New philanthropic efforts that will forever change the trajectory of the lives of 300 squatter families in Fiji are now underway by the Bhindi family, owners of the Southern California-based Bhindi Jewellers.

Poor sanitation and unhygienic living conditions are the main problems that plague the current squatter settlements. The prospect of a real home that will cost the squatters zero money is an indescribable one.

The squatter resettlement program, the first of its kind, will cost the Bhindi family $12 million.

The project will entail subdividing 25 acres of land in Makoi into 300 individual lots that will have all the necessary infrastructure for resettlement and development.

Sharon Begum, 42, and her family, who have been living in the squatter settlements for more than two decades, told Fiji Sun Online that the proposed move has renewed her opportunity for a better life for her eight-year-old daughter.

“This area is a wetland and it is hard for us to stay here. The major difficulty we find here is to construct flush toilets…septic tanks emit bad smell. This is unsanitary and a hazard to human health,” she was quoted as saying by the Fijian publication.

Approximately 2,500 squatters living in the informal settlements of Nanuku and Veidogo in Vatuwaqa, Suva will be relocated to Makoi.

“We are the first family doing this kind of project which will tremendously help improve the living conditions of the squatters. They are vulnerable and have subpar housing,” Vinod K. Bhindi, CEO of Bhindi Jewellers, told India-West. “Fiji is a small country and the government can only do so much. Giving to others was something dear to my Dad’s heart. We wanted to do something in honor of my Dad.”

Vinod is the oldest son of Karsanji Bhindi, a fifth-generation goldsmith who emigrated from India to the Fiji Islands with the hope of sharing his craft. He opened the first of many future stores in the Fijian city of Suva. In 1975, Karsanji’s three sons, Vinod, Jayent, and Dhanesh, joined the family business and under the tutelage of their father became masters of the gold jewelry trade. Although they moved their business and their families to Artesia, California, their roots remain in Fiji.

The estate in Makoi, Vinod said, would be named after his Dad and noted philanthropist Karsanji Bhindi.

The formal announcement of the relocation of these squatter families was made on Oct. 24 by the Fiji Attorney General and Minister for Economy, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum.

The Bhindi family, he explained, is working in tandem with the Fijian government. The Fijian government will offer each of these families $15,000 under a grant for first-time homebuyers.

Bhindi added, “My family and I are also contributing $1,000 to each of these families to help them move. Basically, we are subdividing the land, giving it to the squatters and giving each family $1,000 – if they don’t have the means to move then that’s a burden placed on them.”

Land leases and titles will be given to the squatters free of charge. The squatters will obtain a legal ownership of the land in Makoi under a 99-year lease.

“They will not be able to sell them to anyone,” he explained to India-West. “It’s only for them to live. It will be regulated by the government. Each owner will have a title to the lot. They can borrow money against it to build a house. But they can’t sell the land and go back to being squatters again.”

Vinod K. Bhindi continued, “We are giving these squatters a lifetime opportunity to own a piece of land – something they can call their own.”

The new development will provide the squatters a home that will give them access to water, electricity, and garbage pickup services. It will also feature sealed roads and sewage systems.

The Bhindi family also intends to create a greenbelt, providing the squatters an opportunity to make ends meet.

“Part of the land will be allocated to [the squatters] so that they can plant there,” the veteran jeweler told India-West. “For example, we’ll give them 20 meters by 20 meters so they can plant whatever vegetables they want which help them become self-sufficient. If they do not have a job, they can at least get something from the land,” he said.

The project will commence in about six months, and, within a year, he said, they should be able to move to their new place.

“The squatters are all excited and ready to move,” said Bhindi. “We had a joint meeting with the government and the squatters a year ago before I started this project. I told them about our plan and asked them, ‘Would you like to move?’ They jumped at the idea and were very happy.”

Bhindi ended on this note, “We have modest and humble beginnings. We are most definitely following in the philanthropic ways of my late father. His charitable contributions throughout the years always remind me that the interests of the Fijian community should always be at the forefront.”

—   With input from India-West staff reporter Reena Rathore

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