Getting on the property ladder in Saki Naka
The Marwah side of the slum is currently a hive of building activity. Porous rust-coloured bricks are stacked one upon the other, stuck together with a glue of wet cement mixed by hand in the lane ways replacing corrugated tin walls in a real estate rush to build and sell one room homes. It’s a game of cat and mouse real-estate where no one actually owns the land they build on; where policemen and politicians roam the laneways, feign disapproval of new construction, puff their chests, point their fingers and yell a bit but move on quickly once their open palms are padded with rupees with the promise of more rupees tomorrow. Slum lords dominate this rush to own and then rent their huts and punish those who disregard their power with beatings and intimidation.
Three generations living along the pipeline.
Mumbai is a city with little regard for those who sit back and just watch. Whether you are rich or poor, finding housing and some comfort and security in this city is a tedious, frustrating game of bribes only to put up with poor infrastructure, inadequate water supply and congested conditions. This is the story of the what, where and why of one married couple’s (Priya and Siddhesh) path to buying a one room slum home; one that can be bulldozed with 24 hours notice. Priya sat down with me to answer my questions about the process of purchasing four walls and a cement floor to call home.
(When necessary to clarify an answer or to give more in-depth information I have added my words in italics)
Why did you buy a house in this slum community in Saki Naka?
The home is cheap compared to other areas. If we buy elsewhere (nearby) we would have to pay 25 - 30 lakh* for a one-room home. We paid only 4 lakh. (They paid 2 lakh upfront to the seller and are paying 5% interest to the individuals who lent them the remaining 2 lakh. The purchased home is a basic slum hut that sits on the gritty, grimy, garbage strewn bank of the wide gutter that runs through the community. Rats run rampant and the stench of human waste mixed with decomposing garbage is an assault on all the senses. Mosquitos that carry dengue and malaria breed uninhibited in this festering mess of liquid.)
The front of Priya's newly purchased home.
Why is a hut in Saki Naka cheaper than other areas nearby?
We bought in an area of the slum that is on private land so we are squatting. If the owner never needs his property we can stay. If he sells his property or makes us move, he must pay us out a sum of money. Also, the government can’t come in and bulldoze privately owned land like they do in slum areas on government land. My house is less money to buy because it only has two brick walls which is the back and side of someone else’s home. The other two walls are corrugated tin. It doesn’t have a proper roof and is below the grade of the laneway which means it floods in the monsoon. (It is like buying a fixer-upper and hoping to improve it over time. Regarding demolition in this area - we have witnessed the demolition of slum homes in this area a few years ago. The probability of being them being paid out to move off private land should the land owner insist, is low and would involve a very long process of bribes, scams, schemes and patience to win that gamble).
Slum home under construction in Saki Naka.
You don’t live in the home you just purchased. Where do you live now?
We live in a rented 10 x 10 foot home above another home. It costs 3500 rupees* a month. We choose to live in the this (rented) home because the home we purchased is not in good condition and we want to rebuild it. We rent it to a family for 1800 rupees per month.
How did you afford to buy this home?
My husband and I purchased a very small piece of land north of Mumbai a few years ago that we sold for 2 lakh. We should have been able to sell it for 3 lakh but we needed the money quickly to make this deal. We put a small amount of money down as a deposit on the home in Saki Naka and we would lose that money if we didn’t complete the sale. The cement floor and walls of that hut had to be fixed before we could sell it so we borrowed 15,000 rupees from a friend for the repairs. I sold jewellery given to me by my family years ago for dowry payment as well as a few small pieces I purchased for myself as an investment for a total of 1 lakh. (They had a love marriage so no dowry was required at the time of marriage) I borrowed 10,000 rupees from another friend for the down payment and I borrowed 1 lakh from another family friend who is charging us 5 percent interest.
Priya's tenants inside the home she just purchased.
You are married. Is this home in both names or just one?
The house will be in my name so if something happened to my husband, my husband’s relatives couldn’t claim it and remove me. Because I am a female my family can’t claim a share against my husband if I died.
