Saturday, 12 May 2007

One Million and Counting

A ceremony was held in Ulaanbaatar on May 8th to honour the birth of the city's one millionth citizen (born April 11th). Actually, the honour was bestowed on three babies born around the same time. After the birth of the children, the President and other worthies rushed to congratulate the families and speak proudly of this milestone event. All well and good, but a Mongolian friend remarked to me that all this celebration seemed a poor joke to him, considering the problems facing the city. The city's real millionth citizen was clearly born some while ago now and possibly to one of the uncounted thousands of people living here off the census books. Some estimates put the city's unofficial population at 1.2 or 1.5 million, with the ger districts growing and getting more crowded, and an unknown number of homeless people still living under the city in the heating system. The estimate for growth of the official population, as quoted in Thursday's UB Post, predicts 3 million citizens by 2015.

New apartment blocks are being built everywhere, but it seems that the demand must be well ahead of supply - for one thing property values are currently increasing by around 20% each year. I am hopeful that if the '40,000' homes scheme - which aims to use public money and private investment to build a new stock of social housing - begins to look like working then the government here might increase the project, as it's my guess that 40,000 homes ain't enough.

Happily for the city's three 'one millionth' citizens there need be no concern over their future housing. The one month olds were each presented by UB Mayor Ts Batbold with keys "too big for their little fists to grab" (UB Post) to single-bedroom apartments. Yes, in a city where people live in the sewers and the monthly rent for an average sized apartment is three times the average wage, the Mayor is handing out flats to babies.

I'm curious about these flats, but there weren't any other details included in the paper. Have they been handed over with any conditions? I mean, do they belong to the babies or their parents? I'm hoping that, however small these flats are, this means that at least three ordinary families here will get a chance to move into their own place and start building a better future - but maybe the flats will just be moth-balled for twenty years until the babies can make use of them - or sold so Dad can buy a Humvee.