American Sociological Association

A Recipe for Disaster: Framing Risk and Vulnerability in Slum Relocation Policies in Chennai, India

This article investigates how governments use dramatic natural events such as disasters to justify potentially unpopular policy interventions. I use the case of the southern Indian city of Chennai to explore how different arms of the government have historically engaged with the question of slum tenure from the 1960s until the present moment. Using archival methods, I analyze policy documents to excavate how slums have been framed within the context of political and policy imperatives. I show that slums are framed as risky to themselves and the broader urban public, and are portrayed as dangerous, messy, or illegal. I analyze the role of the disaster moment in catalyzing slum relocation policies, and I argue that this moment allowed the government a new modality to frame slums as not just risky but also at risk, or vulnerable to disasters in their original locations. I make the case that the anti‐poor policy of slum relocation has been justified as pro‐poor by framing slums as not just risky, but also at risk. The framing of slums as at risk in Chennai has been necessary within the extant political matrix, which has historically courted slums for electoral success. The analysis of shifting slum policies offers new insight into how urban policy and politics of disaster vulnerability frame and interact with the urban poor in cities of the Global South.


Pranathi Diwakar





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