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Lack of Affordable Housing Forces India's Poor Into Death Traps

Thursday, 11 Apr 2013 | 9:20 PM ET
Indian rescue workers and local residents stand near the debris at the site of a building collapse in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai last week.
Punit Paranjpe | AFP | Getty Images
Indian rescue workers and local residents stand near the debris at the site of a building collapse in Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai last week.

Aslamkhan Bhikankha sold his wife's jewellery and used all his savings to buy a flat in a Mumbai suburb which he now fears will soon be razed, leaving his family homeless.

The flat is in one of numerous illegal buildings in Mumbra that house poor migrant workers and face demolition by authorities over safety concerns after the collapse last week f a 7-storey block nearby in which 74 people died.

"If they break this building, they should run the bulldozer over us and kill us too," said Bhikankha, a plumber who moved to Mumbai three years ago from a village 350 km (217 miles) to the north in search of a livelihood. "It will be better than losing all our money and living on the streets."

The building collapse and Bhikankha's plight underscore the government's failure to develop policies to house the millions of people who flood from rural India into cities to do the low-wage jobs in a modernizing economy, Asia's third-biggest.

While building collapses are not uncommon in India, many were shocked by the Mumbra disaster, one of the deadliest such incidents in recent years. The apartment block crumbled in seconds, instantly killing dozens of construction workers and their wives and children who had been living there.

Blind Eye

A shortage of affordable housing in Indian cities has led to rampant illegal construction by developers using cheap materials and shoddy methods in order to offer low-cost homes to low-paid workers, paying bribes to officials to turn a blind eye.

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Despite several promises by the government to build affordable homes for India's poor in densely populated cities, the country's urban housing shortage is estimated at nearly 19 million households. That lack of affordable housing is especially acute in Mumbai, India's financial capital and home to some of the world's costliest real estate, where an estimated six out of every 10 people live in slums.

"This lack of quality affordable housing is why thousands choose to invest their hard-earned money in sub-standard construction," said Brotin Banerjee, CEO of Tata Housing, which is part of salt-to-steel conglomerate Tata Sons and is building cheap homes in Boisar, on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Developers argue that expensive land, high interest rates, and corruption and red tape that cause delays make building low-cost homes financially unviable.

"There is a need to increase affordable housing in the state and we are taking steps," said Sachin Ahir, the state of Maharashtra's junior housing minister. "The government needs to think about how to rehabilitate those who will be displaced."

"We have tried to create affordable housing, but people have their own restrictions and aren't ready to go far from where they live," he added.

Ahir said the government is also reviewing its rental housing scheme, designed to provide affordable homes for the poor. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority, the state body that builds homes, has also been asked to do more to create joint venture partnerships with private developers to increase the stock of cheap homes, he said.

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Out of Reach

A report by property consultant Knight Frank shows house prices in Dadar, a middle-class area in central Mumbai, are 20,000-30,000 rupees ($370-$550) per square foot, out of reach for people like Bhikankha, 28, who earns 7,000 rupees a month.

He paid 605,000 rupees for his sparsely decorated 2-bedroom flat on the ground floor where he lives with his wife, 2-year-old daughter and 12-year-old sister-in-law.

The top three floors of the 8-storey building have been reduced to rubble by local authorities who in the aftermath of the nearby collapse broke down the walls and ceilings of empty flats built without approval. Electricity to the building has been cut and residents served evacuation notices.

Bhikankha said he has spent the last few days at home as he fears authorities will evict his family and demolish the building when he's at work.

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Crumbling Walls

As workers combed through the rubble of the collapsed apartment, another illegal and occupied building on the same site was being torn down. That 6-storey structure crumbled like a sandcastle as an excavator clawed at the walls, reducing it in moments to a pile of mangled steel and concrete.

"The builders and government are playing with people's lives," said 32-year-old rickshaw driver Mohammad Khalid Sheikh, who lives nearby.

Thirteen people have been arrested and charged on various counts, including culpable homicide and bribery, in connection with the collapsed building that left 74 dead and 62 injured, a spokesman for the local authority said.

Built in under two months with poor quality materials and without the proper approvals, the apartment block stood on forest land in an area where nine of 10 buildings are illegal, officials say. It was still under construction when it collapsed, with the mainly migrant workers and their families living on the lower floors and paying as little as 500 rupees a month in rent.

If a building, despite being illegal, is part occupied it cannot be demolished. That encourages developers to rent out flats at cheap rates while they continue building more floors.

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"People who are greedy and can exploit the system will continue to build these kinds of projects even if there was availability of affordable homes because they have figured an easier way of making money," said Chintan Patel, director of real estate and hospitality at Ernst & Young.

Reshma Ansari lost the only earning member of her family in the Mumbra disaster. Her 60-year-old brother-in-law, who earned about 10,000 rupees a month at a bakery, was selling bread in the building when it collapsed, as one witness said, "like a pack of cards".

Ansari, 20, lives with her husband and infant daughter in another illegal building because it is all they can afford. She said the government should do more to make housing available.

"This happened because of their negligence and now they are out to break every building in the area and put us on the streets, but we won't leave."

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