Waterbody ‘encroachers’ stare at eviction, as time runs out for govt

With the PWD setting an ambitious target of clearing encroachments around waterbodies across the State in two years, and the High Court advocating a zero-tolerance policy towards ‘encroachers’, thousands of families whose lives are put in jeopardy are demanding that they be relocated in the neighbourhood itself so that their livelihood is not affected.
Waterbody ‘encroachers’ stare at
eviction, as time runs out for govt

Chennai

With awareness on the need to restore natural waterbodies on the rise and a High Court directive to adhere to, the State Public Works Department (PWD) is embarking on a massive anti-encroachment drive and is expected to clear over 17,800 encroachments around waterbodies in the next two years. While officials clarify that the intention is to increase the storage capacity of the waterbodies to the maximum, thousands of families who are staring at relocation worry over lack of proper records to stake their claims. Many of them complain that they were either unaware of the status of the property while purchasing it or they were duped by local real estate agents who sold poramboke land for cheap prices without proper documentation. 

As of now, the PWD has started issuing notices to the residents who have encroached sites of more than five lakes including Chitlapakkam, and Perumbakkam lakes. Advocating a zero-tolerance policy towards the encroachment of waterbodies, the Madras High Court, in August 2019, had asked the State government to constitute a committee to oversee the clearing of encroachments and submit a report on the measures taken.

DT Next visited some of the localities around waterbodies and spoke to the alleged encroachers who are adamant on not letting go their property lest the government provide them with an alternative site nearby in what looks like a long-drawn-out battle between ‘restoration’ and ‘dislocation’.

Rajakilpakkam lake

According to PWD officials, over 1,300 encroachments have been recorded around Rajakilpakkam lake. The lake, which was originally spread over about 105 acres, has now been reduced to just 30 acres due to encroachments. The PWD has already removed a few shops from one side of the waterbody and raised the bund of the lake amid stiff resistance from the locals.

Sembagam K, a resident of Anna Second Cross Street, Tambaram said they were not aware of the legal hassles while buying the property years ago. “We purchased this land some 25 years ago for Rs 25,000. We didn’t get any government documents as it was a poramboke land. We have only the document from the landowner which just mentions the land’s measurements and its worth. We were not aware of the legal issues and all we wanted then was to build a home at an affordable cost,” said Sembagam wondering how can someone ask them to vacate it now.

Some other residents also complained that the notice issued to them only asks them to relocate to another place, with no mention about any alternative site or accommodation. “The government officials are often visiting the area and conducting surveys to extend the lake. They also issued us notice to vacate the place, but are yet to offer any alternative sites. Even if they ask us to move from this place, offering a house in some far-off area, we will not agree. We want to be somewhere nearby as we have been working here so far and it would be difficult to find an earning elsewhere,” said Saraswathi, another resident.

Following the constant awareness campaigns, the public has stopped dumping garbage into the lake now, but sewage flow remains unrestricted. “We have been receiving continuous notices from the government stating that they are extending and restoring the lake, but we don’t see them taking any steps to revive the lake,” said 70-year-old Valli M, a resident of Anna Second Cross Street.

Velachery lake

Earlier, the Velachery lake used to be spread across 265 acres and the water there was used for drinking by the residents until a few years ago. More than 2,000 encroachments have been identified in one side of the lake alone and the sewage from the houses and shops on encroached lands is directly being let into the lake. Locals claim that only after the encroachments took place, the lake water has been polluted with sewage and garbage. Now the water cannot be used even if there is water scarcity, they said.

According to them, the restoration might not just affect the encroachers but also some of the households who have proper documentation. Saras P, a resident of Velachery, said that the government move will benefit the area in a big way. “There won’t be any issue provided the government is clear about its intentions and clears the encroachments to extend the lake. We have been residing here for more than 30 years we have got government documents. Many in the encroached sites do not have any papers, but they are not admitting it,” she said.

Some other residents too claimed that they are merely tenants and have no clue on the legality of the properties. “We have been here for 10 years, and our house owner stays at Tambaram. We don’t know about the legal documents. We came to know that the residents on the other side have got notices to vacate the place. Many residents here do not have documents and have constructed houses in poramboke land. But if the government decides to remove the encroachments, then even if we have the documents, we might lose our land,” said Shanmugam K, who runs a shop.

Sithalapakkam lake

While the Public Works Department has already removed a majority of encroachments near the Sithalapakkam lake, owners of more than 50 houses, who have been there for generations, are not ready to move out.

“We have been here for three generations. It was our grandfather who bought the land when it came at a cheap price. Since then we have been living here without any problem. People near Cooum and Adyar river have been shifted to Semmencheri. We are not willing to move that far. We are working as daily wagers and cannot afford to buy a house hereafter,” said Sakthi M, a resident of Sithalapakkam.

The locals are also worried about their children’s future and education if they move to another place. “Earlier, the officials said they will not remove the houses but clear only the trees near the houses to extend the lake. The government has built a common toilet for the residents and made arrangements for potable water for us. We hope they will allow us to continue here,” said Thangaraj E, another resident.

Chitlapakkam lake

Over 650 encroachments will be removed near Chitlapakkam lake as part of restoring it at a cost of Rs 25 crore. The residents near the lake have been told that they will be shifted to the houses constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board.

“We have been here for more than 20 years. Suddenly they are giving us notice to vacate from the place and have allotted place somewhere near Navalur. Though we asked for a nearby place, they are turning a deaf ear. Though we opposed in giving our family details, they threatened us saying that if we oppose, even our houses will be razed as it is a court order,” said Kumaravel R, a resident of Chitlapakkam.

“We don’t have any legal documents and for that reason the officials are forcing us to vacate. However, we are not ready to move to anywhere else,” said Vishwa R, another resident.

Perumbakkam lake

The lake is spread across 450 acres and is the biggest waterbody in Tambaram taluk. Located between Chengelpet Bypass and Mambakkam, and covered by dense forest, the lake usually collects a lot of water every monsoon. Most of the locals here are willing to shift provided the government arranges them some alternative houses. They also admit that they do not have legal documents.

“As sewage is let into the lake directly by the residents and nearby industries, we were not using the water for drinking or domestic purpose. We have been residing here for more than 30 years for two generations. Only recently we came to know that the government officials are going to clear the encroachments here. So far, we have not received any notice from the authorities. If they are providing us a house, we are ready to move. We are not in a position to search for a house or construct one all of a sudden,” said Dhanaraj U, a resident ofPerumbakkam.

What the officials say

PWD engineers in charge of the restoration efforts claimed that they have already identified all the encroachments and have categorised them on a priority basis. Speaking to DT Next, G Radhakrishnan, Assistant Executive Engineer, PWD said, “We have categorised the violations into three: those that need to be urgently removed, as we did in the case of Cooum and Adyar river; then encroachments around channels and then lakes. We have cleared all the encroachments in Adyar stretch other than for 24 sites for want of vacating a stay order. When it comes to lakes, we have already removed encroachments at Keezhkatalai lake and Mannivakkam lake, though a few more are pending in these localities.”

“Over 17,800 encroachments near the water bodies in the city needed to be cleared. We have already started issuing notices to the residents there. The construction work of housing board colonies at Perumbakkam and Navalur in OMR is in process. We are expecting the restoration work of all the water bodies in the city to be completed in two years,” said Radhakrishnan.

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