(as some of you know, i managed a low-income housing repair program before i moved overseas. i no longer work in the field, but when i come across examples of housing policy, i look into them.)
while i was hunting around for photo stories earlier this year, i learned about an urban community called semmanchery, located about 30 km outside of chennai. the government had begun building units in semmanchery in 2004 specifically for households relocated as a result of slum clearance and urban development projects. in 2007, it relocated squatters from their homes on government land on the cooum river bank – which is just 1/4 mile from my house, down a street where i like to take photos – out to semmanchery as part of a now-abandoned river clean-up project. i learned about this situation from the guy who owned the tea stall where i shot a portrait for the “chennai 24/7” art project; and since moving people with limited transportation options 30 km away from whatever jobs they held is not the way to minimize the economic impacts of relocation, i decided to check it out. the tea stall owner agreed to introduce me to his friends who were living there. it turned out that my driver also knew a family living in semmanchery – one that had moved there willingly, by buying a unit from a family that had returned to chennai after being forceably relocated to semmanchery – so there were two households i could interview.
semmanchery is composed of approximately 10,000 units (no one with whom i spoke knew the exact number), clustered into buildings of eight units, with each pair of adjoining units sharing a single toilet. each unit is approximately 125 square feet – essentially, one room large enough only for a double bed and a few chairs, plus a kitchen area for which the tenants must provide their own sink and appliances. every family gets one unit regardless of the number of people in the family.
the relocated couple i spoke with, said they are paying 300 rupees (approximately u.s. $6) per month for the unit, over 25 years, after which they will own the unit outright. they had owned their home on the riverbank – to the extent that one can own a house built illegally on government property – and they told me that it had been four times the size of their current unit, which they share with two sons. both the husband and one of the sons had been drivers in chennai, but with the move, they lost most of their clients and have been scrambling to find new ones in the area.
when the government forced the couple to leave their old neighborhood, it provided no compensation or moving assistance, and it’s hard to argue that the family was entitled to any, since they were squatters. this couple’s story may be typical or it may not be; from what i observed, however, the space allocation policy and the accompanying economic dislocation associated with moves to semmanchery seem to be at odds with the government’s positive goals of clearing slums, providing decent housing, and promoting development.
onward: outside dharmapuri, i came across this housing site of approximately 80 units, one built right next to the other, row after row. i was told that the construction began under the previous government, but the current administration stopped the project. the government’s policy now is to provide housing money directly to the rural poor for housing. whether it actually gets used for housing is another question, but in theory the policy is more practical, not unlike the issuance of section 8 vouchers in the u.s., but in a lump sum. in this case, the policy seems for the best, since in this project, there again was no allowance for family size. in fact, the builders didn’t provide a lot of room for much of anything, including indoor plumbing. (not unusual, unfortunately.)
i came across a different, but equally bizarre, situation in yercaud, next to the crowded “pagoda point” tourist attraction, which i mention in an earlier posting. the tamil nadu housing board had built more than 60 houses of a good size and design, with glass-enclosed staircases, as a component of its “small and medium towns project.” despite the structures’ quality, they were empty and vandalized. as i picked my way through the grounds, i met a local resident who told me that the houses were vacant because they had been too expensive for local residents, but according to a web post i read when i googled the project, the project failed because there was insufficient water on the cliff to supply the houses. either way – does no one do feasibility studies anymore?