The Ground Beneath Our Feet

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This is a story of Delhi no one has ever told you. it could be any other Indian City. Tripti Lahiri exposes a brewing nightmare

Bulldozed Nearly 3 lakh people were displaced in the 2006 demolition of the Yamuna Pushta slums
Bulldozed Nearly 3 lakh people were displaced in the 2006 demolition of the Yamuna Pushta slums
Photo: Uzma Mohsin

TRIPTI LAHIRICITIES MAKE one simple promise to newcomers: Sacrifice yourself to me and your children shall prosper. This promise drew Ahmed Raza, a small-time wrestler from an Uttar Pradesh village and millions like him to the capital of newly-independent India. Raza kept his part of the bargain, yet half a century later, his daughter was pushed out of the city her father helped build, the only home she has known.

“I was born and brought up in Delhi,” says Shakia Khan, 50. “My father worked on the roads. He used to say, ‘Beta, I have built the streets of Delhi.’”

But the roads leading to where his daughter now shares a one-room shack with her son and daughter-in-law would be utterly alien to Ahmed Raza. Bawana, in Delhi’s far northwest, is a raw shanty set amidst villages being swallowed by Delhi’s steady outward creep. Like Shakia, tens of thousands of people have been sent in the past decade to shantytowns on Delhi’s urban frontiers as part of the city’s biggest slum clearance efforts in 30 years. In these shanties, five, six, sometimes 10 people crowd into slender brick homes, each about the size of a south Delhi bathroom. One glimpse of these colossal new outposts, where jumbles of thatched and mud-plastered huts house the newest arrivals, makes it clear that to say ‘Delhi has a housing shortage’ is putting it delicately. When it comes to housing, what Delhi has is a famine.

Barring Dhaka, India’s Capital is the fastest growing megacity in the world, a harbour in a sea of poverty. Multitudes swarm here because this is where the money is — Indian cities produce almost two-thirds of the country’s wealth. Delhi is presently adding 5,00,000 people a year, almost equally through birth and migration, and present estimates show no imminent decline in the numbers. Within a decade, Delhi will add more people each year than swelled the city at Partition.

Unsurprisingly, less than a quarter of Delhi’s estimated 1.7 crore people live in neighbourhoods that follow zoning and building laws. In recent years, the chaos of this ad-hoc city has sparked increased agitation. Courts have issued flurries of diktats in an attempt to stamp order onto its growth. In 2006, Delhi had to call in paramilitary police when, in a short-lived fit of zoning enthusiasm, it decided to try and enforce its laws. But those who run the Capital say they are now serious about transforming this city of squatters.

Unfortunately, one of the great hurdles to solving the housing problem — or any problem in India, really — is assessing exactly how big the problem is.

The 2001 census put Delhi’s shortage at 1,60,000 homes, but when India’s construction statistics agency, the National Building Organisation (NBO), looked at the same numbers, it said the shortfall was at least three times that. Two years ago, economist Amitabh Kundu, Dean of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Social Sciences, headed a committee that decided that India’s cities need 2.47 crore homes, although this too is probably an underestimate. Delhi, they said, is now short by over 10 lakh homes — and counting.

If shanties are the housing shortage made visible, it ought to be fairly easy to figure out the number of people affected by all these missing homes. Except the last proper door-to-door survey of Delhi’s shanties, which found 13 lakh people, took place 20 years ago. Twelve years later, the National Sample Survey Organisation put out numbers that seemed to show the squatter population had only increased by a few lakh. And the main body working in slums, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, believes 30 lakh people — almost one out of five people in this city — live in shanties. It doesn’t seem very sure why it believes that, though.

“It may be clarified here that no authentic door-to-door survey to ascertain the slum population has been conducted by the department,” the agency cautions on its website. “These are just projected figures of population based on purely rough assessment.”

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5,00,000 people are added to Delhi every year, through birth and migration. and half of all families in the country’s affluent capital live on RS 5,000 a month or less

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It’s enough to make a fact-hungry bureaucrat despair. “Data is a big problem,” says Dharampal S Negi, Director of the NBO, a soft-spoken man who laments the fact that many civil service officers consider data collection a task for those who have fallen severely afoul of their superiors. “How can you base policy on some hypothetical thing? Everything targeted will be wrong.”

It should be reassuring, then, when it sometimes sounds and looks like cement mixers and bricklayers are at work on every block of Delhi. If it is actually short by 10 lakh homes, such round-the-clock construction is what you’d need to make any dent in that number. The Master Plan prepared for the city in 2007 says 1.5 lakh new units a year need to be built by 2021. “We have a shortfall of 50,000 units a year, which we need to build to catch up with the backlog — and we’re not even talking about catering to the new population,” says Jagan Shah, Dean of the Sushant School of Architecture, set up by the Ansal real estate group. “It’s staggering.”

But New Delhi is far from the first city to be overwhelmed by its popularity since the Industrial Age picked up steam. Once there was another teeming city on the banks of another filthy river whose government officials too despaired at its slums. The word “slum” first appeared in print there, in a dictionary of slang produced by one of the city’s residents in 1812. As hundreds of thousands of people flocked there every decade, fleeing a feudal countryside, more than one family crowded into a single room. That city was London.

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10,00,000 Homes, and counting, is Delhi’s housing shortage. The 2001 census put this figure at 1, 60,000. Delhi is the world’s second fastest growing Megacity, after Dhaka

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IN ANOTHER great metropolis, frequent fires in slums in the spring of 1934 led a business reporter to examine the city’s claustrophobic chawls. “In these plague spots live some 1.5 million people,” wrote the Time reporter. “When one block was recently razed, the only sanitary facility discovered was a row of holes in a board.” A former slum commissioner told him that complete slum clearance would take 250 years. That city was New York.

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8,000 flats a year, on an average, is what the DDA built since its inception. In the last 10 years, Delhi’s biggest landlord fell short of its targets by as much as 80%

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The great cities of the future may one day all lie in the East, but Indian cities still look West for inspiration. All those who wish this dishevelled, paan-stained city were more like New York, London, or Paris should take heart, then. New Delhi is a lot like them — give or take a century or two. And all of these cities exhibited the same inclination in the face of an overwhelming problem: Throw everything out and start afresh. One might call this the “clean slate” school of urban planning, which believes that a better city rises from the rubble left behind in the wake of bulldozers. In London, road widening and the construction of the railways 150 years ago tore out some of the largest slums. “In the enthusiasm for the ‘beautification’ of London, the hardships accruing to the evicted tended to be neglected,” wrote historian Anthony S Wohl in The Eternal Slum, an account of 19th century housing reform.

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