Living along a drain: How Delhi’s housing crisis aggravates environmental hazards

The lack of affordable housing for the urban poor living on the streets of East Delhi creates a host of challenges including environmental ones.

Sujanbai, 46, has been living in Anna Nagar in East Delhi for over six years now, earning her living as a street vendor of seasonal fruits. And yet she laments, “There is no space to live in this Dilli. Not even on the footpath. The police come and shunt you out. This is the only space along the nalla (open drain) where I’m able to put a cot for my family to lie on.”

This space that Sujanbai refers to is the site of a settlement, perched on the ridge of a nalla or drain in Anna Nagar. This was literally the only available land for people living here, who entered the city approximately 20 years ago. Sujanbai’s house, like others, is a makeshift dwelling along this drain that overflows and floods the area every year during the rains. “Then we find refuge on footpaths here and there. Sometimes, there are temporary relief camps set up in shelters provided by the Sarkar,” she says. 

Read more: Housing in Delhi: Ultimate dream of people slipping out of reach

As per the Economic Survey of 2020-2021 released by the Delhi government, New Delhi housed approximately 6.75 million individuals in substandard living conditions within low-income settlements. This figure includes 695 slum settlements, 1,797 unauthorised colonies, and 362 urban villages. However, experts suggest that these statistics represent conservative estimates at best, with the actual number of slum dwellings far exceeding those listed by the DUSIB.

Living on the edge

This grave crisis of affordable housing implies that people are forced to live in makeshift arrangements in risky environments. In the absence of available land for the urban poor, individuals are often compelled to construct housing atop pipelines and on whatever available land they can find, often along ridges/drains. “If not near these drains, where else can we live?” asks another woman who lives next to Sujanbai.

Sujanbai recalls how, in July 2020, low-income families residing in Anna Nagar’s JJ Basti, found themselves homeless when their homes on land owned by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation collapsed and were washed away due to heavy rain as the drain overflowed. 

The recurrent flooding in Delhi has had a profound impact on the lives of numerous residents living near the floodplains and drainage systems along the Yamuna River in the city. The unpredictability of rains in recent years has made it challenging for these dwellers to sustain their livelihoods, necessitating the creation of alternative arrangements. 

According to 2022 data, there are around 56 bastis situated on the floodplains, housing around 9,350 households, with an estimated population of approximately 46,750 people. The vulnerability of these communities was starkly evident during the 2023 floods, prompting a massive operation that saw the evacuation of over 25,478 individuals from the affected areas.

Everyday struggles

But as Sujanbai points out, living next to the drain is no less challenging during the summer months. While the monsoon season brings the risk of flooding, the extreme heat of summer presents its own set of difficulties. 

Read more: The trials of being an urban farmer in Delhi’s Yamuna floodplains

“During the summer, as temperatures spike, the bhaap [vapour] which rises from the nalla makes the air very humid. Sometimes it even burns my eyes, maybe because the water itself is toxic,” she says, “To add to that, during the summers, there is an increased number of mosquitoes and other insects.”

The photos below capture the fragility of existence of people like Sujanbai and the various risks that they are exposed to.

top view drain shanty
A view from the top: Shanties located near the drainage system. Residents voice concerns over persistent odours and frequent insect infestations, leading to prolonged illness among many. “We fall ill repeatedly,” remarks a resident. “Living so close to the drain, it’s inevitable.” Pic: Anuj Behal.

“It’s a life squeezed between the footpath and the nala below,” says Kamal,22, Sujanbai’s elder son. “Is this what we’re supposed to call home?” Sujanbai lives with her two children in a space of less than 15-20 square feet. Climate vulnerability also becomes more pronounced in living conditions like these. 

In Anna Nagar, a row of makeshift shanties stands alongside the drain for nearly two decades, defying periodic flooding challenges. When water levels rise, there is flooding. Residents have to rebuild their homes once the floods recede, utilizing tarps to create temporary shelters on nearby roads.

footpath drain delhi
The space along the footpath, including the footpath itself, is frequently utilized for storing utensils and other belongings. Often, it serves as the sole available storage area. Pic: Anuj Behal.
shanties delhi
The sheds of the shanties and the railings along the footpath serve as additional storage spaces for essential belongings such as clothes, containers, and more. Pic: Anuj Behal.

Lack of affordable housing

Due to the constrained space along the embankment, shanties are the only structures that can be accommodated,” stated one observer. “The access to these dwellings is through broken ladders, a perilous path that has resulted in numerous injuries,” noted another resident. “We avoid using them at night due to the fear of falling,” they continued, expressing the ongoing safety concerns. Yet, amidst these challenges, residents ponder, “What alternatives do we have?”

The situation in Anna Nagar is not an isolated case of people living around these fringes of the city. The sluggish pace of constructing affordable housing, diminishing land and space allocations for the marginalised, and continual widespread demolitions and evictions have created a host of challenges for the urban poor, environmental and otherwise.

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