On 16 November 2015, at about 3 am, hundreds of families living in the ground floor houses of the two-storey state-built slum resettlement tenements in Semmencheri, on the southern outskirts of Chennai, woke up to find their homes rapidly filling with water. By mid-morning, the ground floor houses had four feet of water inside them. Residents rushed for shelter to their upper-floor neighbours, whose 152-square-feet apartments could barely accommodate a single family. A few days later, as the water receded, they began returning to their homes. But on 1 December, torrential rains severely inundated the southern parts of Chennai and its peripheries. Submerged roads rendered the colony, comprising 6734 apartments, unreachable for several days. Twelve people are reported to have lost their lives in Semmencheri.
A few kilometres away, the two newer, partially occupied resettlement colonies of Perumbakkam and Ezhilnagar in Okkiyam Thoraipakkam were under neck-high water. All three sites, constructed on floodplains, marshlands or lake catchment areas in Chennai’s southern peripheries, routinely face flooding of at least a few inches during monsoons. But this time, the breaching of the Thalambur lake turned routine seasonal flooding into an overnight disaster.
On 7 December, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa, announced orders to immediately allot 10,000 houses in these new resettlement tenements to inner-city slum-dwellers, particularly those living along the city’s rivers and canals, who had lost their homes in the flood. The irony of this was keenly felt by relief volunteers who were still struggling to reach and assist flood-affected families in the drowned resettlement sites. “People in Ezhilnagar (Okkiyam Thoraipakkam) were furious that not a single official from the government had come to visit them. They were left to fend for themselves,” said Jacinta Chitra, a relief volunteer from Citizen, Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), a non-profit voluntary group that works with consumer issues. All they received was food dropped by helicopter. “They had to go to the main road and scramble for these supplies.”
Against this backdrop, the chief minister’s announcement sounded more like a threat than a promise of succour, bringing with it a sense of déjà vu. In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, the government rushed in to remove fishing villages from the coast under the guise of protecting fishermen from future risk. That effort largely failed, but the intervening decade has seen Chennai’s southern coastline explode with high-rise housing, luxury resorts, institutional campuses, and a large desalination plant, all springing up amidst the shrinking fishing villages of Neelangarai, Nemmeli and Kovalam. The city has taken a large stride toward the shoreline, revealing amnesia with regards to the tsunami and its message of coastal vulnerability.
The targeted appropriation of spaces occupied by the urban poor in the city has become a predictable offshoot of disaster. From the late 1990s on, bulldozers have rolled in promptly to sites of devastation in slums, intent on advancing the state’s agenda of removing informal settlements from coveted city spaces. Seasonal fires and routine flood-related events display a small-scale model of this. In the summer of 2009, a series of fires broke out in slums including MGR Nagar in Nandambakkam on the banks of the Adyar, and Avvainagar on the banks of the Cooum. This was a fairly routine seasonal occurrence, but this time officials were at the sites immediately afterwards, handing out tokens for resettlement, their solution to everything.