How big is this home?
It is approximately 7 feet by 15 feet. It has a cement floor and a small half wall bathing/dish washing area in the corner. We would like to build a second floor above this floor but that would be very costly for us.
Who did you buy it from?
We purchased it from a man who owns 15 tin or brick homes in the area. He owns the homes because he “caught” them first. He planted a bamboo pole in the ground and then built tin homes, renting them or selling them to others. When he first ‘caught’ the homes a few years ago he charged 5000 - 10,000 rupees per home but now he can charge 4 lakh to 10 lakh per home. (Vacant land is “caught” by simply putting a stake in the ground and then having family members take turns around the clock sitting by the pole until four walls are built. Slum lords have been known to threaten people who “catch” property in their area with death, beatings and at the very least intimidation.)
Building frenzy in the community. Politicians arrive to collect their pay.
What does he charge to rent his one room homes?
He charges 4000 rent on his brick homes and pays off the police and politicians to keep his monopoly on housing in this part of the community.
What paperwork do you need to buy an illegal slum home?
I have to go to an advocate (lawyer) to draw up papers. That will cost 25,000 rupees. This is a bribe to have ‘legal’ papers back-dated to 1993. If you prove you have owned a slum home since 1993 or before then the home is legal and the government has to pay you to move. If you buy a home after 1993 your home is considered illegal. Paying bribes is an obligation to get paperwork completed. (At present she has not gone to a lawyer to draw up “legal” papers - but she has given the deposit on the home of 2 lakh so has no proof of payment.)
Will you have to pay bribes to improve your home?
We will have to pay a bribe to the man we bought the home from. He can ask for any amount. I will have to use his men for construction.
How much will it cost to rebuild this hut and make it liveable?
It will cost at least one and a half lakh for the construction of brick walls and to raise the floor above the outside gutter. First we will have to pay the slumlord 50,000 rupees deposit, then 15,000 per month until we have paid for the building costs of one and a half lakh. (One day labour costs are 600 - 800 rupees). When we sell this house the slumlord will take 1 - 2 lakh commission. The builder will make fake documents as required. I think we will have to wait at least one year to be able to afford to rebuild this house.
A slum home under construction near Priya's home.
What improvements will you make to this home?
We will replace the tin walls with brick. Each brick wall will cost about 10,000 to 15,000 rupees. I will build an inside western toilet, a ‘proper’ kitchen with a basin, install a two burner cooker, and have bathing area in the corner. I want to tile half way up the four walls to keep my home cleaner and reduce the number of times I have to paint to lower costs. We will make the furniture and install a cupboard for clothing. We will sleep on the floor on a mat. (The toilet and kitchen sink will drain into the gutter, running water will come from communal taps plumbed through the wall, the “kitchen” will be a narrow shelf with a basin sunk in with a drain into the gutter; the bathing/toilet area will be in the corner of the room with a half wall or a curtain for privacy. Communal toilets will be used as well).
The homes in the slum are attached to each other? What expenses are shared, if any?
We have to pay 8000 rupees (one time) for the installation of a cement pad outside my home that is shared with 8 other homes facing it. I will pay 50 rupees each per month for cleaning of the communal toilets, gutter cleaning and garbage removal. (No one cleans the toilets, the garbage is thrown into a pile and burned and the gutters overflow. This is simply bribe money paid to a slumlord with connections that will make life miserable if you don’t pay)
What are your monthly expenses?
We are renting now in a chawl* paying 3,500 rupees a month to my landlord. Our electricity bill is 500 - 600 rupees a month; water bill is 100 rupees a month; food averages 3000 rupees a month; clothing soap etc. 500 per month; 5000 per month interest payment on our loan of 2 lakh; gas cylinder costs 1100 for 3 months. On the home we purchased in Saki Naka I have to pay a maintenance fee to the slumlord. Water will cost 20 rupees per month. The electricity bill will be paid to Rajveer’s father who steals electricity from Reliance and then charges 100 rupees for each item in my home that uses electricity (fan/lightbulb).
