Whose Lake Is It?

Porur is a locality in South Chennai. Porur lake is the reservoir from which most parts of Chennai get its water. A common query at the end of every monsoon is, “Did the Porur lake fill to its optimum capacity?”  This question rings an ominous note now, for that matter Porur lake filling to its optimum level posed serious problems since last monsoon.

Last monsoon was abnormally copious. It rained from October till December, one low pressure after another brew on the Bay of Bengal, and cyclone after cyclone hit bull’s eye or whipped its tail on the coast of Tamil Nadu. Chennai reeled under the deluge, and almost the whole of Chennai lay submerged in sheets of water.

The Porur lake spreads about 850 acres and of that the 550 acres had been encroached by hutments. So only 300 acres of the lake has remained for catchments of rain water.  This shrinking of the lake has taken place over two decades. Over 4000 families lived on this encroached land. In the last two decades various bad monsoons had been experienced, even a moderate amount of rainfall can make this region waterlogged. Porur had been termed as low lying, there are various places in Chennai that get water logged and not all have encroached into lakes. The people who built hutments on the lake region, along with others in the city affected by monsoon claimed flood relief year after year.

Last year’s abnormal rains and the damage that the monsoons wreaked on the people living in these regions caught media attention.  People living in the Porur locality and in other localities close to the canals where the lake water drains into (these too have been encroached by settlements) have been complaining of the encroachment. They complained during last monsoon that people living in encroached land broke the bunds and this caused flooding of the localities like Valasaravakkam, Virugambakkam, and Chinmaya Nagar. Demonstrations and protests by the residents of these localities put a lot of pressure on the officials and ministers. This set rolling the process of reclaiming the lake, some of the families were moved out of the region but the exercise was abandoned after a few months.  

This year we received fairly good rains. All the catchment areas got filled; naturally Porur lake had filled to its “optimum” capacity. The huts, houses and shops that had encroached into the Porur lake region lay submerged in rain water.  Efforts were made to move the people marooned out of their homes. Once the rains abated steps were taken on a war footing to evict people from these regions. The house and huts were demolished and the government announced that the people will be provided free housing sites (a cent of land per family) at Nalloor village near Kundrathur and Thervai Kandigai village near Gummudipoondi.

About 4000 families of approximately 15000 people were evicted. The people gathered whatever they could from their homes and made arrangements to move to the sites allotted to them. There was a long formality involved before moving out. The people evicted stood in queues to gather tokens from the officials after showing their ration cards, voter’s id, TNEB cards, house tax receipts as well as sale agreement on stamp paper.

How does an illegal squatter have all these legal documents? To answer this question we have to understand the process by which such lands are converted into colonies of settlement. This is a common practice in many places, and there is a more or less standardized modus operandi for this. Land grabbers with the backing from political parties promise poor people a small plot of land.  To that effect money is initially collected and plots of land are allotted. Then constructions of hutments begin. No Objection Certificates are procured for these settlers so that they can claim amenities like electricity and water supply. With political pressure electricity connection, water connection and other amenities are made possible. Fake sale agreement on faked stamp papers are also issued in many cases. Money goes into the pockets of various officials to help all this happen. So the new colony emerges and grows gradually as a large Voter’s bank, free to be used by any party. Political parties compete with each other to give ration cards, to procure Voter’s id.  

These displaced people have negotiated paralegal arrangements and though on the other side of legality have powers to make the government and the political parties sanction them a reasonable settlement. Initially as people living on flood affected areas and now as displaced people who have been exploited by the greedy land grabbers with the connivance of officials, these people have an identity as a distinct population group that is entitled for certain benefits. Partha Chatterjee in ‘The politics of the Governed’ writes of the difference between rights and entitlements:

Rights belong to those who have proper legal title to the lands or buildings that the authorities acquire; they are, we might say, proper citizens who must be paid the legally stipulated compensation. Those who do not have such rights may nevertheless have entitlements; they deserve not compensation but assistance in rebuilding a home or finding a new livelihood.

This population group has negotiated their way with their power to vote. This has earned the illegal squatters a cent of land and a cash of Rs 2000. Each of the displaced will have a story to narrate, stories that will be varied, but the political society has endowed them a common identity that make them recipients of ‘governmentality’.

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