Community Engagement In Chennai Slums

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Internationales Asienforum, Vol. 43 (2012), No. 1–2, pp. 99–113
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums
A Reflection from the Field
Slums are characterised by high levels of disadvantage. The city of
Chennai contains numerous such areas of disadvantage, with more than
2,000 notified slums and several hundred ‘objectionable’ slums facing the
acute threat of eviction. When compared to other Indian cities, the disadvantages in Chennai are less intense, but the fact is that socio-economic
differences are highly localized, and even street by street in some inner
city and suburban neighbourhoods (Chandramouli 2003a; 2003b).
Urban social space exists in a very just society (Kumaran & Negi
2006). Growth and economic development of Chennai and the growth of
slums have totally ignored the need for urban social spaces of good and
adequate quality within the urban fabric. The right to space – built and
open, good environment, quality air, safety and security – are the fundamental provisions for a people, including people who live in slums. Why
would we call people in slums ‘objectionable people’ when they are
people like us, people deprived of social justice?
There is a total neglect of the public realm in Chennai, so much so
that healthy social groupings and development are not promoted: Chennai
slums are indeed a manifestation of such neglect by the planners, policy
makers and the local government.
This paper presents some reflections on our engagement with a slum
community in the course of an action research project. The project spans
* The authors acknowledge the assistance of numerous people in this case study. We are
thankful to the Madras-York Universities Project team and the people of the slums. Our
thanks are due to the NGOs, teams of doctors and paramedics, college students and
corporation officials who helped to shape our ideas.
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 100
a period of eight years in three distinct phases, starting with the York/
Madras collaborative research on a participatory, adaptive ecosystem
approach to community development and governance in slum settlements
in Chennai (2002-04) and the first follow-up study on initiating community based self-organizing for environment and health in two Chennai
slums (2004-06). The project finally ended with the second follow-up of
the same study on an adaptive ecosystem approach to managing urban
environments for human health (2007-09). The project involved a broad
range of actors from the academic field (Department of Geography,
University of Madras, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University), civil society (e.g. EXNORA International) as well as the public
sector (Corporation of Chennai).
The project aimed at helping the community to self-organize to resolve its own problems and to assess the outcomes of the community selforganizing to resolve their own problems. We have taken a participatory
pathway and public-private partnership as promising pathways in development and governance of the city slums.
Background on Chennai and its slums
Chennai is an Indian city (Map 1) and is one of the most rapidly growing
urban centres in India. Chennai is the fourth biggest city and a port in this
country. The urban area forms a major transportation hub for roads, railways, air lanes and naval transportation for both inside and outside of
India. The city was, and is, a target destination for middle-income workers from other surrounding Indian states. The reasons for this include its
intensive commercial and industrial growth over the past 20 years and the
accelerated expansion of outsourced information technology (IT) and IT
enabled services in the region. Chennai, in terms of investment, was the
top destination for domestic migrants in 2007. According to information
from an internal report of the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board
(TNSCB), the population of Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) was 7.04
million inhabitants in 2001 and the projection for 2011 was 8.42 million
(TNSCB 2009). A majority of the population of CMA lives in Chennai
city which had 4.3 million people in 2001 (CMDA 2008). The current
estimation is that the city has around 5.4 million people. Chennai city
plays a dominant and central role in the region.
In 2001, the slum residents of Chennai accounted for 26 percent of
the city’s population (Chandramouli 2003b: 83). In comparison to 1932,
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 101
when there were 181 slums in the city, in 1986, the number had increased
to 1,413 where more than 170,000 families lived (TNSCB 2009). Rising
land prices, higher demands on infrastructure and housing have affected
the slums in a negative way. For example, many poor households have to
live in informal settlements. According to Chandramouli’s profile of
Chennai slums (Chandramouli 2003a), 67 percent of slum households
lived in one-room houses in 2003. The provision of appropriate shelters
presents one of the most crucial demands of the slum dwellers. Apart
from the lack of space, they suffer from inadequate water supplies and
toilet facilities and the absence of drinking water. Living conditions of
the slum dwellers put them in a vulnerable situation and cause several
health hazards. Diseases such as malaria, cholera, pneumonia and diarrhoea are common. Furthermore, slums are located on the city waterways
such as Adyar and Cooum and therefore cause rampant water and land
pollution within the city. Open defecation areas, lack of drainage, lack of
garbage collection and widespread ignorance of environmental problems
are the common features of slums in Chennai.
