Monday, January 30th, 2023 07:40:53

Resettlement Projects As Poverty Traps

Updated: January 31, 2015 6:50 am

Mass-scale state-constructed slum rehousing schemes serve more to eradicate the poor from the city than to eradicate poverty. The 15,000-unit Kannagi Nagar project in Chennai illustrates how mass tenement-construction promotes spatial and social segregation, and perpetuates or reproduces poverty

What, if anything, makes urban poverty distinct from poverty in general or rural poverty in particular? The latter has preoccupied Indian social scientists and policymakers since the birth of the nation, but understanding urban poverty is a more recent endeavour and remains a work in progress.

One distinction of urban poverty is its spatial aspect. This does not refer only to slums, the classic gestalt of urban deprivation. Slums may constitute the greatest spatial concentration of the urban poor, but it is worth noting that some of the poorest city-dwellers may not make their way into slums, and that not all slum residents are poor.

In the volatile landscapes of Indian cities, periodically reshaped by tides of eviction, demolition, gentrification, settlement and resettlement, slums represent only one node in the struggle of working families for a foothold. The housing arrangements available to the urban poor—pavement dwellings, squatter settlements, slums and resettlement colonies—do not fall into a linear spectrum reflecting a progression in income or prosperity. Rather, they form a circuit of options within which the city’s working poor negotiate tense trade-offs between decent housing and the economic or educational opportunities that mark the urban as a place of hope and aspiration.

These trade-offs are determined by the exclusionary form that Indian cities have taken over the last three decades, a spatial apartheid which has rendered its working classes outsiders or fringe inhabitants of urban centres that many of them helped to build and continue to service. While we may still find small clusters of squatter and pavement dwellings and a few slums resolutely holding their ground in inner-city areas of large metros, the geography of urban poverty is increasingly seen in the form of sprawling settlements on urban peripheries, outside the ambit of municipal services and far from the mainstream of urban life.

These settlements are also, more often than not, located on undesirable or uninhabitable, precarious or dangerous lands: on marshlands prone to flooding, hillsides prone to landslides, or along river banks and canal edges, burial grounds and railway lines. This is the irony of “slum ecologies”: the most fragile, hazardous and hostile landscapes of the city are densely settled by the most vulnerable of its population. Urban poverty is now made and found on the margins of metros, where the push from destitute agrarian economies encounters the push from cities seeking to eject the eyesores that mar their world-class vistas.

How does the state perceive urban poverty? Two somewhat contradictory patterns shape the official lens on this phenomenon. On the one hand, state definitions rely heavily on technologies such as Head Count Ratios (HCR) and poverty line measurements, which approach poverty as an attribute of discrete individuals. On the other hand, recent official reports like that of the High-Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) on Urban Infrastructure Investments, headed by Isher Ahluwalia, expand the definition of urban poverty to encompass conditions of poor housing, infrastructure and services.

This latter notion of “shelter poverty” suggests a collective, experiential, spatial phenomenon. The HPEC report argues that “individual poverty can be overcome more easily, but an environment of poor access to basic services, public health, and other inputs into human development is harder to change. The latter perpetuates individual poverty”. This broader environmental definition of poverty resonates with Amartya Sen’s articulation of poverty as a condition of deprivation in the realms of functionings and capabilities. But it adapts Sen’s ideas to fit a market-oriented approach to poverty. In other words, reframing urban poverty as a function of housing and basic services produces a new commonsense, wherein the solution spurs demand for more infrastructure, in turn calling for enhanced market finance, and thereby investor-friendly reforms. The problem of urban poverty gets subsumed into the problem of slums, and provision of housing in pursuit of slum-free cities becomes the touchstone of ‘inclusive’ urban development.


The catch here is that, given the appetite of most governments for large engineering and concrete solutions to any problem, the centre-staging of housing provision as the pivot of pro-poor policy has brought us back—in regress—to mass tenement construction as the hegemonic modus

Large projects of state-constructed mass housing as an approach to clearing slums were abandoned in many parts of the world, including many Indian cities, by the 1980s, for three main reasons. First, its high cost allowed for low replicability and coverage, making it an exclusionary approach. Second, the projects, which often comprised poor-quality construction in the first place, soon revealed problems of neglect and poor maintenance; low-income housing tenements typically turned into vertical slums over time. Third, the spatial and social segregation, the ‘ghettoisation’ that such projects in most cases engendered, contributed to the same poverty trap as found in slums, constricting the socio-economic mobility of residents, and yielding scenarios of high alcoholism, crime, and outbreaks of violent discontent.

