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Alley Reflects New Delhi's Class War


To India now, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is notorious. India is set to become a powerhouse in the global economy, and life there is getting better for some, including a growing middle class. But hundreds of millions of poor are still struggling. And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi, conflicts are developing between the new India and the old.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

For months, this fetid alleyway in the depths of India's capital city has been the front line in a conflict between two communities separated by just a few yards. It's a slum so crowded you can stand in the middle, stretch your arms out and touch roofs on either side. Many hundreds of men, women and children have lived here for years, crammed together in rat-infested hovels no bigger than the average chicken coop. Several days ago, they were told they must go.

GITA YADHA(ph): (Through Translator) The society people think that this area makes their flats look very untidy, and they would like a place to walk in and to enjoy themselves. They don't want this anomaly here.

REEVES: Gita Yadha, a mother of four. The society to which Gita refers represents residents of two modern apartment complexes which loom up on either side of the alleyway. The slum dwellers are mostly migrants who, like millions of others, have for decades poured into the capital from India's impoverished rural states in search of a living. For them, life hasn't changed much over the years. The residents belong to a growing body of middle-class metropolitans. The government workers who originally lived in these apartments have increasingly been replaced by doctors, businessmen and lawyers, beneficiaries of the new booming India.

(Soundbite of pump)

REEVES: In the alleyway, only three water pumps and a dozen latrines cater for the throng of people. Conditions are dismal. These two worlds of haves and have-nots have coexisted here for a long time, held loosely together by a certain mutual dependency. Back in the '80s, the slum people actually helped build these apartments. Many of them now work in them as cooks or security guards or drivers.

Now a group of residents has decided it's time to break this unspoken bond. The slum's in East Delhi's Mayev Bihar(ph) area. It was, of course, built without zoning permits. No one was surprised when the residents won a court order for its demolition. On Monday, bulldozers from the city authorities moved in, only to find the residents wouldn't move out.

Ms. SIMA DASH(ph) (Through Translator) We lay in front of the bulldozers because we don't have the money to move to another place and rent it out. It costs around 2,500 rupees to do that. And we have children to take care of, too.

REEVES: That's Sima Dash. For some $20 a month, she works as a cook in the apartments, so she knows what the residents think.

Ms. DASH: (Through Translator) They consider us garbage, and if they removed us from here, they would have a lovely path to walk, which is why they want to remove us from here.

(Soundbite of birds)

REEVES: Inside the apartment courtyards, the world seems a much gentler place. New city runaround cars are parked amid the potted plants. The place has cable TV, Internet connection, a private generator, intercoms and guards. The scene is tranquil; the mood is not.

Dr. B.P. BARUA(ph) (Radiologist): Slum in the front, slum in the back, slum in the side.

REEVES: Radiologist B.P. Barua is among those who believe India's slums shouldn't be in his back yard.

Dr. BARUA: These slums, they spread all unhygienic, dingy, unhygienic (unintelligible) of living, and they spread right from the mite to parasite to bacteria, fungus, whatnot.

REEVES: Today the bulldozers came again.

(Soundbite of bulldozers)

REEVES: This time they got the job done. The slum people protested for a while...

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of People: (Shouting in unison in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of People: (Shouting in unison in foreign language)

REEVES: ...and then mourned as their homes were swiftly flattened.

(Soundbite of mourning)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The man from the city authorities insisted the slums' inhabitants had been offered alternate plots of land elsewhere in Delhi, but slum people said that didn't apply for all of them. Some people, they said, have nowhere to go but the street.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: `What do we do now?' asked this man. `You tell me. We've been driven out of our homes.'

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Scenes like this are being played out in India's major cities. The authorities in New Delhi say they want to turn the capital into a modern city befitting India's role as a rising economic superpower. Slum clearance is part of that. That's failed to impress Surandra Kumar(ph), who's lived in a slum almost all of his 23 years.

Mr. SURANDRA KUMAR: (Through Translator) I want to ask if we can become a superpower only by bulldozing the houses of the poor. India is quickly improving for the rich people, but not for us. For us, we're just getting poorer.

REEVES: Statistics say he's wrong, but right now some of them certainly feel that way. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.