Illegal access to electricity for many households frequently results in
fire accidents, sometimes fatal to the majority of people and their shelters
in the slums. Primary education and public healthcare are free. Unfortunately, many public schools are in very poor condition and the quality of
teaching is questionable. Moreover, government hospitals do not guarantee professional medical treatment. They are also crowded and the
poorest sometimes have to wait for long hours to receive medical care.
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 102
MAP 1: Chennai City
Source: Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority 2011.
Cartographed by Dr. S. Ramesh.
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 103
The most vulnerable group of the ‘people from slums’ constitutes a
substantial third of the Chennai city corporation. The Tamil Nadu government and local government bodies do, however, recognize this fact. Before 1971, there was no proper slum policy (De Wit 1996: 112). In 1971,
the state government enacted the Tamil Nadu Slum Areas (Improvement
& Clearance) Act. Since then, there have been concerted efforts to improve and clear the slums, which have also resulted in different phases of
urban development, externally funded, especially by the World Bank.
Tsunami rehabilitation and resettlement during 2004–06 resulted in newer
settlements and rehabilitation of several thousands of slum families
(Kumaran & Negi 2006).
As De Wit (1996: 113) argues, the Act of 1971 allows space for the
misinterpretation of possible interventions. In theory, the Act of 1971
gave government the power to protect slum dwellers living in notified
settlements against eviction or relocation. The eviction could be justified
in specific cases when government ensures an alternative site for them or
‘if the eviction is in the interest of improvement and clearance of the slum
area.’ In the last 30 years, the TNSCB has been balancing, rather delicately, resettlement policies and upgrading in recognized slums (also see
De Wit 2009). Demolitions and the simple evictions of many objectionable slums occupying government or private lands were carried out. Slum
dwellers mostly came back either to occupy the land again, or better still,
to join the already recognized slum. The recognized slums, with certain
security of tenure, have started to attract more poor migrants or
evicted/relocated slum residents. Recognized and upgraded slums have
become the destination for newly arriving migrant urban poor, who build
their shelters wherever the slums allow them. Life goes on, in a cycle of
change and continuity, with uncertainty and vulnerability ever increasing,
often unabated, people in the objectionable slums are allowed to be
evicted or relocated to alternative sites. Unobjectionable slums on public
land are tolerated, or better yet, officially recognized.
Chennai slum case study: a narrative
Anjukudusai is a small slum located on the banks of the most polluted
waterway, Cooum at Chintadripet, Chennai. It is an objectionable slum
according to the categorization of the corporation. Its inhabitants are
daily wage workers who work in the fish market. Women are mostly maid
servants in the local middle class households. It has 250 mortar houses
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 104
and 100 thatched huts. Hygiene levels are very low and the homes (they
cannot be considered residences) are used for all purposes, from cooking,
washing, eating to sleeping. With minimal vents, it is a haven for breeding pathogens and viruses. Garbage is dumped right next to the Cooum
and clogs the drains. There is always an unpleasant odour in the air and it
is also a natural habitat for worms and insects. Mosquitoes are a menace.
At the beginning of the project, people were reluctant, indifferent and
arrogant. Outsiders were, and to some extent, still are unwelcome.
Narrative of events
When we first went to Anjukudusai slum, no men really came to ask us
why we were there. Only women came to us, with questioning looks on
their faces, the wrinkles on their foreheads making curious patterns.
Children came, but were hiding behind women’s colourful clothes and
wore shy smiles on their faces. When asked, we said our piece and told
them we were there to talk to them about their health and how the
polluted waters of the Cooum caused problems for them and their
We went again, this time with quite a few of our project team
members, some women as well as two men and a woman from Canada.
