Not quite the death of distance: Challenging the resettlement utopia of Perumbakkam

[By Sunitha Don Bosco and Maartje van Eerd]

“I have a house now, nice and shining new, but what am I supposed to do in it? Sit inside and admire the house all day? I cannot eat the house, can I? I have a stomach to fill. I cannot find a job here; I cannot move back to the city. We were happy we were getting homes, but we were not prepared for this reality.”

“I used to work as a maid in residences in the city, I lost my job because I moved here, as a single parent with a girl child ready to join college. I am unable to support her education. Going back to the city for work is impossible with erratic bus services. I am struggling to make ends meet, I don’t know how I will educate my child […], resettlement is a bane for me. I was not aware about the consequences of moving out of the city.”

Women in Perumbakkam settlement

Our journey begins!

Our first visit to the Perumbakkam resettlement site (Chennai, India) in December 2017 was an eye opener to the problems of the resettled urban poor, especially women. As part of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) international refresher course titled “Gender dimensions of urban river restoration projects”, we took our participants to the Perumbakkam resettlement site during a field visit and as soon as we got out of our vehicle, women in the tenements surrounded us and started sharing their stories. The above statements were made by women who were moved to Perumbakkam from a slum in the city.

These stories went against the dominant discourses and public understanding that resettlement projects are a viable solution to urban housing needs. Finding a home in the city is a distant dream for the many poor who migrate to urban areas in search of livelihoods. Many of the poor end up in slums along rivers or in other vacant spots that they can find. Official estimates indicate that the slum population in Chennai doubled from 0.7 million in the 1970s to 1.3 million in 2011. Chennai city is currently witnessing massive evictions and resettlement. Resettlement involves moving and rehousing communities from one locality to another, often because the land is required for other purposes, because of public interest, or to protect communities against disasters like floods or landslides. In Chennai, a river restoration project will eventually lead to the displacement and resettlement. 60,000 families or roughly 200,000 people living in the slums along the riverbanks in so-called objectionable areas – low lying flood prone areas of the city were earmarked for eviction of whom many have already been relocated.

Aerial view of Perumbakkam

Perumbakkam is the largest resettlement site in Asia with a population of 14,000 families, but it will, when finalised, in total rehouse 100,000 people. It is located more than 30 kilometres away from Chennai city centre which is situated outside the Greater Chennai Corporation limit. The project came under heavy criticism for its failure to involve the impacted communities, especially women, in the design, development and implementation of the project (see also this report by IRCDUC/HLRN). Research has shown that those resettled there face a multitude of problems such as the lack of economic opportunities in the vicinity of Perumbakkam, and that those continuing with their previous jobs must travel long distances – which is problematic, particularly for women.

The stories of women, children and elderly affected us deeply. We wanted to intervene. Our team consists of an unusual combination of academic disciplines, i.e. housing and media, coming together to work on an intervention to mitigate the problems of women affected by resettlement. Our first initiative was a documentary film project on the gender dimensions of resettlement.

Death of distance 

We embarked on the documentary film project “We too Urban” to digitally record the stories of resettled poor communities in Perumbakkam, particularly from a gender perspective. The documentary with participation of women from Perumbakkam will be used as teaching material for students in universities and to inform various stakeholders across the globe. These include those who are involved in resettlement, but also to inform the public about the gender dimension of resettlement so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

A view from the window of a Perumbakkam tenement

The project gave us access to stories the community wanted to tell the world. During filming, we met Girija (name changed), who narrated her story, a strong testimonial which tells us of the impact of physical distance on urban poor women due to resettlement:

“My husband has been sick, and bed-ridden for 12 years now. We were moved from Otteri [Chennai city] to Perumbakkam. When I was in Otteri, I was able to take care of him [pointing at her husband who lies in the cot] despite going to work, as my son and neighbours offered support in taking care of my husband. Here in Perumbakkam, I have no one to help, everyone is new here, I cannot go to work or take care of my husband. […] I can’t even leave him alone to go search for jobs. I did apply for his pension, but haven’t received it yet, whenever I go to the office with the request for pension, they are asking me to bring him [the husband] to the office to prove his disability. If I had to take him it would cost me Rs.500 [ca. 6,74 USD]. For that Rs.500 I have to beg. I have no money. Even to get medicine from the hospital they ask me to bring him in person. Back in the city, the hospital was nearby, I could go. Here, to travel 3 km I have to spend Rs. 200 [ca. 2,70 USD] both ways. Where will I go for that money?”

