Remaining Weeks in Chennai

This post provides additional information we incorporated into the project deliverable, including analysis and recommendations for disaster resilient housing.

Our team’s final report begins: “Recurring floods in the City of Chennai, as seen most recently in the floods of 2015, indicate the crucial the need to provide adequate housing for the most vulnerable communities in Chennai. This report provides an overview of the key issues that Chennai faces in this regard, with a focus on publicly funded resettlement and in-situ upgradation projects built by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board.”

The analysis begins with the recognition that forced eviction and resettlement in the urban periphery is not a solution to housing the urban poor, and is in fact a fundamentally violent process, resulting in a host of challenges and struggles beyond housing and social services. It cuts established community ties and isolates families and neighborhoods from the city, while disregarding livelihoods, sustainability, and trapping families in vicious cycles of poverty. In addition, resettlement attempts are equally unsustainable from the perspective of the government bodies supporting them. When communities are transferred to flood plains on the outskirts of the urban area and subsequently placed into substandard housing, they are essentially moving from one vulnerable area to another. This creates an unsustainable spending cycle, where new projects are debilitated and require urgent care less than a decade after being built, all while failing to improve the lives of their residents. In the context of resilience, it is indeed counterintuitive to locate a project in a flood-prone area, then collaborate on disaster resilient construction and disaster response protocols. 

The second primary finding is that even when in-situ housing is constructed in a slum redevelopment effort, it is undertaken through government-led, non-inclusive and non-transparent means, and tends to be inadequate for the residents it aims to serve. It is important that housing focuses on function before form and incorporates the opinions of future residents, though this seems to rarely be the case. On this note, the considerations in this report recognize that any housing policy for vulnerable communities must embody principles of inclusion and fairness, allowing people to be the agents of their own future. Given the time and resource constraints associated with this short-term endeavor, final report does not present an “action plan” or “policy proposal”. Rather, it is meant as a document to spark further action in the areas reported on. 

The report examines eight specific issues in detail, outlined below:

1) Uncertainty About Land Rights
Lack of clarity about the status of residents’ property rights has prevented individual investment into housing and provisions for basic amenities, leaving communities vulnerable to shocks. This section considers the benefits and consequences of both granting full land rights and incremental tenure. 

2) Problematic Relocation
The team’s research has revealed that both the in-situ redevelopment site (Chitra Nagar) and the resettlement site (Perumbakkam) visited are located in severely flood-prone areas. Coupled with substandard construction, these communities are likely to be the first victims of future flood events. 

3) Lack of Transparency
The lack of transparency with which governmental bodies like the TNSCB operate represents not just an inefficient system of management, but one directly at odds with the well-being of vulnerable communities. This is particularly concerning in the resettlement process, where residents are not given full information regarding the date and location of their move etc. In some cases, inaccurate information was given, such as elating to rent and utility costs. 

4) Lack of Agency
In the team’s study, agency has emerged as one of the central principles by which all other actions must adhere to. Housing upgradation and resettlement must strengthen and support the agency of future residents to take control of the process. However, at present, residents are not consulted at any stage in the resettlement process, nor are they given any choice as to the particular site of resettlement, in turn reducing levels of social cohesion and resilience within communities. 

5) Lack of Basic Social Services
The communities in the two sites visited remain let down by the level of basic services provided. Essential utilities such as piped water and electricity are unreliable and not properly integrated into units. In addition, there are inadequate provisions for social services for these communities, and necessary facilities for provide healthcare and education are either poor, crowded or far away. 

6) Poor Design
Poor design and poor use of space further reduces both social resilience and disaster resilience. This analysis considers the metaphysics of space and design, suggesting that envisioning housing solutions must be predicated on understanding the cultural and geographical realities within which these communities operate. Housing designs must respect the intended function of space and adjust its form accordingly. 

7) Lack of Building Code Enforcement
Despite the existence of comprehensive building codes, housing projects such as Chitra Nagar and Perumbakkam do not seem to conform to established codes, with signs of structural damage after only five years. This section includes a discussion on potential reasons for why building codes and construction regulations continue to diverge from reality, along with considerations for improving enforcement and accountability. 

8) Limited Use of Alternative Building Materials
Current slum resettlement/redevelopment projects primarily rely on concrete construction. This section simply encourages the exploration of new paradigms of construction beyond concrete. Two examples of alternative materials are provided: Glass Fiber Reinforced Gypsum (GFRG) and Compresses Stabilized Earth Block. These materials are not presented as suggestions for implementation in the context of the city of Chennai, but are meant to demonstrate the potential that alternative materials may have in achieving more robust, disaster-resilient construction at higher speeds and lower costs. 

Additional Information from Field Site Visits

Resilient design is broken into three major categories – structurally sound design, adequate design, and humane design – thereby developing a framework that develops from the strictly physical towards the metaphysical. These points will be illustrated with photos and examples from Chitra Nagar and Perumbakkam , where there is a clear lack of considerate design. 

Structurally sound design requires understanding the environmental shocks and stresses that a particular location is subject to and building in consideration of these. Such shocks include reoccurring events like earthquakes, climatic conditions like extreme humidity, and proximity to agents like saltwater (which accelerates the oxidation and therefore corrosion of iron). Building materials must be carefully selected with understanding of the particular conditions that the site will be affected by. 

We were told that housing built by the TNSCB will only be declared structurally unsound when there is structural failure, i.e. when it physically fails. 

