A little trip away

A lot has happened since my last blog post almost two weeks ago.  My list of contacts grows longer with every interview and more and more of the politics behind slum resettlement are being revealed.  It hasn’t been all work though.  Last week, my Dad came to Chennai for a few days so it was super to take some time off and travel down the coast together to a place called Mamallapuram (pronunciation takes some practice).  ‘Mam’ is quite a change from Chennai.  Not only is it a small village, there are Western tourists everywhere and restaurants serving Italian and Mexican food and even beer.  Why you would want pasta when you can have curry though, I don’t know.  ‘Mam’, although a beach town, really attracts the tourists for its stone carvings.  They’re quite incredible.  Temples and statues were carved straight out of the rock by the Pallava people in the 7th century. And, to my delight, the rock carvings are a playground for monkeys, though you need your Lonely Planet handy to fend them off…

Back in Chennai, it’s been a busy week of interviews.  I was really lucky to meet with a human rights organisation, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.  As it so happens, they spent several months last year doing a fact-finding report on Kannagi Nagar!  The final report accurately documents the living conditions in the resettlement site as well as the actions of different government bodies involved. It’s basically my thesis!  Well almost.  As well as citizens’ associations, I’ve also talked to some of the employees of the slum clearance board to hear their side of the story. Swallowing my preconceived ideas about the responsibilities of a government towards its people, I asked about the slum clearance board’s policy and planning procedures for slum resettlement.  It seems that the slum clearance board has little influence over decisions to evict and rehabilitate slum dwellers.  Instead, it dutifully implements the schemes which are devised higher up the state administration and in central government, supported by funding from the World Bank.  It’s difficult to find answers to questions like, ‘Who decides how large the houses for resettled people should be?’.  Such details seem to have been decided years ago somewhere in central government and really it’s all a matter of land availability, budget and how many people need to be resettled with no mention of rights.  On Tuesday, I saw some of the newest tenements being built in Kannagi Nagar and while they are certainly an improvement, to my mind, 32mis not really sufficient for two adults and three children.  Employees on the construction site were quick to point out that this is bigger than the average slum dwellers’ hut and so they will feel very comfortable here.  I’m not so sure.  Most people I speak to in Kannagi Nagar were far happier living in their former self-made houses.

India is definitely a surprising and entertaining county.  Sometimes very upsetting and depressing but other times beautiful, so colourful and thankfully full of people are who very willing to show me which bus I need, how to book a train ticket, where I can find curry leaves… and so my education continues.