Advances in digital media and mobile telecommunications have revolutionised the world and  re-popularized the notion of the “global village” – a proposition by the media philosopher McLuhan who argued that the ubiquity of communicative technologies would vanish the issues of time and space.  Frances Cairncross, an economist and journalist promoted this notion, making the case that technology has created a “Death of distance,” diminishing physical spatial distances. On the contrary, in spite of the recent rise in digital connectivity in India through cheap data plans and mobile phones, the divides of space continue to exclude the urban poor.  “Death of distance” isn’t real for women like Girija. For her the distance will determine her access to healthcare, employment, and social networks. The reality of the distance, living in the outskirts of the city is life changing for many women like her who were resettled and mobile connectivity has limited effects on mitigating these woes. 

Life in the slum

We need the city and the city needs us too!

The relationship between a city and its poor is symbiotic: the city depends on them and vice versa. Employed mostly in the unorganised sector, the urban poor depend on the city for survival. When physically removed from the city under the cover of resettlement, their livelihoods and survival are at stake.

Slums have been part and parcel of the landscape in Chennai. Many slums have been there for generations and some even have purchased ‘their’ land from local politicians in the false understanding they would be safe (source: interview in Radha Krishna Nagar, December 2017). As this land is owned by the Public Works Department it was not supposed to have been sold. Although the overall living conditions of these slums are problematic as they lack many services and living is tough, the biggest advantage of these inner-city slums for their communities is the location; they are located close to the workplaces, hospitals, and schools. This locational benefit is particularly important for women who are therefore able to combine a domestic job with their own household responsibilities.

“We were born and brought up here and we haven’t caused any problems, people just mind their business. We pleaded with them not to demolish the houses. We requested for resettlement in the city. No-one heard us. We have petitioned many government officials in this regard. There are no job opportunities there (Perumbakkam). Our kids are studying here. Our source of livelihood is here. There are no job opportunities there.”

“I work as a cook in nearby homes, I earn around Rs. 10,000 [ca. 135 USD]. I never went hungry here, what will I do there in Perumbakkam? Will I get a job there? You are going to set up a park here, you call this beautification, of the city? Removing the poor is not beautification, can your development be inclusive of the poor? They have been talking about evictions for some years, I never realised it is for real […]. We were promised by our local leaders that evictions won’t happen and now I am amidst the rubble […].”

A woman and her child watching the demolition of their home in an inner city slum

Our interviews make clear that people living in the inner-city slums in Chennai targeted for resettlement are uninformed or not sufficiently informed about the resettlement plans and process. The information on what is happening and when and where to is very fragmented. Although in some cases a selected group is informed, in general there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety amongst the community. Sometimes plans had been announced a long time ago but since nothing happened people have forgotten about them. In other cases, people are only informed a few hours prior to a forced eviction, while in other cases these forced evictions start totally unannounced.

Compromised factors in resettlement varied from safety and security, loss of social assets, social stigma, children’s education, unemployment to crime, alcohol and drug addiction and child abuse. But one main component to many of the factors which causes distress is lack of information and communication between various stakeholders. The perversity of this resettlement is that Perumbakkam is situated just a stone throw away from the IT corridor of Chennai.

So, what can be done? Can communication interventions mitigate the issues these women face, brought about by resettlement?  Will “death of distance” be a reality as these women become more the digitally literate? Will digital inclusiveness help in solving some of the problems women face in resettlement? These stories tell a different answer, one that moves beyond just access to that of proximity to opportunity, networks, and solidarities.

Sunitha Don Bosco is a faculty in the Department of Media Sciences, Anna University. Her research interest involves using media for development with a solution and rights-based framework among in disadvantaged communities. Her current research projects in collaboration with IHS, Erasmus University, Netherlands, funded by SPARC-MHRD, Government of India and DAIDA foundation, Netherlands involves communication interventions to improve livelihoods of poor urban women in resettlement. She obtained her M.A & M.Phil. in Communication from the Department of Journalism & Communication, University of Madras. She received her Ph.D. from Anna University for her interdisciplinary thesis on Environment & Media.

Maartje van Eerd is a member of a research team from IHS from the Netherlands and Anna University in India conducting and coordination action research in a resettlement site in Chennai, India.  The project focusses the role that digital inclusion can play in achieving access to information, rights, and livelihoods, and it intends to result in concrete interventions that benefit urban poor resettled women and their communities. She has been conducting long-term research on resettlement in India and organised many international trainings on housing rights, evictions, and resettlement, with a specific interest in gender aspects related to resettlement.  Maartje is a human geographer by profession, with a PhD from Leiden University and a Master from the University of Amsterdam. She works as assistant professor at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies of Erasmus University.

Blog at