Khirki's dilemma: Want Africans to go, but who pays such rent?
Illegal homes mean Indian tenants would pay half the rent that the Ugandans pay. So unwelcome tenants stay, but remain unacceptable.
Had it not been for his roommate from Uttar Pradesh, he stood no chance of getting that flat on rent, a Delhi-based journalist was told recently by his former landlord in Malaviya Nagar. "You Assamese, you anyway don't think think of yourself as part of this country, no?" That's what Ashish, the journalist, recalls most vividly about that conversation. When the ugly spat broke out in neighbouring Khirki Extension in Delhi following a midnight raid by Delhi's law minister Somnath Bharti, Ashish was not surprised in the least.
"Of course Bharti has the popular support on this issue. Whatever the world may say and protest (about the raid), residents of this area would be the happiest (with such raids)." In fact, it's quite clear why Bharti chose this place to practise what many are describing as his "midnight social work".
The Khirki extension and the village of Khirki along with a few other urban villages including adjacent Hauz Rani and Chiragh Delhi are mostly clusters of unauthorised houses. Given the comparatively cheaper rents in the heart of otherwise unaffordable South Delhi, these places are popular among students and young working professionals. Homes here are much in demand as these places are well connected to the metro rail network.
"If there were no legal problems, the rents would have shot up just like any other South Delhi colony," rues a house owner. The unhappiness is visible on his face. His counterparts in places such as Kalkaji or CR Park in Delhi would have earned twice what he makes in rent. To him, the identity of his tenant is a painful reminder of the legal hassles. "These African boys are simply not tolerable," he grumbles. But why does he rent the flat to them? The truth is, an Indian tenant would pay no more than half the rent the African pays.
Most of these houses were not authorised to construct more than three floors, but have built five storeys anyway. "Many of them don't have required permits for water. Why do you think there is such a large water crisis here? The water meant for five people is being distributed among 30," says Rajvir Singh, a property dealer. But the landlords from the predominantly Hindu neighbourhood rent out the flat to Africans only because that fetches more money. And often, that comes with a cost -- their tenants do not match up to the landlords' own clearly defined standards of what is 'moral', acceptable and 'decent'.
That is where the problem starts -- the old square peg and round hole. The Africans, among whom Khirki and Saket are popular residential destinations, do not fit the bill of their landlords' definition of morality. And the house-owners are the local votebank, the members of the Residential Welfare Committees (RWA).
In fact, the disdain these residents and landlords have is not limited to the African nationals -- anybody who is not North Indian, anybody not Hindu gets treated slightly differently by the locals, as the Assamese journalist Ashish found out.
The RWA in Khirki recently published a pamphlet proudly claiming that along with their successful installation of CCTV cameras on the streets and the cleaning of sewer lines, they have also somewhat managed to "cleanse" the streets of transgenders and Africans. "This is infuriating, does it mean that they are trying to clean the roads of Africans and transgenders as if they are no better that the sewage?" asks Nishant, a painter who is a homosexual.
The apathy is not reserved for the Africans alone. "With Muslims, it gets worse. No one even rents out a house to a Muslim. I lived here for five years and managed to find a small room in a ghetto-like gully inside Khirki village, which itself is a ghetto," says Mohammad Salim, a photographer, who lives in Mumbai now.
This is not the first time that a local politician has attempted such a populist stunt even at the cost of being labelled a racist, despite his actions drawing considerable flak to the party. In 2011, an underground bar run by a couple of Africans was ransacked by supporters of a vigilante right wing group; the structure of the bar was broken down as it was not authorised. It was a den of anti-social elements, claims a BJP worker in Malaviya Nagar. "Where do we go then? Most Delhi pubs don't allow Africans," asks Christopher Mbange, a Ugandan national, who is preparing for a law entrance exam in Delhi University. The underground pub still runs somewhere in Khirki. "I had been there,and it was good fun chilling with my African friends," claims Pablo, a photographer from Kolkata, who visited the pub a few times. Friendly Indians have been invited there too.
The reality beyond the news articles and op-ed pieces slamming Bharti's racist action is that to most of the property-owning middle class residents of Malaviya Nagar and Khirki, the raid was a welcome move.
"These black guys are all peddlers. Did you see the way the women dress?" asks Anish Yadav, a bank employee from Khirki extension.
Many others in Khirki echo what Ashish says. It proves only one thing -- Bharti's play to the gallery remains a hit among his target audience. Bharti has managed to exploit the popular sentiment against the police too. "Often we get calls to the PCR that some African guys are creating a ruckus or two women are standing on the road. We get the same calls against transgenders also, but legally we cannot arrest them or take any action against them," says a beat policeman from Malaviya Nagar police station. The residents however claim that the policemen take bribes regularly to let these businesses thrive.
It's a blame game that has been going on in this place for some time now. And politicians like Somnath Bharti will only champion these causes as long as the sheer fear of the 'other' thrives among locals.
(Some names have been changed.)
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