Home >Politics >News >A suburban nightmare that feeds on acute housing shortage

New Delhi: Steel, marble and granite are high on the list of materials needed to build homes in well-to-do suburbs on the outskirts of the Capital—but so are plastic sheets, cardboard and reeds. As fields sprout concrete and glass condos instead of wheat and mustard, shanty towns too have grown to house tens of thousands pushed out as New Delhi expands its “world-class" ambitions.

Mannequin-maker Mohammed Nasir used to live on the river bank, where a sports village is now being built as New Delhi prepares to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

“They said they needed to make room for all those who were going to come for the games," said Nasir, 24, recalling the visits from politicians two years ago. After the speeches, bulldozers tore down his home and Nasir and his family ended up on the streets.

Eventually they leased a tiny plot in a three-year-old shanty, called Savda Ghevra, 40km north-west of the city centre. There they built a reed hut.

Five years ago, as the city embarked on a redevelopment drive, the Supreme Court cleared the way for mass evictions from prime land, ruling that the government need not provide for squatters. Redevelopment advocates cheered.

But in a city of 17 million where much of the land is owned by government agencies that have failed to construct enough housing, at least half the population has been forced to squat in slums or other illegal housing, according to official figures.

Millions have flocked to urban centres for work, contributing to the current housing shortage of 25 million homes across cities.

In one respect, the markets have done their work. Tens of thousands of middle-class families have used newly available credit to buy homes.

Developers expect to add more than 500 million sq. ft of housing aound New Delhi and six other cities in the next three years, according to real estate consultant Knight Frank. Most will become apartments starting at Rs32 lakh, putting them beyond the reach of blue-collar workers such as Nasir.

“The market is not catering to those kinds of (people)," says housing official Prasanna K. Mohanty.

He directs a national urban renewal plan that will spend Rs20,000 crore on affordable housing by 2012, but his ministry estimates that India needs to spend 20 times that amount.

In Delhi, the city government is experimenting with building 100,000 flats to be sold at prices starting at Rs1 lakh each to low-income beneficiaries selected in a lottery.

For now, the main plank of the city’s affordable housing plan involves leasing land in new suburban shanties to evicted slum dwellers who can prove they lived in New Delhi for a decade or more.

The land is a steal compared with market rates, but leaseholders receive no help with building homes and there are few good jobs on the city’s frontiers.

In a nightmare version of the suburban dream, many still live in the huts they built when they first moved there.

Non-profit groups have tried to help—in five-year-old Bawana shanty town, the US-based Robin Raina foundation is building homes for families earning less than Rs4,000 a month—but most areas still lack water and sanitation.

Nasir’s family saw their income plummet from about Rs12,000 a month to perhaps two-thirds of that figure.

Sharif Ahmed, Nasir’s 55-year-old father, has given up going to the fish market where he used to earn more than Rs4,000 a month, because he is now a two-and-half-hour bus ride away.

An older brother sleeps at the fish market, travelling home to see his wife and children every 10 days.

Commuting fives hours to and from his old job now costs Nasir a quarter of his Rs2,000 monthly salary in bus fare.

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