Destroyed slum echoes Indian history, economic gap

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Posted: May 21, 2011 10:59 AM
Destroyed slum echoes Indian history, economic gap

Years later, long after their handmade shacks had been reduced to rubble, after fresh concrete had erased the scene of so many lifetimes, they look at the place that was once their neighborhood and see the ghosts of what is no longer there.

They can see Shanti Devi's little white house in a lot far from the road, where today there are only broken bricks and shattered tiles. She and her husband built it in 1947. They see the one-room house where Irene Michael raised four sons, altar boys who raced on the shantytown's brick walkways, and where construction workers are now putting up sprawling new homes.

They show you where the women planted mango trees and the boys played cricket. They show you where the police came that hot May morning in 2000, men in riot gear who waved in bulldozers, shot the pet dogs and shouted at everyone to clear out.

It was, by nearly any definition, a slum. It was a cluster of cheap brick shacks pressed close together which flooded in the monsoons and baked in the summer heat.

But it was also something else. The people who lived there talk about the meticulously kept homes where more than 100 families celebrated one another's weddings and looked after each other's children. They were drivers and maids, cooks and construction workers. They were Hindus, Christians and Muslims.

The lives spent in that slum trace nearly 70 years of India's history, from the chaos of independence to the challenge of how an increasingly wealthy nation copes with the millions left behind by its economic rebirth.

Sometimes, they still dream of going home.

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Slums are demolished nearly every week in India. Thousands of shanties are sometimes bulldozed at once.

It happens because the land has become too valuable, or the slum has become an eyesore. It happens when a politician wants to push out opposition voters.

In a country anxious to show how much it has developed, the demolitions underlie a vast housing shortage the politicians would rather be forgotten.

Because with the economy galloping at 9 percent a year and villagers flocking to cities for work, the slums are growing ever larger. India has about 93 million slum dwellers today, up from 52 million in 2001 and more than the combined populations of France and Australia. As much as 50 percent of New Delhi is thought to live in slums, and 60 percent of Mumbai.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030, the country's need for affordable urban housing could jump by 50 percent to a staggering 38 million households.

Yet India's main urban housing plan totals less than $2 billion a year _ about one-eighth what it spent on the 2010 Commonwealth sports games _ and vague promises that all slums will be gone in five years.

Meanwhile, slum residents struggle against vulturous landlords, corrupt bureaucrats and an inept, overburdened legal system that gives them little recourse to justice when the bulldozers come.

Just ask the people who lived at No. 8 Raj Niwas Marg, crowded onto the grounds of a crumbling century-old mansion.

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The first of them arrived in the late 1940s, when the street was still called Ludlow Castle Road and jackals still roamed the city's quieter reaches. The neighborhood was _ and still is _ called Civil Lines, an echo of how British colonial towns were divided into military and civilian areas.

Most of the residents came from just down the road, from a sprawling colonial compound that today houses a Catholic high school called St. Xavier's. But in those days it was the Cecil Hotel, an elegant colonial waystation. Diplomats, businessmen and foreign correspondents took rooms at the Cecil and stayed for years, drinking gin and tonics brought by barefoot servants and chatting away their evenings beneath gently spinning ceiling fans.

Behind the hotel, though, was a different world. There, carefully hidden by high walls, were small brick shacks where the waiters, pantrymen and gardeners lived. They were people from small towns and tiny villages who had arrived early in the 20th century looking for work, as the little city of Delhi became the new Indian capital.

At the Cecil they found decent jobs at decent pay. There was enough money for food, for school fees, for the occasional new sari, and new dresses for Easter.

In 1947, though, everything changed. First in India, and then at the Cecil.

On August 15, Britain gave the colony independence by dividing it into Pakistan and India. The two new countries were convulsed by violence as Muslims fled to Pakistan and Hindus to India. About 1 million people died in the chaos, and millions fled their homes.

And new residents _ sometimes with permission, sometimes simply as squatters _ moved in.

So it was on Ludlow Castle Road, where the Muslim owners of a 19th-century mansion, a circular home with deep verandahs, 22-foot ceilings and five acres of gardens, had gone to Pakistan. Two middle-class Hindu families, refugees from Pakistan, moved into the house and divided it down the middle.

From the crowded shacks behind the hotel, the now-empty gardens looked like an invitation.

"There were trees and grass everywhere," said Devi, now a 77-year-old widow, remembering when she and her husband built their first hut there from mud and cow dung, covering it with a canvas tarp. "It felt like a jungle."

First a handful of Cecil workers came, then their friends and relatives. When the Cecil closed in the late 1950s, dozens more came. The two Hindu families acted as de facto landlords, charging rents of a few dollars a month.

What they created, the residents say, was a community. They built one-room one-story houses that leaned and curved. They painted them in exuberant colors. Over the years the mud walls were replaced by bricks, and thatch roofs by ceramic tiles. They built sidewalks that ran between the houses, and planted gardens of papayas and mangos.

And with each generation the shacks grew bigger and the slum grew more crowded, as grown children built rooms for their own families.

While most Indian neighborhoods are divided into enclaves _ by ethnicity, religion or caste _ things were different in the shantytown. Decades later, they are still proud of how the Hindu holiday of Diwali would fade into Christmas, which would fade into the Muslim festival of Eid. Old lists of the neighborhood residents show Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Hindu families catalogued together into an Indian anomaly.

"We used to celebrate all our holidays together," said Renu Parchha, a freelance beautician born in the shantytown, and who has been forced to move repeatedly since it was demolished. "We had been together since childhood, and these differences didn't even touch us."

