Sunday, 4 January, 2009

JNURM welcome, but slum residents demand time-bound completion of work

A sad tale of official neglect continues at one of the last remaining slums in Trivandrum city despite being selected for upliftment through the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission. Located less than a kilometre away from the East Fort and the Padmanabha Swami Temple, two ancient and still prominent landmarks of Trivandrum City, Karimadom Colony is an 85 year old settlement spread over 10 acres and housing more than 600 families and 3000 inhabitants. The problems that the colony face is entirely due to the apathy of corporation officials and after years of being promised and fooled by government schemes, its residents are not enthused by the JNURM despite the project being initiated by the Central Government.

The project cost put at 16 crores will receive 80% funding from the Centre, 10% from the State Government and 10% by the Corporation. Kudumbasree has been notified as the nodal agency for the project in the State and the task of redeveloping the colony has been handed over to COSTFORD, a non-profit organization founded by architect Laurie Baker and former Kerala Chief Minister, C.Achutha Menon to build affordable housing for the poor. The JNURM scheme was inaugurated by Kerala Chief Minister V.S.Achuthanandan amidst fanfare and considerable media coverage in September. The Hindu carried a detailed report on the COSTFORD project in its Property Plus supplement on June 7th, 2008.

However, the positive implications of this project do not rub off on the residents of this slum and it is not difficult to see why. Ashokan, Karimadom Colony Residents Association secretary says, “We are happy to be sanctioned the JNURM project but to redevelop the area they are first demolishing a row of 22 houses whose residents will have to move out. These people have been asked to live in the community hall while the work goes on. They are okay staying there for a few months but what if the project drags on for 5 years? With what guarantee can these people move out of the huts they already have?” Ashokan has a point. It was the government which constructed the 22 houses for these people in an earlier project and it took 10 years to finish. When handed over, these houses did not even have doors. Many of the girls in the families asked to move out are approaching marriageable age. Ashokan asks what security these families have, as a number of people in the community have a drinking problem.

That the implementation of JNURM is being done through the state government disheartens the residents. Perhaps what is most damning is that colony residents say that no one has explained to them the impressive plans that COSTFORD has for their community, a charge refuted by COSTFORD. Colony residents were scathing in their criticism of the Manakkad ward councillor who hasn’t made a visit to the colony since being elected two years back or agree to meet them. “If our elected representative doesn’t care for us, how can we expect corporation officials to?” asks Musthafa, a colony resident who is actively involved in community affairs. “We didn’t demand this scheme. All we asked was pattayams for the land we live on. Atleast we can get loans then and renovate our houses.” Just last week, a fight ensued when bidders came to auction for the contract to demolish the 22 houses. The corporation had messed up by not alerting the residents in advance of the visit, and the alarmed residents forced the bidders back.

In another part of the colony, stands six blocks of three storey constructions housing 72 families officially, though the numbers are much higher. Two and sometimes three families cramp into the one room tenements. When asked how this is possible, Fathima, 65, says that after marriage, members continue to stay in the family as they have nowhere to go and thus each flat today houses more families than it was meant to. These houses are an entirely different story - a tragedy waiting to happen due to official apathy. Built to last 15 years, it is now 22 years since the residents moved in. Cracks abound on the walls, ceilings, floors and sunshades of every flat and residents say they haven’t known what it means to sleep peacefully as the creaking sounds emanating from the concrete are hard to ignore anymore. Fathima says, “I have lived a full life. If this building collapses and buries me, I will be happy to go. But I pray everyday that this should happen only when my grandchildren and all the children here are at school.” The peril that resides within these buildings should have made them the first target of the JNURM project.

Irregular water supply to houses forcing the women to line up around the clock at the few working public taps in the colony, waterlogging when the sewage pond nearby overflows during rains and a blocked drain that has never been cleared which leaves sewage out in the open to fester causing digestive, respiratory and mosquito-borne diseases are some of the other issues facing the slum. COSTFORD’s plan has solutions to all these problems but the big question remains, of what is on paper translating to action on the ground. However, architects at COSTFORD are confident of starting construction two weeks from now despite the project getting delayed by three months already. The rebuilding will be done in three phases, and they estimate a total time frame of 33 months for the completion of the project. The Central Government will release funds in instalments and COSTFORD is already in receipt of the first instalment. Ajayan, an engineer with COSTFORD says, “We don’t expect time delays or cost overruns, once the construction begins. We are aware of the bad condition of the slum.”

Despite all its problems, Karimadom Colony has something that is sorely missing in several poor and lower middle class neighbourhoods of the city – communal harmony. Residents proudly boast that the slum which has a 50% Hindu, 40% Muslim and 10% Christian population will never fight in the name of religion. However, colony leaders like Ashokan and Musthafa say that the community remains divided on political lines and hence has been unable to put up a united front for their demands. The JNURM project if implemented according to COSTFORD’s vision will be a proud achievement in Trivandrum’s fight against urban poverty. But whether the project will address the residents’ demands for beginning the construction immediately and finishing the construction within a stipulated timeframe remains to be seen. The affable people of Karimadom Colony have none to turn to if this project fails; Trivandrum’s largely middle-class population are unaware of their existence. The JNURM scheme offers the residents one last chance to live a life of dignity that 90% of Kerala takes for granted. Far away from IT campuses and high-rise apartments that characterize the new Trivandrum, a “few” thousand people wait in hope and despair for new roofs over their heads.

P.S - The first time I am reporting from Trivandrum. Was also the first time I entered a tvm slum. Time permitting, I will develop the other snaps I have taken into a photo feature to put up here. When I come home again, I will have to follow-up and see the redevelopment work, if begun.