The night Nazmin escaped from the fire on the edge of Delhi, the only document she carried to safety was the one that lay folded inside a tiny red wallet she kept tucked in her dress. It was her husband's voter identity card that bore the address of their village in Bihar's Araria district.

Nazmin had left the village of Taran over ten years ago to join her husband Mohammad Sakeem in Delhi to make a living collecting and selling waste. The couple rented a shanty in a slum in Laxmi Nagar in east Delhi among other Muslim waste-collectors from Araria.

In 2007, soon after their first daughter was born, the slum was demolished to make way for the Delhi Metro.

The waste-collectors of Laxmi Nagar moved ten kilometres east to an empty plot of land. In the process, they crossed state boundaries and became residents of Uttar Pradesh.

Once a rural backwater across the river Yamuna, the Uttar Pradesh district of Ghaziabad by the mid-2000s was rapidly being transformed into an extension of Delhi's urban swell, complete with glass-fronted buildings, gated highrise communities – and squalid slums.

The slum colony of the waste collectors took the name Shukra Bazar from the Friday market that used to be held on the periphery of the plot before they moved in. The plot itself was the size of three football fields.

From her tarpaulin-roofed tenement not much larger than a double bed, Nazmin saw the rise of a massive 12-storey high building, which once complete, began to glitter through a hundred windows.

The slum residents call it the "mall" but it is a luxury hotel, Radisson Blu.

Late Friday night in mid-June, the sounds from the slum might not have carried to their rooms, but if the guests at the hotel had looked out of their windows, they would have seen 300 homes aflame.

An affordable housing scheme

In the first week of May, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav lit a ceremonial lamp in a luxury hotel in Lucknow to launch his government’s low-cost housing scheme, the Samajwadi Awas Yojana.

The scheme aims to build three lakh apartment homes in the state by the end of 2016. The homes have been described as “affordable” in government brochures and the chief minister has spoken of the poor as the scheme’s beneficiaries.

But critics have questioned the affordability of the homes.

In Lucknow, an apartment with one bedroom, hall and kitchen is available at Rs 12.25 lakh while a two-bedroom apartment costs Rs 23.25 lakh.

In Ghaziabad, the price of the apartments rises to Rs 15 lakh-Rs 30 lakh.

The minimum wage fixed by the government for a skilled worker in Ghaziabad is Rs 6,666 per month. If a worker puts away a quarter of his earnings every month, it would take him more than 60 years to be able to afford the Rs 15 lakh home.

However, officials emphasize that the flats are being offered at the lowest possible rate in the National Capital Region which is made up of adjoining areas of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, apart from the city of Delhi.

"The per square foot rate [of the flat] has been fixed at less than Rs 3,000, which barely recovers the cost of the construction,” said Vijay Kumar Yadav, the vice-chairman of the Ghaziabad Development Authority, which is building the project. "The same flat would cost Rs 45 lakh in the [real estate] market."

The illegal slum

Around 6 am on June 12, as part of their daily routine, Nazmin and Sakeem travelled to Laxmi Nagar, where they spent the morning going from door to door collecting household trash. They discarded the vegetable wastes in garbage bins and carted back the more valuable detritus of tetrapacks, plastic bottles and wrappers to sort and sell.

At night, Nazmin and her five children went to sleep inside the shanty while Sakeem lay on a charpoy outside. Around 3 am, noises carried over the night air, waking him up. He saw a distant flash of orange. As he pulled out the children and ran to the safety of the slum's periphery, the fire leapt ahead, fed by the combustible waste-pile of plastic outside every home. Within hours, the homes were gutted.

The residents of Shukra Bazar claimed they had lived on the plot of land undisturbed for many years, paying rent to a man they could not name. "If we tell you his name, you'll go away and he'll come here," said Julekha, a woman in her fifties. A dozen voices spoke up in approval. "He will bring ten boys and beat us up."

Last October, the local police and municipal authorities showed up and asked the residents to move out. That's when many discovered the land belonged to the Ghaziabad Development Authority and not to the unnamed slum lord.

The cause of the fire on June 12 is unknown but the residents are convinced that it is part of the efforts to evict them.

In the front of Shukra Bazar lies the luxury hotel, on the side are middle-class apartments, and at the back is Bhovapur, a village that has become a municipal ward. Many accused Chaman Singh, who they said was the pradhan of Bhovapur, of regularly threatening them with eviction.

"His house is right there," said Sakeem, pointing in the distance. "You can go and meet him."

The farmland takeover

At his home, Bhim Singh, Chaman Singh's elder brother, was not very sympathetic to residents of Shukra Bazar. Waving in the direction of the slum, he declared, "They are all Bangladeshis."

The brothers were the sons of the last customary headman of Bhovapur – the tradition ended after Bhovapur ceased to be a village and became a municipal ward. But the Gujjar family, known to have a flourishing property business, continues to be the area's most affluent. They live in an enclave that is a ten-minute walk from the slum, set apart from frenetic, congested Bhovapur by a separate entrance. Chaman Singh was not at home. His brother and nephews sat on green lawns overlooking a set of plush villas. A fleet of SUVs was parked. A child played with a labrador in a corner.

Why were they interested in evicting the slum dwellers, I asked. Was it because of the squalor?

"No, because they are squatting on our land," Bhim Singh said.

But didn't the land belong to Ghaziabad Development Authority? "About 15,000 square metres belong to the GDA but another 3,000 square metres belong to us." The family had been locked in a legal battle over those 3,000 square metres with GDA for three decades.

"There was a village pond where the slum stands," said Singh. "The builders in the area dumped construction debris and whatever was left, the slum dwellers filled up."

