Living Next to 3 Slums

19 Mar

TERI University’s brochure boasts that TERI, where I live at the campus dorm, is located in one of Delhi’s most prestigious and posh districts: Vasant Kunj.  It is a fifteen minute walk from Dior and Armani shops at DLF Mall (a consortium of 3 malls) and the Grand Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel where Bollywood celebrities and Nelson Mandela’s grandson have stayed.  BMWs regularly pass by while dropping off students at the private Delhi Public School.  Monthly rental rates for a room range from Rs.12,000 – 25,000/mo, about 4x higher than rental rates in other large Indian cities such as Bangalore, Kolkata (Calcutta), and Chennai, and is comparable to Mumbai (Bombay.)

Vasant Kunj is also a land of juxtapositions. The fifteen-minute walk to the Grand Hotel is along a urine-soaked isolated road in disrepair with rickshaw drivers parked on the side for restroom stops.  The sidewalk is covered with an overgrowth of weeds and prickly bushes so that pedestrians (the brave ones) are forced to walk on the road with cars speeding by so close that the exhaust scorches your legs and the extended honking scorches your ears. The road becomes miraculously manicured within a few feet of the hotel.  Some BMWs drive home to darkly gray cemented apartments which resemble the cookie cutter ones of communist China.  There are no street lamps in the one-mile radius of TERI University.  In fact, Vasant Kunj used to be known as “Murder Kunj” for the high number of murders and rapes which have occured.  My dorm raised its curfew to 7:30 p.m. after a dead body was found in the vicinity last year.  Just recently have lights been installed on the highway the DLF Mall is located on, because two women were murdered, but not raped, on the road.

Along that road and nestled in Vasant Kunj are a number of slums.  This is unsurprising because in cities with high land values, many poor citizens have no choice but to illegally squat.  Eighty-million people, about 8% of India, live in slums.  In Delhi, 52% of the population lives in slums.  This number will likely increase steadily as the Indian government continues its plan to convert a larger percentage of its population to city-dwellers.  Delhi’s government walks a wobbily tightrope between not recognizing these illegal settlements and catering to their demands, as slum-dwellers are a large and important voting block.  It is hard to push them off the land.  During the Commonwealth games and Obama’s visit in late 2010, city officials, unable to evacuate the slums, simply covered the one next to the DLF mall in Vasant Kunj with a white cloth.  I used to do the same with the clutter in my room when my mom inspected it. Because of the slums’ illegality, the government (or any non-profit/organization) cannot construct proper infrastructure such as water pipes and taps, but they do deliver tankers of free water to each slum everyday.

Daily water tanker from the government delivers to a slum in a wealthy neighborhood, East Kailash

I can work at the computer lab while watching the daily life of squatters outside

I visited the DEK slum, a settlement of 1,000 households about a kilometer from the university, as part of a class project.  Initially, my groupmates tried to prevent me from entering with them, insisting on a nebulous danger inside a family community in broad daylight.  But as I joined my other groupmates, already inside the slum, slum-dwellers were friendly, offering chai, and eager to talk about their problems.  One woman, barefooted and wearing gold jewelry, shared her story that she had moved to the slum only because her children were going to school nearby.  She had the cell-phone numbers of politicans in Delhi whom she called when the water tankers weren’t arriving on time.  She mentioned that a few slum residents had enough money to construct additional housing, but weren’t allowed to.  This was a little confusing, as it seemed that the housing already there was illegal as well.

It’s obvious that best solution for slums lies with the government.  Give them property rights.  Build low-cost housing.  But this is easier said than done in a country where so many of its problems (and assets) lies with the sheer size of its population.

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One Response to “Living Next to 3 Slums”

  1. Delhi Public Schools May 14, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    I just couldn’t depart your site before suggesting that I actually enjoyed the usual info a person provide for your guests? Is gonna be back often to investigate cross-check new posts

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