Workers asked that evictions of slum-dwellers immediately cease, and that funds allocated for the urban poor be used to provide infrastructure, services and tenure in existing slum settlements rather than to construct alternative housing on the outskirts of the city. They asked for the government to prioritise the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, and users of public transport over the needs of automobile and motorcycle owners. They also asked that the government designate spaces for them to work within the city, such as spaces in markets and on roadsides for street-vendors, and to provide them services like drinking water, toilets, and crèches in these work spaces. If such projects are included in the new city development plan, it will already mark a significant departure from the city’s traditional planning priorities.
However, a number of the things that they suggested had absolutely nothing to do with infrastructure or city development as conceived by the JNNURM, and yet, were central to workers’ vision of a better city.Workers asked for access to finance and social security benefits and better quality, better-paid jobs. They wanted medical insurance, well functioning welfare boards, and provisions for retirement benefits. They wanted access to low-interest loans, so that they could avoid usurious moneylenders. They wanted the police to stop harassing them at their workplaces. They also wanted the push towards privatising municipal services to end, because privatisation meant a decrease in the availability of formal sector, decently paid work.
Workers also demanded changes in the government’s urban development policies that would give more power to citizens. They asked that the government provide complete information to city residents about all urban infrastructure projects. They also demanded that projects be approved through a genuinely consultative process, and that the final approvals for urban infrastructure projects should rest with local ward sabhas or gram sabhas. Why was this so central to their demands? Because urban infrastructure projects inevitably require government land, and result in the displacement of poor slum dwellers who squat on that land.
An end to evictions and the start of truly consultative planning to avoid displacement. Reasonable and prudent demands. I look forward to hearing what the Chennai government has to say.