He continued: "At one time, the entire land in the area belonged to the farmers of the village, including our family. In 1985, GDA acquired the land to create the township of Kaushambi. Guess how much they paid farmers? Just Rs 3.27 per square metre."

It was his son Yogesh's turn to speak up. "Now guess what is the price of the land today?" he asked. "One lakh rupees per square metre."

In March, GDA published notices inviting bids for the land on which the Shukra Bazar slum stands. The land was carved into three plots, said Gyanendra Varma, the additional secretary, GDA. Two plots of 4,000 square metres each were offered for schools, while one plot of 9,000 square metres for a group housing colony. The subsidised floor price for the bids for the school plots came to Rs 55,000 per square metre. The floor price for the group housing was fixed Rs 90,000 per square metre and the bids were expected to cross Rs one lakh per square metre.

In May, however, a change in leadership took place in GDA. Before he left office, the outgoing vice chairman cancelled the scheduled auctions, without citing any reason.

If Shukra Bazaar had gone under the hammer on June 9, it would have easily fetched more than Rs 100 crore.

Low-cost housing

In the last two years, GDA has earned about Rs 1,200 crore from auctioning plots of land alone. The rising value of land has made Ghaziabad one of the most buoyant cities in Uttar Pradesh. But it has also increased the opportunity cost of keeping land aside for low-cost housing. For instance, if GDA can earn Rs 100 crore from selling the plot of land where Shukra Bhazar slum stands, it is unlikely to use it as a site for low-cost housing, or housing for the "economically weaker sections", as it is called by the government.

The ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation has estimated a shortfall of 19 million homes in urban India. Eleven million of those are in the economically weaker sections or EWS category. A central government initiative called "Housing for All" aims to provide budgetary support of up to Rs 1.5 lakh for an EWS home. But as the experience of Ghaziabad shows, the constraint on EWS homes isn't just the lack of funds but also the premium on land.

"We use our land carefully, like a skilled housewife," said Vijay Kumar Yadav, the vice-chairman of GDA, sitting in a large office, his pastel colour shirt looking pale against the bright coloured wall map behind. Labelled the Ghaziabad Master Plan 2021, it showed the dense city areas abutting Delhi in green, brown and violet, and the farmland in the western part of the district in muted beige.

"We sell land which can fetch us better revenue," Yadav continued. "But the land in the interior is not attractive for builders. If we were to ask you to settle there, you won't go, but labour [the working class] would since they have no option. If a hundred people start living there, then back and forth travel will start, the police's movements will increase, crime would come down. One day, even you will want to move there."

In this way, low-cost housing projects could be used to "draw the big people to an area", Yadav concluded.

But didn't this strategy amount to pushing the poor out of the city?

Yadav admitted to its flaws. "In India, nobody wants to do manual work," he said. "Who doesn't need a sweeper, a cleaner, a plumber? Now if the maid who earns Rs 100 a day lives in Modinagar [a low-income area in the western part of the district] and works in Vaishali [an affluent middle-class area in the east], won't she end up spending all her earnings on daily travel? Wouldn't she rather stay in a slum?"

Wherever we are creating cities, he said, "we are creating slums". The only way to avoid slums, he added, would be to build low-cost housing within affluent residential areas. As a rule, private building projects in Uttar Pradesh must keep 15% of space for economically weaker sections. But the EWS rule has been diluted by allowing builders to deposit money with GDA for the homes that they are unable to build.

"We use that money to build EWS homes," said Yadav.

Currently, apart from 888 homes being built under the Samajwadi Awas Yojana, the GDA is constructing another 288 one-room homes available at Rs 7 lakh each. The homes under the EWS category are coming up in Modinagar, which is as much as 35 kilometres away from Vaishali, the last metro station of Ghaziabad.

On the margins

A day after the fire gutted their home, rain arrived and reduced everything that was left to pulp. On Sunday, Sakeem struggled to make a bamboo pole stand in the moist soil. He was rebuilding the home with a fresh blue tarpaulin sheet gifted by the middle-class families in Laxmi Nagar whose garbage he had been collecting for years.

Hadn't he saved any money, I asked.

"Khaa pee ke sab barobar ho jaata hai. Everything is exhausted in food and other expenses," he said. "I have nothing to even send back home."

Still, last year, when he heard the Prime Minister talk about opening bank accounts for the poor under the Jan Dhan Yojana, Sakeem was tempted to try his luck. He went to the nearby branch of Allahabad bank where officials set him off on a card collecting spree.

"I first got a pin card made for Rs 125," he said. The pin card sounded like a PAN card created for income tax purposes. "Then I got an Aadhar card made for Rs 100." The voter identity card came for free. But the food ration card remained elusive.

Armed with whatever cards he could collect, Sakeem went back to the bank, but all he was given was a parchi or receipt. "They kept saying you don't have this, you don't that, come again."

The back account never got created and now all the cards have perished in the fire.

Meanwhile, in the corridors of Ghaziabad Development Authority, another pet project of the Prime Minister was being discussed. The central government has announced that it will allot Rs 48,000 crore for developing 100 "smart cities" chosen through a city challenge competition. Implementation guidelines for the scheme will be announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday,  along with details of the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation for 500 cities and Housing-For-All by 2022 in urban areas.

A note of the urban development ministry explains the concept of smart cities as "those which have smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure."

Keen to qualify, Ghaziabad has begun the process of installing CCTVs and wireless network along 65 kilometres. Senior officials might soon travel to Dubai for "smart city" training.

But a junior officer scoffed at the plans. "What is the point of installing CCTVs and WiFi when we still don't know how to manage our garbage collection?" he asked.