Chennai’s recent history is marked by a series of disastrous weather events, particularly floods. The city’s water problems aren’t new, but the erratic nature and increased frequency of floods and droughts have raised questions about where it stands in a climate-unstable world and what resilience might look like in the future.
Many initiatives within the framework of “climate adaptation” and “urban resilience” have been discussed and designed by bureaucrats, technical experts and consultants. These responses range from watershed management to urban development programs and the ecological restoration of water bodies.
But the story of top-down climate adaptation measures has less to do with the current crisis than with a neoliberal imagination of what a city should look like.
Poorly defined adaptation and resilience measures
This is quite obvious in the case of Chennai. Flood mitigation efforts, sanctioned under the guise of climate adaptation, become an indicator of eviction and displacement of the urban poor. Over the past two decades, more than 60,000 families, or about 170,000 people, have been forcibly evicted from central areas of the city and moved to resettlement settlements on the outskirts.
Many of them were under the guise of flood mitigation and restoration of water bodies. In several cases, large plots of land were given away for real estate development after the evictions.
Despite evidence that flooding in the city is caused by perpetual growth and an increase in built-up area, flood mitigation projects in the city continue to advocate for more infrastructural development as the way forward. Everything flies if you call it climate adaptation.
But the biggest failure of many top-down resilience-building measures, beyond appalling environmental injustice, is the limited scope of the term “resilience” itself.
Projects like flood mitigation take a narrow view of environmental risks. Events like floods are treated as singular events that need to be mitigated, contained or managed through technical interventions.
However, the environmental crisis is multidimensional, resulting not only in the short-term destruction of property, but also affecting education, health, livelihoods, financial security and social relations in the medium and long term.
A comprehensive resilience strategy in a city like Chennai would involve the assessment of site-specific environmental risks and measures to address them using locally rooted and relevant strategies.
Read more: Government should not use slum eviction to advance ‘Singara Chennai’ agenda: Migration expert
Story of resilience in Perumbakkam
Such a story is brewing in Perumbakkam, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Chennai.
Perumbakkam is one of the largest resettlement sites in Chennai. It was built by the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board (TNUHDB), formerly the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, to house people forcibly evicted from the city.
Perumbakkam has more than 20,000 buildings and more are being built every day.
In many ways, Perumbakkam is a place where resilience comes to die. For starters, the entire site sits on a giant swamp that’s extremely prone to flooding. And these are people who have been moved away from the banks to protect them from the floods!
The resettlement colony is characterized by poor quality housing, acute shortage of basic resources like water and electricity, and lack of access to quality education. These woes have been compounded by the fact that livelihood options in this region are very limited, which keeps poverty rates perpetually high and opportunities for social mobility low.
The effect of environmental events like flooding in Perumbakkam will be a combination of economic, health, social and cultural risks. For example, one of the most serious concerns during the floods was the lack of access to health care. People had to wade through water, carrying sick family members more than 10 kilometers to get medical assistance. Environmental risk preparedness must therefore also focus on reducing the vulnerability quotient of these communities on many different fronts.
Scholarship holders from the Perumbakkam community are mobilizing
This is precisely what a small cohort of community scholarship holders belonging to the Information and Resource Center for Disadvantaged Urban Communities (IRCDUC) in Perumbakkam is doing.
Community Fellows are women from Perumbakkam who have been trained by IRCDUC to collect data, liaise with authorities and mobilize the community to secure housing rights and community development programs for residents.
Adaptation to climate change does not appear outwardly in their daily work. But threads of resilience building and adaptation are visible everywhere. The work of fellows takes different forms.
Some of them include:
- Liaise with local government authorities to create better and faster feedback loops
- Create systems to ensure that women, especially those from marginalized and disadvantaged groups, can access government funds and programs
- Help the inhabitants to mobilize and fight for better housing and better access to services such as education, health, food, technical training, etc.
- Act as disaster responders, relief workers and community stewards during floods and other crises
- Incubate and lead initiatives such as community gardens, education centers, etc.
Read more: Residents of resettlement colonies struggle with many aspects of daily life: IRCDUC study
Resilience rooted in Perumbakkam
How do these actions constitute embedded resilience? Whatever the specific nature of the job, the goal of Field Coordinators is simple: to help community members bounce back from difficulties and improve their ability to cope with risks, environmental or otherwise.
Resilience, in this context, is about helping people overcome crises large and small, environmental or otherwise, using a wide range of strategies.
For example, helping people change their bank branch to a nearby branch gives them quick access to their relocation allowance. This extra money can be crucial during the first months of resettlement and protect them from the impact of unexpected crises.
Monthly government retirement campaigns, organized by coordinators, help widows, women without means of subsistence and people with disabilities to access their main and sometimes only source of income.
During events such as floods, the extensive survey data collected by coordinators allows them to target the most vulnerable groups for the distribution of relief materials.
The strategies adopted by Field Coordinators are those that respond to the specific needs and demands of their community and are an example of locally imagined and rooted resilience.
A work in progress
This does not mean that these strategies have been perfected or that they are still effective. Not all initiatives are enthusiastically received by the community and some tend to fail, often because they are not high on the community’s list of priorities.
For example, medical camps and free health services have very low attendance.
Others face administrative and technical obstacles. The legal bottleneck surrounding permits is a good example: the land on which the Perumbakkam buildings sit does not belong to the community and instead belongs to the state.
This ensures that most ideas never see the light of day. The process of identifying the most effective and engaging strategies is ongoing.
Another obstacle is the absence of an active climate discourse in the region. As such, resilience emerges as a by-product of their work to secure better housing rights for members of their community. But going beyond this limited framework will allow the emergence of broader and more global adaptation strategies.
Despite these difficulties, the story of resilience embedded in Perumbakkam is an exciting and challenging contradiction to the technocentric, top-down climate adaptation strategies that are currently in vogue.
The work of these women affirms the idea that civil society groups and non-governmental organizations do not need to represent them or speak on their behalf. Rather, empowered community members themselves are best placed to articulate and craft comprehensive and sensitive solutions to their problems.
Finally, it demonstrates the need for a multidimensional approach to building resilience, moving beyond crisis management towards capacity building, community empowerment and decentralized governance.
[This article was authored as part of the Grounded Imaginaries project, an Indo-Australian initiative to amplify stories of transformative responses to the climate crisis.]