Home / Politics / Policy /  Zero amenities, yet census towns hit the property jackpot

Varanasi/Neral (Maharashtra): The spacious, sugar-pink retirement home of the Itankar family looks somewhat out of place in the village of Chandpur. It stands amid a cluster of new buildings overlooking an old square which, complete with a banyan tree and a panchayat (village council) hall, looks much as it must have done 50 years ago. Around it, the city of Varanasi has sprawled in disregard for Chandpur’s supposedly rural status.

Like many of their neighbours, the Itankars—Sanjay Vasudev Rao and his wife Vidhya—have worked for many years for Indian Railways. When they decided to move out of Varanasi’s railway colony in 2002, they followed the crowd and built a house in Chandpur—a convenient distance from the railway station and just outside the municipal limits.

Ten years later, nudged by the steady influx of new residents, Chandpur has been reclassified as a census town, one of about 2,500 large villages, identified over the last 10 years, where farming has given way to other sources of livelihood.

“There are no farmers in Chandpur now," said Chandrakant Yadav, a shopkeeper from neighbouring Lahartara, which has already been semi-merged into the Varanasi Municipal Corporation (VMC). “All the land went to the developers, who bought it at a cheap rate 10 to 12 years ago. Then they built shops and everything that you see along the main road."

Though still much less expensive than the main city, the land prices in Chandpur have risen 10-fold in the last decade, according to Sanjay Vasudev Rao Itankar. As the farmers sold their small plots for inflated prices and moved further into the countryside, where they could get more land for cheaper prices, middle class families such as the railway employees moved in.

Population Strain

Census towns, with their low or non-existent rural property taxes and cheap land prices, are often attractive destinations for second home buyers, who are moving in and putting strain on land use and the village-level administration all over India.

Neral, in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, is another destination for second home buyers. The population of the hill station, which became a census town in 2001, has increased from 14,000 to more than 24,000 since then. Higher housing prices in Mumbai’s satellite towns of Kalyan, Ambernath and Panvel have pushed buyers further, according to Amita Bhide, associate professor of the urban planning centre at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Small- and medium-size industries, forced to move out of Mumbai due to stricter pollution controls, are swelling the population of sleepy villages on the periphery of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, Bhide said.

Kishore Jain, a developer and builder in Neral, said that second home buyers and investors are not the only reason for this jump. “A few people are buying flats as second homes or for investment purposes, but the majority are buying with the intention to settle here, as property rates are within the budget of the common man," Jain said.

However the population boom has put added strain on the water supply to the village, and the panchayat has had to ask for help from the state government to augment its resources.

Chandpur’s pradhan (village head) Raam Dulaare Yadav feels the population strain of his village almost palpably. “The population has increased so much that there is now no space to get married," said the 33-year-old ex-cricketer, known to most of the community as simply R.D. “People are now using local schools to get married in." For most of Chandpur, the lack of urban amenities is old news.

Walking through the lanes of the old village, Yadav pointed to its various shortcomings, which seemed to increase geographically further away from the main road he went. “There is no electricity beyond this point," he said, arriving at the village square. “Water comes only through hand pumps." There is not a single government primary school in the village, but there are four private primary schools. “No one here pays attention," Yadav said. “The new panchayat has asked for a school, but there is a dispute over land."

From 4,752 in 2001, Chandpur’s population has swelled to 15,000, Yadav said, one-third of whom vote. “It is very difficult as a panchayat leader to run a big village like this," he said. “Every day, there are lots of people who come with their problems, and the MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) don’t tend to take a lot of notice of us."

Bypassing the problem

It’s not just the rising volume of complaints that Yadav has noticed; the nature of those complaints has changed too. “There is a difference in perception between new population coming in, who send their kids to school, and the villagers who don’t," he said. “I am expecting demand for new facilities because they are not the natives of this place."

The Itankars, like many of their neighbours, don’t need to rely on the meagre public services or facilities that Chandpur offers. Their children go to private schools and they switch to a generator when the power fails. “We go to Manduwadi for shopping, there are no shops for our daily needs here," said Vidhya.

Monal, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, said that the family gets their water from a service tank under the house. “It taps into the groundwater, so we are OK," she said. “But now, so many new homes have done the same thing that the groundwater is depleting."

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The Sunbeam group has six educational institutions, which are mostly on the outskirts of Varanasi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

It is an impressive institution—modern, spacious and apparently progressive in its teaching methods—but it’s hard to see Chandpur’s original population getting access to the school, given its high fees. For those who haven’t moved out, there are smaller, cheaper, but less reputable alternatives. Their billboards cover the city; almost every available public space is plastered with adverts for private colleges or crammers.

“The line has become very competitive," said Amita Burman, director of the Sunbeam Group. “You advertise only when there is competition, and here it has become essential. There has been major growth in the number of private schools, due to failure of government schools."

Having bought their land cheaply, and not required to pay property tax for the past decade, the Itankars and their friends now say they are impatient for Chandpur to shed its rural status and join the ranks of the main city. “Development with taxes is fine!" said Sanjay Itankar, sitting under a fan on a sofa. “Of course, we will pay taxes! If we get the facilities, we will be happy. We have been living here for 10 years, but the road in front of our house has not been repaired till now."

Without an urban local body, he said, the basic requirements of city living are still missing. “Garbage!" said Vidhya Itankar from the kitchen doorway. “We don’t have garbage collection."

Sanjay Itankar nodded and leaned forward conspiratorially. “But the biggest problem here is roads," he repeated. “they are too narrow for my car."

City Limits

Chandpur’s pradhan Yadav thinks the move to join VMC is achievable. “The VMC has suggested to the state government that this place should be integrated into the municipal limits, but that has not been approved till now," he said. “If this place gets converted into a town, we will get all the facilities—roads, sewers, water and cleanliness." He added: “Everyone wants to be a part of the city."

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Chandpur Village near Varanasi has become a popular destination for railway employees who have taken advantage of cheaper land prices to build retirement homes. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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