One story illustrates the importance of adequate design. At Perumbakkam, women had been asking for safety rails to be installed in the tower buildings, which are each 8 stories high, to make them safer. A child soon fell off one of the levels and is now permanently physically disabled, but still no safety rails were installed. Another child then fell and died. Safety rails are not finally being installed years later.   

The design at Perumbakkam compromises its inhabitants’ safety. There were no streetlights and no electric lighting in the hallways. We were told that the entire area is unsafe for women and children. We were told, “you will not see any women or children out after 6pm.” Even during the day, most families do not let their female children play outside. 

Lack of lighting in hallways in the middle of the day
One daycare converted unit serves 14,000 families

One example of best practices: Yerawada
Yerawada is the most-densely populated neighborhood in Pune, a city in the state of Maharashtra, India. It is the site of an in-situ slum upgradation project under the central government policy of Building Services for Urban Poor (BSUP), which aims to initiate and enable in-situ and incremental up-gradation of existing slums. The idea is to provide well-built, secure, subsidized affordable housing that provides proper sanitation, water, and electrical facilities. By building in situ, the secure housing reduces physical vulnerabilities and risk from environmental hazards as well as supports already-existing social structures by providing in-situ rehabilitation. 

Upon inception of the project the architecture studio, Urban Nouveau, spent 7 months living on site with the community of Yerawada, eating, drinking chai and talking with its people. Understanding the resistance to resettlement that many of the people felt, a strategy of in-place incremental improvement was born, thereby allowing the area to improve organically rather than be uprooted. With input and feedback from local community members three prototype houses were created, each with a 270 sq. ft area. Local residents were able to choose the configuration that best suited their needs and the community was also asked to engage with the construction process and encouraged to customize each house. Currently, 500 houses have been completed, and another 500 are underway.

Three prototype houses (top left), alongside a rendering of the potential output, as well as photos from their process. 

Field Visit to Auroville Earth Institute

Finally, a field visit to Auroville Earth Institute provided additional useful information about the use of alternative sustainable building materials (under issue number 8). 

As background, our research illustrated that much of the world relies on concrete as its main building material, and demand is consistently rising due to rapid urbanization and the accelerated shift of villages and rural areas around the world to a peri-urban status. The continuous projected overuse of concrete and other energy-intensive building materials will drive the world further away from sustainability: to illustrate, 16% of all fossil fuels produced today are being consumed for the production of such building materials. 

“The Economically Weaker Section (EWS)-type residential buildings represent 82% of India’s total housing shortage…there should be tremendous focus in the construction industry to quantify and minimize energy footprint, carbon footprint, material footprint and water footprint and undertake initiatives toward a sustainable built environment.

L. Pinky Devi, Department of Civil Engineering, Nagarjuna College of Engineering and Technology & Sivakumar Palaniappan, Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Madras

Visits to the housing settlements and to the Auroville Earth Institute illustrated that, while houses built from concrete often develop cracks and become unsafe just five years after being constructed, houses built with local traditional building materials (clay, silt, straw, etc.) were capable of withstanding many natural disasters. 

Sustainable housing expert Lara Davis explained that regions throughout India previously had strong knowledge of how loadbearing capacity and compressive strength changes when different materials were wet, allowing them to design housing that could adapt extremely well to floods and monsoon season. However, government-sponsored housing uses one-size-fits-all building materials (such as cement and fly ash) that are not adequately tailored to the local environmental conditions. In an effort to “modernize,” many buildings in India have actually decreased in longevity, created a large carbon footprint, and ““eliminated entire generations of traditional local building knowledge” in the process. 

Lara next showed us the process of mixing local silt with water to produce the brick mixture and using manual labor to produce bricks for sustainably building small houses. 

Additional Policy Background and External Links

To provide additional background on the challenges involved with effective communication, policy design, and decision-making, one background report finds:

  • Urban land and water is governed primarily by a handful of public agencies with limited linkages between them, particularly across public and non-governmental stakeholder groups. 
  • The ecosystem is moderately hierarchical in character, which is not particularly suitable for effective co-management of city resources. Substantial effort in trust-building will be required for the system to become more collaborative. 
  • Amongst the multiple key actors some e.g. the CMDA, DoE, TNPCB, TNIDB and PWD are approving agencies, permission or fund givers and rule setters, while others like the GCC, TWAD and CMWSSB operate primarily as implementing agencies who depend on the former agencies. 
  • The CMDA occupies a particularly important role since developers often approach the DoE, TNPCB or PWD for NOCs or permissions only when the CMDA with power to provide planning or building permits, especially for bigger developments, ask them to. 
  • The GCC in particular appears to be an important linking agency because it connects several other agencies who do not interact directly with each other. Therefore, the GCC has the potential to act as an important bridge in helping spread sustainable and transformative changes across the network. 
  • Parastatal agencies dominate the overall governance landscape with obvious implications for empowerment of local-level governance structures. 
    (Source: “Chennai: Emerging Tensions in Land, Water, and Waste Governance” by Dr. Parama Roy, Krishna Kumar, Zachariah Karunakaran and Akshaya Ayyangar).

External Links for Further Background Information:
1. Thirsty Indian cities have a management problem, not a water problem, The Economist
2. Life in a City Without Water: Anxious, Exhausting and Sweaty, The New York Times
3. From the Heart of Chennai to Perumbakkam Slum: Women Face the Brunt of Displacement, The News Minute
4. In maps: How Chennai grew over its lakes,
5. New International Standard for urban resilience, led by the United Nations

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