA only shows interest in the area around election time. An even greater problem is that if an MLA is from the ruling party in the state, they do not confront their own party on issues in their constituency.  Both local and higher politicians are very loyal to their parties and generally do not seem to work to represent the people but to keep their party in power.  For this reason, one of the NGOs which does lobbying work in Kannagi Nagar approaches opposition politicians instead.  The opposition leaders are far more willing to confront the government since it causes problems for the ruling party.  Unfortunately, democracy in India is such that opposition leaders have very little power to influence the ruling party or government departments.  As a politics professor explained to me, if a road passes through two constituencies, the road will be very well maintained in the area where the MLA is from the ruling party but where the MLA is from an opposing party, the road will be left pot-holed and broken instead.

Sadly, for the people in Kannagi Nagar, unless they manage to organise themselves and campaign with determination for better public services, they will be left with only the politicians to make their voices heard.

“The Indian mind believes in karma…”

It’s been a busy week back in Chennai and the cool mountain drizzle of Kodaikanal is a distant memory.  My hardworking interpreter has helped me to complete 76 household surveys in Kannagi Nagar.  I haven’t analysed the data yet but from listening to people’s answers, it was clear that many of the resettled people have had no education at all.  These people struggled to formulate an opinion about their situation and knew very little about how was responsible for which public services or who the influential people in the area might be.  People often complained about the lack of public services but said that they were afraid to protest in case they got into problems with the police or the slum clearance board.  Those who do approach the slum board to complain about problems in the area say that the slum board just tells them to wait.  There’s a strong sense that protesting or complaining is simply pointless.

In terms of the politics of the resettlement site, this proved to be a very sensitive issue and people were very reluctant to reveal which party they support.  Local politicians were generally said to be powerful and to have a high social status.  Although some people were sceptical, saying politicians only work around election time, the majority of people still felt that politicians were the people who could solve the problems in Kannagi Nagar.  In fact, in Tamil Nadu the state political leaders are revered as icons.  There is a tradition of film stars becoming political leaders and their faces are painted on walls all over the city.  So while in Kannagi Nagar people consider the local politicians to be powerful, they also often said that the Chief Minister, the leader of the party in power in the state, would be the one who could fix all their problems.  Aside from believing that the political leaders will bring improvements to Kannagi Nagar, I have found that in general people are too busy looking for work to campaign for basic public services.  People often don’t know what they are entitled to nor how to form a campaign and many people are afraid to speak out.  The community is also divided politically and anti-social problems make people suspicious of each another which prevents them from uniting to demand solutions to their problems.

Last week I also has an interview with a politics professor and one of the interesting things which he told me was that it is not in Indian culture to demand anything from the government.  In his opinion, this is a very Western concept which simply does not enter the mind of many Indians.  Instead, he told me, the Indian mind believes in karma and so people accept their situation and do not demand that others change it.  The Indian mind is taught to be content and so this is why poor people in India do not fight the government for better living conditions.  This is also why the government does not make more effort to improve the lives of the poor.  It’s an interesting explanation but I don’t think that belief in karma is the only reason for the lack of mobilisation among the poor.  It does seem true, however, that many people in Kannagi Nagar do not aspire to have a much higher standard of living and many are fairly satisfied once they have found work and have basic facilities.

As well as working on my survey, I’ve had a cultural week in India too.  Thursday was the start of a Hindu festival for Ganesh, a Hindu elephant-like god so on Thursday morning I was invited to join the pooja (worship) ceremony for Ganesh which my hostel had organised.  I was really pleased to be invited and it was intriguing to watch the priest offer bananas, coconuts, curd, chickpeas and sweets to the statue of Ganesh.  I am often surprised by the mixture of formality and informality in India.  This seemed to be a particularly special and holy ceremony and yet people would answer their mobiles in the middle of a chant and no-one seemed to mind.  The festival will end in about week when the statue of Ganesh will be carried to the beach and given to the sea.  I’m imagining the coast of Chennai to be lined with Ganesh statues.  I will take some photos…