They left their doors unlocked. When there were important decisions to be made _ children who needed spouses, jobs to be accepted or declined, hospital bills to pay _ they gathered across India's traditional dividing lines to debate possibilities.

It's only in whispers that they speak of the problems.

They don't like to talk about the miseries of the monsoon, when the mold could stretch down from leaky ceilings in big greasy patches. They don't like to talk about the quick-fisted husbands, or the long stints without work, or the hard-won wages lost to endless 75-cent bottles of whiskey.

"When we were there we loved it," said Parchha, fingering yellowed photos of relatives posing in their shacks. "But now that we're gone, it seems even better."

But was it legal? Decades later, there's no way to say. The families living in the mansion say they had an oral agreement with the owners. But the documentation is often contradictory, years of arguments and lawsuits that included the slum-dwellers, relatives of the original owners, a string of other claimants and the city government.

Officials didn't know how to treat the shantytown _ not uncommon in a country where slums are both political embarrassments and vote banks. One year, the government installed electricity lines. A couple years later, it offered a few hundred dollars each for longtime residents to leave. None took it.

There are laws and rules and city plans that are supposed to protect slum residents, said Colin Gonsalves, a New Delhi lawyer who has fought hundreds of slum demolition cases. "But it doesn't change anything."

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By the 1990s, New Delhi was nothing like the city those Cecil workers found in 1947. Property prices had skyrocketed, powered by economic reforms that cast aside decades of socialist-style policies and laid the foundations for an emerging economic behemoth.

Boutiques now sold Chanel purses and Louis Vuitton luggage. Mercedes sedans became common sights. Old colonial street names had been cast aside in surges of Indian nationalism, and the road out front was renamed Raj Niwas Marg _ "Governor's Residence Road" _ after the official home of New Delhi's lieutenant governor.

Some in the shantytown found ways to catch slivers of the boom, with pay raises that let them buy scooters or send their children to better schools. The daughters of maids became nurses. Sons became truck drivers.

In one way, the shantytown itself changed dramatically. The property, which in the 1940s had been little more than a vacant lot, was now worth at least several million dollars. The neighborhood, with its large houses and yards, was now among the most sought-after in the city, home to some of India's wealthiest merchant families. Developers looked at that five acres of shanties and saw a string of villas, or even an apartment house, and millions in potential profits.

Various neighborhood politicians began wrangling over it.

Eventually, in early 2000, one politician began building a small Sikh temple on the property, a move his rivals saw as an attempt to gain the support of the city's Sikh community.

It was a time when religious violence was surging in India, fed by a rise of religious- and caste-based political parties. In New Delhi, city bureaucrats worried the real estate squabble could escalate into rioting, according to a top official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Their solution: Destroy it.

The shantytown families knew nothing until the bulldozers arrived.

It happened on a Tuesday, when many residents were at work. First the phones went dead. Then authorities set up barricades, sealing off the streets. No one wanted a riot.

Finally the police swept in, hundreds of them with plastic helmets and bamboo batons. Loudspeakers blared: "You must vacate immediately!"

"The police were shoving us," Parchha said. "Rushing. Rushing. They'd say: 'Go! Do you want to be bulldozed along with your house?'"

So they went. The residents who happened to be home looked around their little houses and panicked. Do they take the family photos? The birth certificates? The crucifix? The painting of Krishna playing his flute?

Later, many wondered why they'd taken what they did. Why those particular metal cups? Why that cheap mattress?

"We lived here for 60 years," said Shakuntula Beniwar, 62, a cook who spent nearly her entire life there, raising two sons. "They destroyed it in 20 minutes."

From a distance, Beniwar watched as the police calmly shot her dogs, five pets she'd raised since they were puppies and whose names she still recites like a rosary of mourning: "Rambo, Rani, Moti, Blackie, Julie."

"When they moved us out, it was like we all were damaged somehow," said Beniwar, pulling her orange sari around her. Her teeth splay wildly. The sari is so threadbare it's opaque in places. Her dark skin is deeply creased from work and worry. "They left us broken."

Within a day, the community had scattered into nonexistence.

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A decade after the bulldozers came, the property on Raj Niwas Marg is almost unrecognizable.

For years, it was left empty, a rare quiet spot in one of the world's most crowded cities. Lawsuits were fought, appealed and abandoned. The land grew ever more valuable. Realtors say the city could sell it for $30 million today, maybe more.

Finally, in November, the bulldozers came back with an army of construction workers. Hills of dirt are now piled nearly as high as the few remaining trees, and foundations have been laid for four sprawling official residences for high-level city employees.

For the former residents, it was the end. Before, many had thought there was a chance they'd find a way to return. Maybe they could get half the property, or a corner. They could squeeze together.

Now they know that's not going to happen. So they hope for cheap rent somewhere decent. Or they hope they can convince the government to increase the compensation offer, which amounts to a few hundred dollars per person. In a city where slum shacks rent for $75 a month _ and the smallest, grimiest apartments easily sell for $50,000 _ that won't go far.

Over the years, the people of No. 8 Raj Niwas Marg have moved farther and farther from the center of town, chased by constantly rising rents. Most now live in neighborhoods where you go block after potholed block without seeing a single tree, where residents live in squat buildings that start crumbling six months after they're built. Where garbage is as common as grass in an American suburb, and the streets are a tedium of muffler shops and dusty stores selling knockoff mobile phones.

Trans Yamuna is one such place. Shanti Devi now lives there with three of her daughters and one grandson, jammed into a one-room apartment with a steel door, no window and a concrete floor.

She has moved seven times since the shantytown was demolished. And she's always waiting _ waiting for the next call from the landlord, for the next rent increase to force them out again.

"I keep wondering," she said, "where I can run to now."