Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population, Poverty & SDGs

DEVELOPMENT-INDIA: Housing the Poor Where They Squat

Leena D.

NEW DELHI, Dec 25 2006 (IPS) - For 35 years Rama Krishna Puram, an old south Delhi neighbourhood, has been Sheela’s home. She works in the nearby government offices on yearly contracts – cleaning and fetching for officials.

While most of her working class colleagues spend two hours or more commuting in crowded public buses to get to work, Sheela merely walks across from her home in Ekta Vihar, a slum which was upgraded in the 1980s to provide its residents with basic amenities like safe water and electricity.

In a city where escalating rents and property prices have edged even middle class professionals out of many areas, Sheela can count herself amongst the lucky minority that has been able to live and work continuously in the same neighbourhood for three decades.

At least three million people live in Delhi’s slums while an estimated 45 percent of the city’s 14 million population reside in unauthorised settlements or in ‘urban villages’. Adding to the problem is the steady migration of some 400,000 people to the capital each year in search of livelihoods.

As Delhi’s planners chase the myth of a beautiful city, the overwhelming majority of the poor who lived in vast squatter settlements sandwiched between towering office blocks and older residential areas have, over the last few years, been relocated to barren lands on the peripheries of this constantly expanding city, far away from their jobs and schools.

Sheela’s slum Ekta Vihar was spared by demolition crews under a government policy for ‘in-situ upgradation with minimum displacement’. Relocation would only be in cases where it was impossible to provide the settlement with services. But in reality only in three settlements in Delhi have people been given housing rights.

In 1978, a cooperative society of 472 families was set up in Ekta Vihar, and each member given plots of 12.5 sq m for a nominal monthly license fee and provided a loan of 5,000 rupees (the equivalent of 415 US dollars at the then exchange rate) through the slum wing of the government.

Families were allowed to construct only one room units. Every house was provided with electricity and water connections. Open drains were made in each lane, and community toilets were built.

“It took us eight years to get permanent housing in Ekta Vihar. But at least we got to stay in our old homes. Most jhuggi-walas (slum dwellers) have been dumped far away, where there isn’t even clean drinking water,” said 53-year-old Sheela.

Prayog Vihar in west Delhi and Shahabad Daulatpur in the north are the other two instances of upgradation. Built in 1990, there are 200 dwelling units in the first, which were allocated on a lottery basis. Each family had to pay 5,000 rupees – a large sum for people who were migrants to the city, and had lived in shacks built on either side of the drains and roads of Hari Nagar, a middle-class residential area.

Sixteen years later, families in Prayog Vihar are still waiting for water. Sunita, a young woman, who had moved to the colony after her marriage to a local boy, says she spends half the day collecting water from community taps where the supply is very unpredictable.

The quality of slum rehabilitation has worsened over the years. In Shahbad Daulatpur, the mostly industrial workers told researchers from the Hazards Centre, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on urban issues, that there has been no significant improvement in the quality of life because neither conditions of living nor work have improved since the so-called upgradation of the slum.

In 2004, a Common Minimum Programme announced by the ruling Congress-party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) promised: “Forced eviction and demolition of slums will be stopped and while undertaking urban renewal, care will be taken to see that the urban and semi-urban poor are provided housing near their place of occupation.”

Unfortunately, that has been a piece of fiction. As Delhi prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010 as a “world-class” city, there seems to be no place for the poor here. At least 70,000 homes have been razed under the UPA government. In the most recent demolition, in October, the Nagla Maci slum, was relocated 45 km away in north-west Delhi.

Under pressure from civil society organisations to halt demolitions that violate constitutional rights of shelter, the Ministry of Urban Development is now working on a model housing strategy.

The government’s Delhi Development Authority has auctioned 350 acres of land earmarked for slum re-housing to private developers. Newspaper reports have revealed that the builders plan to build 750 luxury flats on the land while the housing for the poor will be in high-rise towers with no lifts or private toilets.

The authorities have no use for poor people’s experience of vertical housing. In February 2002, Motia Khan, a 40-year-old slum in the heart of Delhi, was demolished, and relocated to the Rohini area in blocks spread over five floors. Flat owners are still paying monthly installments of 2,000 rupees (roughly 45 dollars, which is more than half their monthly income) for flats without lifts, water supply and choked drains.

In-situ upgradation for slum improvement can happen only if people force governments to keep their election promises.

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