Yet, the current era of hyped central funding for ‘inclusive’ urban development has revived the clamour for large-scale tenement construction. In Chennai, nearly 80% of funds under the Basic Services for Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was used to erect multi-storeyed concrete tenements. These differed from Chennai’s earlier generation of tenement projects primarily in scale: the largest of Chennai’s slum rehousing schemes of the 1970s and ‘80s comprised around 600 apartments, while its most famous new-era resettlement project, Kannagi Nagar, completed in 2000, boasts close to 15,000 units. Kannagi Nagar is located 25 km from the city centre, yet it is the closest of Chennai’s slum resettlement colonies. This is the second distinction between the new and old rehousing projects: the latter were mostly built in-situ, on or near the sites of cleared slums.

A study conducted in Kannagi Nagar in 2011-12 (1), 10 years after the first wave of slum-dwellers from the city was moved there, highlighted the multiple pathways through which this strategy of mass peripheral resettlement of the urban working classes serves to perpetuate or reproduce poverty.

First, it revealed the dilemmas and dynamics of housing as an anti-poverty instrument. Despite being offered concrete homes with toilets at low monthly hire-purchase rates, over 50% of allottees, according to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board’s estimates, had sold their flats and returned to high-rent or squatter accommodation in the city. The isolation of the resettlement site, dislocation from jobs, economic opportunities and schools, and dearth of basic facilities in the early years rendered this place a wasteland of despair, reputed for its squalor, alcoholism, and violent crime.

Eleven years later, the settlement has been transformed, inevitably, into a buzzing urban neighbourhood. Hidden behind its vigour and dynamism, however, are years of struggle by its residents, for water, electricity, roads, transport and jobs. These struggles, and the ruptures that almost all workers had suffered in their occupational trajectories—ranging from a few months to several years—had cost them dearly in ‘development time’. Many had to rebuild from scratch their networks, skills, and career mobility.


Of the 1,086 workers (in 726 households) surveyed in the abovementioned study, 288 had either lost jobs or had abandoned working altogether after the resettlement. Of these, 207 were women. Women’s employment was among the greatest casualties of the forced move. Women’s jobs, predominantly concentrated in domestic work, unskilled factory jobs or as office/sales assistants, were location-specific and hence highly vulnerable to the disruptive effects of relocation. In addition, the challenges of running a household in a resettlement context, with poor water facilities, weak social networks and lack of childcare options were compounded by issues of distance, timings, and transport. These conditions forced large numbers of women out of the labour force.

Even after a decade, when jobs had become abundantly available in the neighbouring region—now transformed into Chennai’s IT corridor—women’s employment remained low, fluctuating, and precarious. Jobs for Kannagi Nagar’s women, even in large global firms on the IT corridor, were of poor quality—almost without exception casual, insecure, and poorly paid, with physically taxing working conditions and scant opportunities for economic mobility. Women quit their jobs frequently and voluntarily owing to the impact of strenuous work and long hours on their health, or on their children and families; this, in turn, kept them from climbing higher up the wage ladder and perpetuated the vicious cycle of ‘working poverty’.

Informalisation of labour was a significant outcome of the resettlement. Aside from women, formal sector workers were the most severely hit by the relocation. Almost half of those who had worked for registered companies, large firms or government establishments prior to the resettlement had lost their jobs and were forced into the already crowded ranks of the self-employed or informal labour force in the new settlement. Despite Kannagi Nagar’s proximity to the high-end ‘new economy’ establishments along the corridor, our study revealed that less than a third of Kannagi Nagar’s workers worked in the ‘formal sector’.

A key contributor to the persistence and reproduction of poverty in Kannagi Nagar, then, was the quality of jobs that were on offer for its residents, even when the quantity had expanded. This was at least partly attributable to the ghetto effect of the mass resettlement. Badly maintained infrastructure and poor living conditions contributed to, and were exacerbated by, the pervasive and persistent stigma attached to Kannagi Nagar as a den of thieves and drunkards. Despite its significant proportion of educated workers, this reputation marked it as a market for low-skilled, low-wage workers. Residents themselves echoed this characterisation: a highly skilled tailor working as a security guard because he could not make an adequate living in tailoring there, said: “This is a place for the labour class; it is a place of poor people.”

All of this suggests why mass-scale state-constructed slum rehousing schemes work more as a strategy to eradicate the poor from the city than to eradicate poverty. For the urban working classes, maintaining a stable foothold in urban space is more critical to their upward economic mobility than the bald benefit of ‘housing’, shorn of spatial meaning. That the government remains stubbornly blind to this reality is evidenced in the new rash of tenements—over 20,000 of them—close to completion in Perumbakkam, a further 6 km from Kannagi Nagar, off Chennai’s IT corridor.


By Karen Coelho

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