They seemed even more curious. This time they listened to us and some
were even helpful, giving some answers. No man was in sight, except for
a few older people, minding their own business. We asked several
questions and got good answers. We told them that we wanted to meet
with some men that lived in the slum and we were told that they would
not meet with us. We insisted that we would really like to meet with these
men. They took us to some men who lived there, but they were not
interested in answering our questions or talking with us.
It was getting close to 5.00 pm and the men were starting to go out
for drinks. Some got back to their homes while we were still there.
However, they were not keen on talking with us. Instead, they left it up to
the women and children to talk with us. In all of our visits, there was
always a pattern with the people we spoke with. It dawned on the team
that the best way to self-organize people living in slums was to approach
women, youth and children, for they could be motivated, stimulated and
made to listen to reason.
We went a few days later, looking for youth and adolescents. We
found some huddled together smoking and playing cards. Some distance
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 105
away, a few were playing marbles and betting. They were gambling for
money and using abusive language all the time while playing. Tamil slang
is a rough language which is often used by the people of Chennai in what
seems like, at times, an overly harsh manner. (Tamil is the language
spoken in Tamil Nadu, in Chennai a slang is spoken that almost sounds
bad to the ear). One of the team members – a youth himself – found out
that these youths have a love for sports, in particular, cricket and caroms.
After several meetings, and cajoling, they showed real yearnings to leave
vices, such as gambling and alcohol, alone and return to normal life. It
took a lot of cajoling and advice from their mothers, sisters and friends to
wean them away from these vices. We had to work within the available
and accessible space for compassion, and the resulting youth behaviour
was indeed affable and affordable.
We did have moments of anxiety, not knowing which way the youth
would turn: hostile or friendly, or in-between – abusive, but friendly.
Women and children were a different matter. They became friendly, finding our ideas and compassion for their well-being worth listening to. They
listened to us, but only after a long while, tossed in the meantime by the
words afloat about what we could do and how we might destroy their
social fabric. We were also cautious about getting too close and initiating
everything ourselves. We realized early on that we had limited space for
manoeuvre and even more limited space for compassion. We wanted the
manoeuvring and compassion to flow out of the people we were working
with. But, we found that more and more ‘outsiders’ – NGO activists
(EXNORA International was part of the team, primary stakeholders
working with us), strategic partners, college students, social workers,
personnel of the Corporate Hospitals, even individuals with an avid
interest in social work, churches and denominations were getting involved
in our work and contributing their time and energy for the people of the
With collective effort, cooperation and sincerity, we were able to get
the slum people to learn how to organize (self-organize) themselves and
amidst the negativity (lack of enthusiasm, lack of constructiveness,
unhelpfulness, pessimism and disapproval) to think positively of spaces,
places and people. Working with them, with commitment, involvement,
compassion and genuineness, we found ourselves in the midst of an
emerging alternative: we have reconsidered local action planning to
endure pain and to end the pain of our own people. The lesson learned is
that urban governance is better left to the local people.
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 106
Slums as margins and life there
Put yourself in a situation where the place you live in is, administratively,
‘objectionable’, according to the dictates of the local government. It is
objectionable that the city government, the corporation, would deny the
people access to basic services such as cleaning the streets of garbage and
installing street lighting. It (the city government) continues to threaten the
community, saying it would sooner destroy their huts and raze the place,
leaving them without a home. They keep telling them that they would
devastate the people and the place as well as keep them guessing as to
when they would relocate them, somewhere, indeed anywhere. The
people are ever on the edge of one day losing their very livelihoods and
being moved far away from the place and milieu they are familiar with
and the people they are comfortable to live and work with because of the
social networks they have so assiduously developed. In sum, in their own
place they are already an objectionable people, and they have any number
of things happening around them, making it impossible for them to forget
the fact that ‘they have indeed no place to go except here, that this place
is not somehow theirs. The local government or some officials of that
government machinery are constantly nagging them and the community
they live in saying this is no place to ‘move on’ from, for this is not their
permanent home’ (as told by a woman of Anjukusai, in her personal
In addition, they are poor and marginalized. They have families,
with many children, but no regular salaried employment. They make
money, in good measure, but lose it on vices: gambling and alcohol. They
live for today, for they do not know what tomorrow has in store for them
and they are not even sure where they will be tomorrow – here or someplace else that is not their own and not their choice. Yet, they have always
lived here from birth, and some of them have lived here as long as 60 or
70 years. In the years of their living here, the place has grown more
congested (too many people for their own liking) and crowded (at the
washrooms, water taps, ration shops, almost everywhere), accommodating
people with their own rural and urban roots – the places they still go to
because they have friends and relatives there (Kumaran & Negi 2006).
