Last month, a lot of eminent artistes who gained their repute and mass respect in India were served notices to vacate government accommodation in Delhi by December 31 and if they do not obey by this notice they shall be liable to be charged a huge sum as fees for overstaying. In all, 27 renowned people have been sent these notices including Kathak dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj, painter Jatin Das, and santoor player Bhajan Sopori. These artistes were handed over the houses for a three-year period, which was extended each time it hit the deadline.
Prahlad Patel, the Union Culture Minister, said that the artistes would be required to pay their outstanding dues which amount to be as much as Rs 32 crore, as per bills raised by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, if they fail to do so. Patel said, “If they vacate within the deadline, all their dues will be waived off and that the eligibility criteria will be revisited”. He also mentioned that a new policy on who should be accommodated, if any, will be framed only after the allottees have vacated the houses.
The deadline for eviction is December 31 and it is quite intriguing to figure out the depths of this government’s policy for artistes’ accommodation to understand exactly why have they been asked to leave the houses where they have been staying for over two decades.
In the 1970s, under the culture quota, 40 houses in Delhi, the national capital, were set aside especially for artistes who were listed in the list of beneficiaries prepared by the Ministry of Culture. The ministry takes into account an artiste’s repute and other important criteria such as their age and income. According to the guidelines, for an artist to be eligible for a government house in Delhi, he must be 40-60 years of age with a monthly earning not exceeding Rs 20,000. The list of allottees included all kinds of artists such as painters, writers and musicians of repute. Many of them have also been honoured with Padma awards or with other national-level awards. Currently, out of the maximum government quota is for 40 residential units, 23 have already been vacated till date owing to the allottee’s demise or any other reason.
A major policy change was introduced in 2014 by the Narendra Modi government which decided to phase out all kind of quotas in accommodation be it for journalists, sportspersons, or artistes. Under the new policy introduces by the NDA government, only central government employees will be eligible to reside in government accommodation. According to the Ministry of Housing, in some cases, the dues are amounting to crores primarily because of incessant delays and extensions.
The officials of the concerned ministry also continue to claim that many artistes are using the government houses illegally for commercial purposes such as running music or dance schools while some have passed away and their heirs, who are not even the original allottees, still reside in the government allotted houses.
How have the artistes reacted to the house vacation notices?
Pandit Birju Maharaj, Mohiniyattam dancer Bharati Shivaji, Kathak artist Geetanjali Lal, dhrupad artist Ut Wasifuddin Dagar, Kuchipudi dancer Guru Jayarama Rao and painter Jatin Das are among the most well-known artists living in the government quarters who have been served with eviction notices for the 27 houses in question located in areas like Asian Games Village, Shahjahan Road, and Lodhi Colony.
Pandit Birju Maharaj has been living in his quarters on Shahjahan Road for as many as 36 years while Das has been residing in his flat located on Asian Games village for 26 years. Dhrupad artist Ut Wasifuddin Dagar has claimed against these notices stating that unlike ministers, artists do not retire and that he teaches dhrupad out of this home. He says, “The houses under consideration are only 20 extremely simple and small homes and that is also bothering them? We hope that somebody will take a step forward to help us.”
On the same lines, Pandit Maharaj said that he received a notice to vacate his 36-year-old home during the novel coronavirus pandemic and being as old as 83 makes him quite shocked that a notice like this has come at this time. He also appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reconsider this decision while threatening to return his award if forced to vacate the residence.
Furthermore, SAHMAT, the Delhi-based artists’ collective, has also strongly and vehemently protested this decision taken by the Central government. In a statement, SAHMAT mentioned that “Most of the artistes including those who are legendary names and who have been issued these notices are now aged and do not have any other place to reside and many people do not realise the financial condition that they may have to deal with once they vacate these government houses”. The financial conditions of these world-famous artists cannot be ignored as they cannot afford the kinds of market rents in Delhi, especially during these hard COVID times when even the wealthiest of people are burdened by financial disturbances in their balance sheets. Another a cultural organisation affiliated to the RSS, Sanskar Bharati, has issued a request to Patel to reconsider the decision and formulate a new housing policy to cater to the needs of artists.
However, the Ministry of Culture has said that the decision to formulate a new policy or make any further changes has to be taken at the topmost level and any extension in the deadline now will be decided only by the Cabinet Committee on Accommodation.