By Tim Sullivan
The Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) — Years later, long after their handmade shacks had been reduced to rubble, they look at the place that was once their neighborhood and see the ghosts of what is no longer there.
It was, by nearly any definition, a slum. It was a cluster of cheap brick shacks pressed close together that 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. 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.
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.
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 of 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.
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.
Behind a hotel, though, was a different world. There, carefully hidden by high walls, were small brick shacks where the waiters, pantrymen, and gardeners lived.
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.
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.
“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.”
What they created, the residents say, was a community. They built one-room, one-story houses that leaned and curved. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Various neighborhood politicians began wrangling over it.
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 was to 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.
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.
“When they moved us out, it was like we all were damaged somehow,” said Beniwar. “They left us broken.”
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.
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.
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.” ♦