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To some working poor in India, home is parking lot

Posted: March 7, 2012 - 1:02am

NEW DELHI — There is almost no movement in the pre-dawn cold, when the winter fog sits low over the old city and the only light comes from distant street lamps. The parking lot is silent, except for the occasional hacking cough.

So it takes a while to realize there are nearly 100 people in the square of dirt on the edge of the cotton-sellers’ district in the Indian capital. All are asleep in handmade wooden cots jammed one against the other. Dozens more people sleep around a battered empty fountain nearby.

In a few hours, workers will haul away the cots and Meena Bazaar Park No. 2 will fill with cars. By 9 a.m. the overnight community will have disappeared. Its residents will carry their meager possessions in plastic shopping bags until nightfall, when the lot once again will turn into a makeshift outdoor motel.

This is home. Some stay for one night. Others remain for decades, raising children who in turn raise their own children here.

For thousands of people struggling at the bottom of India’s working class, this bleak vision and the handful of places like it scattered across New Delhi are 60-cent-a-night refuges.

Every day, thousands of new residents arrive in this constantly growing city, part of a nationwide wave of urbanization bringing tens of millions of migrants from India’s poorest states. In New Delhi, most of the new arrivals go into the city’s sprawling slums, or into the maze of crumbling concrete neighborhoods where rents are cheap.

But many come here. Even a tin shanty can cost upward of $75 a month in New Delhi, an amount that would take many of the parking lot’s residents weeks to earn. Few of them hold regular jobs, or earn more than $4 a day.

Then there are the identity documents that police demand in regular sweeps through the slums. Anyone without proper paperwork, whether an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh or an Indian with excessively tattered documents, faces constant demands for bribes.

The police rarely bother with Meena Bazaar Park No. 2, a place so cheap it largely operates off the legal radar.

The people asleep in the parking lot are day laborers, professional beggars and itinerant peddlers who sell costume jewelry from vinyl suitcases. They are rural dreamers looking for better lives, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and small-town boys who fled their homes after falling in love with the wrong girls. There are pious Muslims and once-proud men stumbling into opium addiction.

While most residents are men, there are also babies and old people and a litter of puppies huddled in one man’s blanket. They warm up by burning piles of garbage, and the stench of charred plastic clings to their clothes.

“I need this place,” said Satpal Singh, a 24-year-old who earns $3 a day as a waiter during the city’s tumultuous wedding season. “Where am I going to find a house in this city?”

The son of a tenant farmer, Singh came to New Delhi 10 years ago because he couldn’t find work in his home village, in a poverty-ravaged area about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. Like many residents, he spends part of the year in New Delhi, working when he can, and goes back to his home village when the jobs trail off.

If the parking lot doesn’t seem much like a home, Singh insisted it’s not that bad. “I’ve been here for a long time, so I’m used to it,” he said. Plus: “For just 30 rupees (60 cents) a night I even get a blanket.”

It was a cold morning, and Singh spoke with just his head poking out from beneath a thick, cotton quilt. He was strangely oblivious to the cigarette smoke drifting from under the quilt at the foot of the cot.

Eventually, another man’s head appeared, the hair greasy and mussed, and a cheap cigarette held between his lips.

It was Mohammed Rasheed, also 24. The two longtime friends share an easy camaraderie, as well as a bed on the coldest nights. It keeps them warmer, and cuts the cost to just 30 cents a person.

It’s how things work in the community of migrants.

“I know these people,” Singh said, nodding toward the beds around him. “We eat food together. We sleep here together. We know each others’ stories.”

But few people would choose to live here if they had another choice, particularly the families. Parents have to take young children with them to work, often leaving them to play on construction sites or in alleyways. If there is no money for school, children are often sent to work before they even reach adolescence.

“This is not a place for a family,” said Mohammad Muzaffar, who came to the parking lot 15 or 20 years ago — he’s not sure how long it’s been — and is now raising two toddlers there with his wife, Reshma. But Muzaffar, who works as a wedding-season waiter and a rickshaw driver, has no identity papers. He sees no way to get his family into an apartment.

“We are poor people,” Reshma said, explaining why their children will grow up there. “We don’t have anything.”

No one seems to know how long these outdoor motels have been around. Many of the city’s housing advocates do not even know they exist, given the way they disappear after daybreak.

But their need is essential.

With India’s surging economy drawing ever more rural residents to its cities, the country’s housing shortage has become critical.

A 2010 study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that India then faced a shortage of 25 million urban households, a number that could leap to 38 million by 2030. More than 8 million people — or about half of New Delhi’s 16.7 million people — are believed to live in slums.

“There isn’t a mechanism to house the people who are coming,” Ajit Mohan, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview. “You have to plan for something like this five, 10 or 15 years in advance, and that’s not going on.”

Government officials, he said, “haven’t embraced affordable housing as something they have to deliver.”

So places like the Meena Bazaar camp have sprung up to feed the demand.

In summer, thousands of people crowd New Delhi’s outdoor motels. In winter — New Delhi winters get surprisingly cold for such a hot climate, with temperatures sometimes falling to just above freezing — the crowds thin out as people return to their home villages or find warmer places to sleep.

Eventually, the lucky find better places to live. But no matter how many people move out, there are always more ready to move in.

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