In India, High Prices Spark Homeownership Feuds

Real estate has plummeted in value in some parts of the world, but in India's capital, it costs a fortune to buy a decent home. Sky-high property prices are producing family feuds over homeownership and cases of people trying to swindle the elderly into parting with their houses — including an unusual case involving a particularly distinguished Indian woman.

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In the capital of India, New Delhi, it costs a fortune to buy a decent home. Those prices are producing family feuds over ownership and they are also producing cases of people trying to swindle the elderly into parting with their homes. NPR's Philip Reeves has the story of a distinguished Indian woman.

PHILIP REEVES: Lautica Sakaa(ph) is a tiny woman with large, expressive eyes and a long, gray pigtail. She's 87. The years are taking their toll. Her memory comes and goes. She hasn't forgotten she was once one of India's most eminent lawyers, a person who played such a pivotal role in campaigning for women's rights that she became known as the mother of feminist jurisprudence. Yet no matter how hard she tries, she can't remember how or why she gave away her home to someone else.

Ms. LAUTICA SAKAA: See, that day I was so indifferent to everything. And if they said, if they'd asked me to sign this as a gift, because it was necessary to work it out properly, I must have signed it. I have never denied having signed it.

REEVES: Sakaa is now living with friends. She thinks about her home every day.

Ms. SAKAA: It's a two-storied house. There's the bedroom and a nice, really nice living room, and we had a fireplace. That was one of the things that my husband and I decided, we must have a fireplace. And upstairs there's two rooms.

REEVES: Sakaa bought the property decades ago with her husband, a prominent journalist who died in 2005. It didn't cost much back then. Things have changed. The house is in the south of India's capital, New Delhi, in an area that's since become very fashionable.

Mr. RANDEEP CHANDIOAK(ph) (Realtor): I'm Randeep Chandioak. I am a realtor in the south of Delhi and I deal in one of the - you could call it the Rolls Royces of all the properties in Delhi.

REEVES: Chandioak says the change began when India started to open up its economy in the early '90s. The rise in real estate prices has been astonishing, he says.

Mr. CHANDIOAK: Well, they just shot through the roof. It's unbelievable. It's become one of the most expensive places in the world.

REEVES: We're standing next to a villa. It's quite a reasonable size. It's two stories and it's typical of the sort of building you'll see around here. How much would you say that costs now?

Mr. CHANDIOAK: Five million U.S. dollars plus.

REEVES: People with modest incomes, including lots of government officials, are now worth a fortune, simply because of the value of their homes. As prices have soared, so have battles over ownership. Chandioak says he regularly comes across property feuds.

Mr. CHANDIOAK: Oh yeah, every day.

REEVES: Sakaa signed away her house two years after the death of her husband. This is the man she gave it to.

Mr. NOMAL DONDIALE(ph): I'm a person who never does anything wrong.

REEVES: His name is Nomal Dondiale.

Mr. DONDIALE: I'm a person who looks after old people. I'm a person who's very different.

REEVES: Dondiale is a senior police official, an inspector general in the Indian state of Bihar. He's sitting in the house where Lautica Sakaa spent most of her life. He says he's been a friend of the Sakaa's for years and gestures at some pictures on the sideboard.

Mr. DONDIALE: See the photographs? She how affectionate it is like this? We are bonded.

REEVES: The photos show him and his son alongside Lautica Sakaa. She's been like a mother to him, he claims.

Mr. DONDIALE: I did great service to the Sakaas. My wife stayed here for almost four years looking after her. It's not an easy task. Hmm? And don't tell me that we did it, not out of love, but for property, never. Hmm? If it were so, there's so many instances in life when one can get whatever one wants, especially being a public servant, but I've never done this.

REEVES: Lautica Sakaa has made many powerful friends during her high-flying career as a lawyer and professor. Some of them have formed a support group to try to get her house restored to her. They've gone to court and filed a police complaint against Dondiale, accusing him of cheating her. They include Dr. Mohan Rowl(ph). He remembers first discovering Sakaa had lost her home.

Dr. MOHAN ROWL: He was shocked. He couldn't believe that she had done this. We couldn't believe it. Actually, most people can't believe it because it's - how could Lautica Sakaa have got herself into such a position, a lawyer of great eminence who fought for other people's rights all her life?

REEVES: Rowl believes Sakaa was confused when she signed the deed of gift.

Dr. ROWL: Nobody gifts of their house when they're alive in this country. Strangely, not one friend of Lautica Sakaa's or relative of Lautica Sakaa's was there when this transaction took place in the court.

REEVES: Rowl wants India's law strengthened to include cast iron measures insuring that any elderly person who signs away their home is of sound mind. But laws in India are often ignored. The courts are painfully slow. There's corruption in the police and the judiciary. Protecting the elderly is never going to be easy.

Mr. KAPITOL KALL (HelpAge India): Most of the senior citizens of Delhi are asset rich and cash poor.

REEVES: Kapitol Kall is from the charity HelpAge India.

Mr. KALL: They offer themselves as a very, very easy object for crime, particularly related to property.

REEVES: HelpAge India has carried out a survey to find out how many old people in New Delhi are being pressured by greedy and ruthless people who are after their properties. Just over half of those who took part said they were being harassed or that they knew another elderly person who was. Often it's their own children, sometimes other relatives or tenants, property developers or servants. Kall says it's hard to know the scale of the problem, as all people are often ashamed to admit to it, especially when it involves their kids.

Mr. KALL: I would think that less than 10 percent of the people would actually approach organizations like ours or the institutional system for redress.

REEVE: Dondiale, a police official, says Sakaa gifted him her house to stop others pressuring her to give them the property. He says that the documents were witnessed and went before a registrar. In January, Sakaa went out from the house for lunch with some friends and didn't return. Dondiale alleges those same people have abducted her to try to persuade her to give the property to them in her will. He wants her back in the house, he says, so that his family can continue caring for her.

Mr. DONDIALE: Frankly, from a criminal aspect, this is a kidnapping. But why it can be called a kidnapping, because Ms. Sakaa is with them and she's (unintelligible) whatever they tell her.

REEVES: She what?

Mr. DONDIALE: She'll (unintelligible) whatever they tell her. They say, no, no, I'm on my own. I'm here on my free will. So (unintelligible) free will.

REEVES: Yet Sakaa doesn't seem to need prompting on this issue.

Ms. SAKAA: (Unintelligible) certainly not never. I categorically (unintelligible) nobody has kidnapped me, but lots of people, my friends, have helped me in many ways. And without their help I don't know where I would have been.

REEVES: With the help of those friends, Sakai's embarked on her final legal battle.

Ms. SAKAA: I'm determined to get my house back. One thing in my life, I must get my house back.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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