But some of them have lost roots since the government moved them
to other dwellings from the original place they were born or led their lives
– they know they have people there, but they do not have contact with
them, and have lost them forever. Their roots have already become a
‘thing of the past’ of which they remember so little. They are losing their
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 107
memories so much so that they have just a ‘blur’ of an idea about their
roots. Their problem is that they stopped going to their native place so
long ago that they do not feel they belong there. Their roots are here in
Chennai now, but they cannot hold it as their very own. It is their place
and here is their milieu but they are definitely not the holders. Someone
from the government keeps telling them, wherever they go, that they do
not belong there and they must someday vacate.
Engaging with community
The following section will reflect on the multi-faceted engagement of the
project team with the community. Community-based organization formation, awareness programmes, health camps, youth sports, children’s club
and skill training – all have introduced opportunities for the community’s
to self-organize. In fact, the activities supported by the community were
impressive throughout the project years. It took, however, a lot of patience to sustain some of them beyond the introductory stages. The emergence of active leaders among the youth and women was commendable.
Local actions became acceptable to the community with the summer
camp for children in May 2002. We took them out with some of their
mothers and showed them what the outside world looks like. We showed
them a thing or two in table manners, in public etiquette, and in toilet
behaviour. We took them to the planetarium and showed them what the
stars looked like from inside the giant, moveable dome. The children were
wonderstruck. They were given a glimpse of what outside life looks like.
We walked with them across the road to the Children’s Park and showed
them lovely animals in the park.
Children became friendly and realized the value of cleanliness. Not
only were they clean after than, but they also created awareness about the
need for cleanliness in their homes and amidst men, women, boys and
girls. The people were now prepared to involve themselves in community
development and income generation activities. The youth organized
floodlight cricket tournaments, successfully becoming runner-up in one of
the intensely fought competitions between the local cricket clubs of
Chennai. Women on the other hand, had training in embroidery and were
able to make an impressive impact on the lifestyle of women of the slum.
The community acquired an increased belief and confidence in its
capacity to influence a future in which they had growing trust in each
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 108
Cricket tournaments and embroidery training were the two best examples with which youth and women could share their experiences on
sustainable self-management. Children were not left behind, either. We
carried them along with us, showed them that we cared and they caught on
with why they should care for others as well. We helped begin a tuition
centre, for which the money came from abroad. The NGO EXNORA
International, Chennai organized teachers and paid their salaries. Children
began to learn the ways of the world. Mothers saw a faint light in the
tunnel for their children. They walked with the children to the tuition
centre and some stayed at the door until the classes ended. They brought
the children home, listening as they constantly chatted.
Several months passed. We were able to show that each life had its
own propensity for illumination and no two were the same. Illumination
arrived by way of tenderness and eagerness for self and community
development. For us, this illumination became a consolation of being
recognized and needed and embraced for being what one suddenly was.
Other moments were illuminated by the intuition, despite everything, that
the individuals of the community – youth, women, children and even some
men – served for something and learnt something from us.
Some drunken men made trouble for us when we had a street play
depicting alcoholism as bad. They came drunk and shouted at women,
children and at us. Despite this, we brought more of the same, music to
the streets and movies to their hearts. Street-smart kids became booksmart kids. Men, who had never acknowledged our presence, began looking us in the eye. We saw for the first time that they had gleaming eyes.
Things were beginning to grow easy on our conscience and theirs as well.
Some had broad smiles and shook hands with us when we came into the
narrow streets. Children also joined in.
