New Delhi, Feb 1 :
For years, they had called this gritty working class neighbourhood their home, as it was close to universities and hospitals and rents were affordable compared to the rest of the Indian capital.
But now, in the wake of a controversial raid by a Delhi minister against “drug and prostitution dens” directed against “some Africans”, scores of others from the continent, either students, those who had come here for treatment or those who were doing small businesses, are having to move out of Khirki Extension in south Delhi – the target of residents’ hostility and ill-concealed racist feelings against “blacks.”
Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti, who belongs to the fledgling activists-turned-political party called Aam Admi Party, or the party of the common man, did a midnight raid on Khirki Extension, a stone’s throw from glittering shopping malls, a couple of weeks ago alleging Africans staying there were involved in drug and prostitution and he wanted to catch them red-handed. Hundreds of Africans, largely from Nigeria and Uganda, stay in the area.
The incident, criticised by the Indian foreign ministry and by women’s activists and student groups, made national and international news and there were demands for sacking the state law minister. But the residents seemed to solidly back the errant minister who had exceeded his brief.
Nazeer Ahmed, a local resident and one among those protesting against Africans in Khirki Extension, said Bharti did not do any wrong. “The entire African community living here is being looked upon with suspicion for the misdeeds of a few,” Ahmed told IANS.
Ahmed even went to the extent of saying that the problem can be resolved if all the African residents are evicted from the area. He himself asked an African living on rent in his apartment block to vacate.
An African woman, who runs a small restaurant in Khirki, told IANS on condition of anonymity: “Locals are hostile towards us. My landlord has stopped pipeline water supply to my flat and I could not have a bath for three days. Even the people who sell water in the locality charge us a premium.”
She said the Khirki problem sparked off because of the revealing dresses a set of African women wore.
Speaking to IANS, a group of African students said the primary reason for them to come to India is affordable education, scholarships and easy visa availability. “But these incidents are making life difficult for us,” said one of the students, as the others nodded in unison.
There are roughly 15,000 African students living across India at any given point of time, spread across cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Bangalore and other educational hubs.
The lanes in Khirki Extension are narrow, damp and squalid. The houses in the area were constructed in such a fashion that no sunlight falls on the lanes. It is estimated that around 3,000 Africans, mostly from Uganda and Nigeria, live in this area on rent. For a one-bedroom flat an Indian pays Rs.8,000-9,000 ($120-150) per month, while the Africans shell out almost double this.
Bharti’s act of knocking at the doors of Africans in the middle of the night has created ripples across African communities.
Another African woman told IANS that many of her friends have shifted out and she is also planning to shift from Khirki. She pointed out that local Africans chose this place because of its advantageous location in the city.
However, a few residents blamed the police more than the foreigners, many of whom were living here even after their visas had expired and the police let them off after taking bribes. A property dealer operating in the area said the owners preferred the foreign tenants because they pay more rent than the locals.
Bibhuti Basu, a local, said the main cause of concern for the locals is the “sex racket” that proliferated after Africans came to this area in large numbers around two to three years ago. Initially, they supplied Indian prostitutes but this activity was getting easily noticed by the local people.
“After local people started objecting and police interference increased, they switched to African prostitutes so that they don’t have to face problems from the local people. If anybody questions them now, they say that they (the prostitutes) are their friends or relatives,” Basu alleged.
Neelam Kumar, who hails from the area, said she has lost “faith in media” as their reports were biased. “None of them are showing what the residents say.”
Sapna Bhattacharjee, a housewife, said the major political parties were only interested in thier playing power games and not looking into the daily woes of the residents. She said no one from the main political parties ever visited the area despite several complaints by the residents.
There are others who supported Bharti’s actions. Rohit Kochhar, who runs a grocery shop in the area, says there was a reduction in the nuisance created by the foreigners after Bharti’s raid. “Earlier they used to shout, fight and create nuisance the whole night.”
The women living in the area are quite unhappy about the way the foreigners dress up and also alleged that their children were getting “spoiled”.
A daily-wage earner, who is from another state and is now a tenant in the area, said he once bought ganja (cannabis) from an African for Rs.200 – the normal variety sells for around Rs.30-Rs.50 per 10 grams.
He said the Africans are selling local ganja after mixing it with their own concoction, which makes it more potent. “This mix is more addicting than the local ganja available here. That is the reason more and more people are falling for this mixed variety.”
There is also a sizable section that believes the Africans are good tenants and keep to themselves – but after they attend parties and get drunk they become violent and start shouting and fighting. They believe that drugs also might be the reason for the unruly behaviour.
(An IANS special report by Dipankar Das & Aparajita Gupta)