Bangalore prides itself as the nucleus of the “new India,” a cosmopolitan city where the nation’s growing consumers spend and international businesses thrive. Being the new India often requires supplanting, or ignoring, the old. Unlike other mega-cities in the country, the slums here do not lay openly next to luxury condos. An estimated fifth of Bangalore’s 8 million-plus live in slums, but they are largely hidden, the old kept from the new.
But recently the old and the new collided, in an episode that reveals how the city has stumbled — and faced stern resistance from a new middle class — in its efforts to overhaul its poorest pockets. On January 18, city vehicles arrived and began raising the homes of roughly 5,000 residents in Ejipura, a rapidly changing neighborhood that will soon host a new mall.
In 1984, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the municipal authority, began constructing 1,512 homes on 15 acres of government land in Ejipura set aside for the “economically weaker sections,” or the extremely poor. Soon, though, the properties showed signs of rough wear. In 2003, two of the buildings collapsed in a fatal accident. The BBMP deemed many of the units unsafe and demolished a bulk of the site, with the intention of reconstructing the homes.
But the new homes never came, held back by budget constraints and tied up in lengthy court battles. In 2007, the city opened up the development to a public-private partnership. Despite the business surge in the city, the municipal government has failed to reap the property benefits. With little developed infrastructure in the still-poor nation, the only lucrative asset it can use to lure private partners is land.
The bid winner, a Bangalore developer called Maverick Holdings Private Ltd., agreed to rebuild the housing, plus an additional 900 units, along with a mall on the site. By then, a vast majority of the occupants — around 80 percent, by several estimates — were renting from the original allottees. More than 1,000 families were packed into the government land, mostly in small shacks. Maverick Holdings and BBMP finalized the deal last March, and began issuing evacuation notices in October.
Yet many of these renters remained, intent that they were entitled to stay on the land.
With nowhere else to go, some 800 families are now sleeping in shacks or tents on the sidewalk and in the giant concrete construction barrels. A pair of civil liberties groups are preparing to release a fact-finding report, within the next 10 days, that will likely fault the government with violating the human rights of the residents.
Gallery: Ejipura Displacement Site
Residents of the Ejipura slum pick through what remains at the demolition site.
M S Dorai Muthu, 84, handicapped and asthmatic, sleeps outdoors.
Two days after demolition, this mother and son still sleep in what remains of their house.
Many of the displaced families now sleep on the roadside, using mall advertising banners to protect their belongings.
All photos by Julie McGuire
Dhana Vanni, who pulled out a laminated sheet with her photo and name: A government-issued card, she said, that proved her legal right to live just over the new fence. She stood in front of her two-week-old home, a tiny, makeshift edifice of cardboard and tin with a torn political poster for a roof. As she described her years of trouble and her recent arrest for resisting during her eviction, Vanni, 32, kept a straight face.
But the mother of three broke into tears when she mentioned her 5-year-old son. Two weeks ago, in the rubble, she lost his school uniform with exam time was soon approaching
In their temporary quarters, tenants like Vanni spoke of years of failed promise and faulty counsel from politicians and officials that kept them there, hopeful they would see new units built. Sunil Dutt Yadav, a lawyer who has been working on behalf of the tenant residents since November, said the BBMP failed in its duty to provide for these residents. “They can’t behave like a private developer,” he said of the municipal authority.
As the city shapes its strategy for poorer areas like the Ejipura slum, it has increasingly looked to private alliances. And the real estate firms have leapt at the chance to claim rare central city land.
“Commercial developers have ventured several projects in [economically weaker sections] regions of Bangalore,” said Santhosh Kumar, CEO of operations for the realty firm Jones Lang LaSalle India. The Ejipura site, in particular, is fast becoming a prime real estate spot. A kilometer down the road is Koramangala, an expanding middle-class neighborhood that Kumar argued may be the city’s next central business district. Several commercial enterprises are flourishing in the area, including two sizable malls. Kumar said the neighborhood has the retail potential for at least two more malls.
“It may not be the best place,” a spokesman for Maverick Holdings said of the contentious site. “But it has a lot of potential because it’s part of Koramangala.”
The site’s location has also drawn steady attention from wealthier neighbors. On the sidewalk surrounding the gated acres, former residents mingle with a stream of activists and volunteers. Atif Vakil, who lives and works for an NGO nearby, reported raising 8 million Indian Rupees (about $147,000) for the families, nearly half in the first two weeks following eviction, primarily from local residents. They used the funds to cover new rental advances for 800 families. “We are doing our bit to make sure that people are not on the streets,” he said.
According to BBMP Chief Engineer BT Ramesh, the city has given Ejipura residents sufficient time to vacate. When asked if the warnings were adequate, he responded firmly: “Oh, definitely. Since October, we have been telling them.” Ramesh said the government will build housing for 900 of the tenant families — those, like Vanni, with the biometric cards — within a year and half. Until then, he said, “they have to make their own arrangements.”
Both the city and Maverick Holdings have reportedly offered reparations to the evicted tenants. Residents said they were given money to vacate the premises. The spokesman for Maverick denied that the company has directly offered money. To Yadav, the lawyer, the government’s efforts are dwarfed by the needs of residents. And he asserted that city has used a double standard in its land use policies. One of Maverick Holding’s city properties, the Garuda Mall, was one of several malls recently accused of withholding rent revenues from the city. Yet the city has not taken legal action against the company, even as it has evicted people under technically legal grounds.
The legal case now rests in India’s infamously plodding courts. Residents and volunteers are uncertain if it will arrive or how far the case will extend beyond that.
The developers, too, are waiting in limbo. Although they were prepared for the snag. “If you are doing a [public-private partnership] project in India, you expect these things,” the Maverick Holdings spokesman said. “It’s a part of life here.”
Mark Bergen is a journalist formerly from Chicago and now based in Bangalore, India. He writes the Econometro blog for Forbes.com and has covered politics and policy for GOOD, The Atlantic Cities, Tablet Magazine, Religion Dispatches and the Chicago Reader.