Health and sanitation
In the last year of the project, health and awareness worked very well. The
slum community warmly accepted the incorporation of the action theatre
and other activities that provided non-traditional teaching. We worked so
efficiently that several things started happening all at once. A washroom
became possible by a munificent grant from an individual. Although in the
beginning there were problems of ‘who would use the washroom’ and
‘who would maintain it’, the problem was later solved by the women of
the community. There were demands for two more washrooms, and the
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 109
women set about looking for private funds to build them. All women of
the slums got together one fine morning, after breakfast, and decided on
the locations for them. They had also decided on cleaning and building a
roof over the bathroom on the road. The local councillor later got corporation people to clean the bathroom and the toilets for the women and
Women were trained to repair the hand pumps if they failed. Women
took turns to safeguard the handle from being burgled or sold by insolent
men for alcohol. Women took the handle away to their homes for safe
keeping once the community collected the water for the day. They also
took turns in repairing the hand pumps when required. Women took to
cleaning the streets and maintaining order of a sort for the whole
community. We took it upon ourselves to take the youth group as well as
the active community participants from the slum to another slum where
cleanliness had made a difference to the lives of its people. This way the
people could visually appreciate that there was a possibility of change for
the better. We showed them that there were few areas in Chennai that
could be called ‘clean slums’ and that those places that are can be models
for them.
The community's behaviour changed drastically. We helped them
develop ideas for cleaning. We saw that the garbage that used to be
thrown in the Cooum was now dumped in the bins that were given out.
We also taught them how to separate trash and not to throw it by the river
so as to have better hygiene and an all-round cleaner space to live.
However, there is always more to do and we are always within arm's reach
to give people help and advice. It was our effort (July 2007) that brought
the consensus that the community should take responsibility for the
bathrooms and that the men and women promised to take turns to clean
them. A crucial decision was also taken by them to contribute ten rupees
from each family of users for the upkeep of the bathrooms and toilets.
The Soroptimist International paid the teachers of the tuition centre. On
the inauguration day of the tuition classes, 43 children enrolled. In a
week’s time, 24 children were attending the tuition classes regularly.
Many children, who up to then had been sitting at home, getting wage
labour, babysitting for their mothers, housekeeping, loading fish onto
carts, began going to school. When difficulty arose with the tuition centre,
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 110
a woman offered her house for the classes, but it was too small and could
only accommodate 15–20 children. Later, the information board in the
slum became a training site for the children in tuition classes.
Community development
We made sure to meet once in a while to discuss the problems of the
community and to arrive at sufficient solutions to these problems. We
made sure people came to the meetings as well. Of course, there were
women who helped immensely by going around and telling people just
before the meeting started. Some members of the community would not
come to the meetings so some women, one in particular, would go looking
for them to bring them to the table. We then put up an information board
for people to write important information for others to see and abide by.
At first, it was in an inconvenient location where the majority of the youth
die not pass through. So, we had it moved to an accessible location so that
the majority of youth and community members would use it. And they did:
everybody did, in time.
There was a time when the two segments of the slum would not walk
into each other’s living areas. There was an unseen dividing line. The east
would not cross to the west, and vice versa. That has now changed, with
children and youth walking to each other and often singing and playing
together. One day, we walked over to the invisible line and called out to a
child to sing. He sang for us and for all the men. Women and other children came along as well. They all began to sing together and then one by
one. Someone in the gathering crowd began to laugh, first to himself and
then to others. It caught on. And many laughs later, we went away only to
return to the song they sang that day.
One evening, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)
people came. They gathered 30 children around them and asked the
children to come forward and sing songs of their choice. Children came
forward and sang songs. Older people joined in and these people made
everyone happy. There was a puppet show with moppets on child
education and labour as well as a street play on the issues associated with
alcoholism. At the end of it all, they discussed training for women and
young girls and for self-reliance and economic independence. The
volunteers from a city college promised to chip in with the YWCA to
further help the community.
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 111
There was a man from the slum who heard the song the children
were singing and came to help. He set up a small community centre with
funds from a Christian organization so that we could all go to this new
centre. We could use it as a crèche, and it doubled as a tuition centre. The
elders of the slum could also go to mingle and pray during the day.