What are the benefits of owning a home versus renting a slum home?
If we own a home with proper paperwork we will be able to get money for the home if the slum is demolished and we might be eligible for an SRA apartment. (Slum Rehabilitation Apartment built and maintained by the government of Maharashtra). If we own a home we will be able to sell it or rent it. When we can afford to build we can make our home nicer (tile walls, western toilet) than a rented home.
Entrance to the Marwah side of the community (Blue painted Muslim Prayer Room).
You have purchased a home on private land. Why do you believe that your home won’t be demolished?
This area of the slum has a sign erected with a registered number posted on it that declares this community of homes are legal. There is a Muslim prayer room at the entrance to the community which would make it much more difficult to demolish the entire area. (The registered number was paid for in bribes to a politician who doesn’t care if the slum is demolished.)
What if the land owner decides to go ahead with a development plan and demolishes the homes anyway?
The owner of the land will have to pay money to the people who have legal paperwork regarding ownership of their home to get them to move off the land or we hope the government will give us an SRA apartment (Slum Rehabilitation Apartment) as an incentive to vacate the property. (The SRA scheme is a government initiative to reduce or rid Mumbai of slums, compressing slum-dwellers with the necessary paperwork into vertical apartments when their slum home has been demolished. These apartments are found in many parts of Mumbai and are often in deteriorating conditions, up to 10 stories high, often with non-functioning elevators, no garbage disposal and act as informal slums in the sky. The buildings are built within feet of each other with little to no light and air-flow.)
What is a slum lord and how do they get that position with all the power to intimidate and terrorise the community?
The woman who is the slumlord in our area is the daughter of a powerful couple who are slumlords in the other area of the community. They have had power for years and use it to intimidate and bully families into submission. (They live in a large slum home along the pipeline and have servants, running water, toilets, bedrooms). The use of force (beatings, killings, threats) keeps people in line and frightened. All slum issues go through this family and they extort money for everything including building, renting, and maintenance such as garbage disposal and gutter cleaning. Their permission is required before anyone can undertake the building of a slum home. The police and politicians are involved with this family and get a cut of all bribes. (Anyone vying for power will have to deal with constant threats, police harassment, arrests on false charges and vandalism. Extreme greed and no conscience are required traits of a slum lord.)
Priya’s dream is to own a home. Her living conditions will not improve, but her sense of achievement will despite the debts she is taking on and the slim likelihood of her making money with slumlords taking a cut of any profit she may make down the road. Like homeowners anywhere, they hope for equity and mobility up the property ladder giving them and their children some security. The tangled financial burden and the stress of borrowing money from nefarious lenders is a heavy load to carry.
According to World Bank statistics 54% of the population of Mumbai live in slums in unhygienic, cramped, hot, musty, unhealthy conditions surviving for years or generations. Priya and Siddhesh make a combined monthly income of approximately 20,000 rupees. Mumbai’s real estate market is the priciest in India because of land values and migration. Slum dwellers have no hope of entering the real market which is why slum communities pin their dreams on tin huts built on snippets of land between high-rises and on the banks of filthy rivers. The middle class (loosely defined - in reality only 2% of the population India are considered middle class) in Mumbai also have a difficult time buying apartments and maintaining their precarious hold on real estate. (Currently in Saki Naka a 325 square foot middle class apartment in an 8 year old building is priced at 50 lakh.) Long working hours and difficult commutes are the only solution for affordable housing for those with middle incomes. By 2025 the World Bank estimates Mumbai will have 22 million people living in slums built on land they don’t own and can’t afford to buy, waiting for the bulldozers to move them on.
*one lakh is approximately: 1800 CAD dollars/1300 US dollars
*50 rupees is approximately: 1 CAD dollar/ 67 rupees is approximately 1 US dollar
*chawl - tenement from 2 to 4 stories high housing numerous people in small rooms.