A New Leaf Turned

I suppose I should start by introducing myself. My name is Nithya, and I live in Madras. I’ve been living here since last July, and most of the time, I still feel that I’m a newcomer to the city. Some time last October, I went with some union organizers to a meeting in Srinivasapuram, a cluster of Slum Clearance Board tenements and huts on one end of Marina Beach, next to where the Adyar River meets the ocean. Srinivasapuram is a striking place. It’s a slum on the beachside, and, like no other place I’ve ever seen, manages to visually encapsulate the dramatic fight between classes in the shaping of the modern Indian city. (The photographs here are not the best but they convey the basic idea, i’ll try for some better ones.) Skeletons of gargantuan buildings now under construction on the opposite shore of the Adyar River loom menacingly like an advancing army over the roofs of tenements and huts.

I was later to find out that this visual drama is reflected in recent contentious history. In 2003, the community, along with other citizens’ groups in the city, fought against the Tamil Nadu government who wanted to build a Rs. 500 crore administrative and corporate complex along the beach. The beach, which was envisioned by one of the earliest governors in Madras Elihu Yale to be a “lung” for the city, was saved for the moment by the work of these groups. But the problem of eviction from their valuable beachside lands came up again in a different form a few years later.

On December 26, 2004, Srinivasapuram lost over 50 lives to the tsunami, as well as numerous homes and valuable property. As relief and rehabilitation became the stuff of daily news, Srinivaspuram residents were asked to leave their homes and move to temporary housing in Thoraipakkam, a strip of marshy land well inland. Some residents were intimidated into moving, but most refused and have stayed on in Srinivasapuram. Those who moved found that the temporary housing conditions were awful, tin huts that baked like ovens in the sun in an area that was far from any government services and sources of livelihood. Many have since returned. Residents and many of the groups working in Srinivasapuram felt that the temporary housing Thoraipakkam was part of a larger effort to move those residents of the beach who had the strongest claims to the land, the fishermen, away from their homes.

At their heart, questions of eviction in India tend to be closely allied with questions of modernity and development. What should a modern Indian city look like? For whom should it be built and maintained? What idea of the city do its citizens have and how is it different from that of the city’s government and bureaucrats? These are some of the questions I wanted to illuminate by looking closely at how the government and citizens have laid claim to the Srinivasapuram land, both in their day to day interactions and in their legal and official communications, as well as in media coverage.

I’ve been working regularly on my project, communicating with groups in Srinivasapuram and researching the history of slums, fishermen’s communities, and poverty in Madras. But it’s been hard to post because, to me, a posting seems like it should have some answers, whereas the longer I work in Madras, the more questions I have and the more complicated my answers have become. So I decided at this late moment in the game that I would use my blog, in the hopes that the blog format, forgiving and informal as it is, would allow me to put my writings and thoughts from Chennai more regularly in front of the SARAI community. I’ll discuss some of the difficulties I’ve faced in my research, many of the complications that have arisen in my original ideas, and also throw in some interesting asides from my life in the city.

Please check back frequently over the next three months, and please comment on the site. And wish me luck!


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