There is now a street lamp just outside the new community centre. It
is the end of the lane where Karpagam, a good soul who dreams for her
community and works to translate that dream for others, lives. The slum
now has a total of 9 street lamps, an impending issue brought to a close.
The motive was an upcoming election, somebody from the slum running
for office once again. Furthermore, six youths were employed on a
permanent basis (February 2007) for construction work at the airport. The
community was happy about their employment.
In sum, and in our understanding of the narrative, we
have, in keeping
with the understanding of the perceptions of the community about their
most pressing needs, not to forget their own meaningful contribution to
their own development and governance through capacity building and
using external resources in the best way they could, moving towards
sustainable and adaptive management of the community. From what we
gather, we have achieved a qualitative, quantitative and participatory
process of community development that has subjective meanings for us
and the slum community: men, women and children.
The people have decentralized local development and poverty
reduction efforts, reconsidered local action planning for good slum
governance using participatory planning and management tools, begun to
provide impetus for participatory management from their neighbourhood
to the city and facilitated pro-poor urban governance. Of course, as
Jawaharlal Nehru would say, ‘you have miles to go’ before fully
developing, enjoy and cherish the fruits of community development. They
have a dream and they want it nourished with the work of their own
people with support from outsiders who will always remain outsiders, but
catalyse and stimulate, motivate and achieve for others what they want for
themselves and their community.
1 Our success is in retelling the story of a simple and brave people, braving this very minute
the life in their lived, social worlds, enduring the face of walls, the unconcerned, the
politicians, the bureaucrats and the not-so-benevolent amongst us.
T. Vasantha Kumaran et al. 112
The relationship between local communities, NGOs and local leaders
is not always smooth. There are often overlaps in tasks. Conflicts and
tensions are common and there are problems of representation of some
groups. However, social representation is vital for democratization. The
representation issue is much more complex nowadays because of the
diverse groups and individuals that have conflicting interests.
Furthermore, the social fabric is even more complex and dense,
which makes it more difficult to focus on certain issues. People have
realized that access to information is important for governance, but they
are lacking in opportunities for information. Our slum profiling (focusing
on the environment, safety and poverty) provided a chance to bring actors
together to validate our information. Our people are sometimes afraid of
participating with institutions that they do not know.
There is, therefore, a need to sit together, to encourage mutual knowledge and to build confidence. After all, the process of participation is for
a common vision, reinforcing our social fabric.
Chandramouli, C. (2003a). Quality of Living Index in Chennai. An Approach, in:
Bunch, M., Madha Suresh, V. & T. Vasanthakumaran (eds.). Proceedings of
the Third International Conference on Environment and Health, Chennai,
India, December 15–17, 2003. Chennai: Department of Geography, University of Madras & York: Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, pp. 75–81.
Chandramouli, C. (2003b). Slums in Chennai. A Profile, in: Bunch, M., Madha
Suresh, V. & T. Vasanthakumaran (eds.). Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Environment and Health, Chennai, India, December
15–17, 2003. Chennai: Department of Geography, University of Madras
& York: Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, pp. 82–83.
CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) (2008). Second Master
Plan for Chennai Metropolitan Area, 2026. Chennai: CMDA, Government
of Tamil Nadu.
De Wit, J. (1996). Poverty, Policy and Politics in Madras Slums. Dynamics of
Sur- vival, Gender and Leadership. New Delhi: Sage.
De Wit, J. (2009). Decentralised Urban Governance and Changing Roles of
Municipal Councillors in Chennai, India. Continuities of Administration
and Political Representation following the 1992 74th Constitutional
Amendment Act. Paper for the IDPR Anniversary Symposium April 6–7,
2009, University of Liverpool.
Community Engagement in Chennai Slums 113
Kumaran, T.V. & E. Negi (2006). Experience of Rural and Urban Communities
in Tamil Nadu in the Aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, Built Environment,
Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 375–386.
Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) (2009). Report on the Survey of
Slums of Chennai. Chennai: TNSCB, Government of Tamil Nadu.

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