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The making of a mini-city

By Marie-Helene Zerah

Market forces, collusion of interest and malpractice are all involved in the growth and ad hoc development of a village into a small industrial town and then into a satellite town of a global city. Nowhere is this more visible than in Dharuhera, 70 km from Delhi

Between planning and contingency

This paper aims to highlight the range of interrelated transformations that occur with the emergence and production of urban space. Located on the Delhi-Jaipur national highway, 70 km from Delhi, Dharuhera is apparently an example of a village growing into a small industrial town and increasingly integrated as a satellite town of a global city region. Many of the functional and spatial changes of the last decades can be explained by a rational urbanisation process boosted by the process of public policies and economies of agglomeration. But meandering in the streets of Dharuhera and interviewing a large range of actors uncovers a story of unexpected events and local histories that structure the urbanisation process, introducing complexity and contingency in an apparently straightforward story. In this sense, it is emblematic of an urbanisation process betwixt and between planning and contingency.

The conventional story

Forty years ago, in 1971, 5,266 people lived in the village of Dharuhera. It played a role for the surrounding villages since it had a market and a police station. The first industry was established in 1972 and even though it closed down after a few years, other companies set up their manufacturing units because they benefited from tax and financial incentives in industrially backward districts, and good quality water was available. In 1978, it was declared an industrial zone and a second phase was added in 1987, when Hero Honda set up its manufacturing unit in the village of Joniawas in 1987 (1). Talking about the arrival of Hero Honda, a politician-cum-entrepreneur of Kapriwas highlighted the spillover effect it created: “Industrialisation created more visionaries, increased competition, entrepreneurship and showed people the benefits of education.” (2) Automobile ancillary units of various sizes located their production in the villages around Dharuhera and contributed to the growth of the Delhi auto components industry (Uchikawa 2012). Around 40 registered manufacturing units are located between Dharuhera and Joniawas, Kapriwas and Malpura (Dahiya 2012). Units in other industrial sectors, like United Breweries, have chosen Dharuhera for its connectivity with Delhi and ability to reach urban consumers.

This industrialisation opened new business opportunities, particularly in the transport sector, both for trucks transporting materials and mini-buses or vans for commuting purposes. Truck owners, mostly from Dharuhera or the surrounding villages, are organised in associations, and numerous trucks ply either on the main roads or transport scrap and small materials from one unit to another (3). Other activities, such as shops, small-scale steel-making units and stone-crushers have also benefited from the industrialisation process.

More recently, since the beginning of the 2000s and mainly in the last seven to eight years, a main driver for growth has been the arrival of the real estate industry, with around 10 large residential townships as well as commercial projects (Map 1). The proximity to Delhi and to the international airport (40 km away) as well as cheaper land rates compared to Gurgaon, which is only 30 km away but where real estate prices are increasingly unaffordable, have led many in the real estate industry to position Dharuhera as one of the rapidly growing satellite cities of the National Capital Region (4). 

In 2007, this rapid growth directed the Haryana state government to notify the Integrated Final Development Plan for Dharuhera in 2021. This plan is in continuity with planning interventions and public policies that influence the transformation of Dharuhera. In this narrative, the story is one of a combination of locational and resource advantages (including cheap cost of land), transport connectivity enhanced by public policies, which created the right conditions for industrial development. Indeed, according to the 2001 and 2021 Regional Plan of the National Capital Region Planning Board, Dharuhera is to be developed as one of the 11 regional centres of the entire region and part of the large industrial zone comprising the Dharuhera-Rewari-Bawal triangle. This type of urban development/industrialisation in the periphery of a large agglomeration, fits well with the agglomeration model of a new economic geography.

The other narrative

However, there is another narrative heard often in the streets and homes of Dharuhera. This goes back to the importance of the Rao family (5), the family of Dharuhera whose power was consolidated under British rule since it was given the responsibility of finding military recruits and collecting taxes. They held total dominion over the village since they were the owners of most of the land in Dharuhera, dispensed justice, sorted out interpersonal conflicts, established schools and colleges and undertook social programmes. At the beginning of the 1970s, the then chief minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, held a rally in Dharuhera, apparently to woo voters from the scheduled castes. One member of the Rao family, said to be in a drunken state, tore down the Congress flag and vandalised the stage claiming that no rally could be held on this land without their authorisation. Consequently, as a local politician-cum-entrepreneur of a surrounding village told us, “one drunkard changed the face of the whole village” (6) since large land acquisition for industrial needs was announced shortly after this incident by the chief minister who asserted his overriding power.

What, then, was the real trigger for the new functional role of Dharuhera as an industrial hub? Was it a combination of formal planning and economies of agglomeration, or the emotional response of an angry chief minister asserting his authority over a local leader?

The production of a fragmented ‘mini-city’

Economic forces and market processes are central to the production of urban space. Landowners sell or develop their land, and in Dharuhera ownership is concentrated in a few families that pursue different strategies of valorisation of the land bank. Traditionally, the Rao family parted with some of its land to people close to them, partly to escape the restrictions of land ceiling, and donated some of it for public amenities.

From the 1970s onwards, Dharuhera has been one of the fastest growing settlements in Haryana, with a decadal growth rate of 44% between 1971 and 1981 and more than a doubling of the population in the 1980s. As migrants started to come into Dharuhera, members of the family and some other small owners developed colonies through sub-division and plotting of land on the Baas road (see Map 2). They sold plots either to newcomers or to farmers from surrounding villages who invested in these plots to later rent or sell to migrants. More recently, as the real estate market became more linked to the Delhi consumer, members of the family who owned land in planned residential sectors formed joint ventures with real estate companies to develop high-end residential complexes (7). In the land bank located in the centre of the old city, they partner with the trading communities to develop shops that cater to the growing needs of the population.

Even though a small set of individuals benefit from land development, their decisions are constrained by regulations. In Haryana, legally (8), once an area is identified as having potential for development, it becomes ‘controlled’ and any change of land use needs to go through a set of authorisations from various levels of the town and country planning department and has to follow the land use defined by the development plan (9). Controlled area was introduced in Dharuhera in 1978, and was later extended to part of Kapriwas in 1980 and in 1991 to Maheshwari, Ghatal and Aakera. Consequently, colonies on the Baas road are officially unauthorised even though services were extended by the panchayat till 2008 and the urban local body has now applied for their regularisation. In the surrounding villages, this also complicated the process of change of land use even though this transformation has been very rapid. In the villages of Kapriwas, Joniawas and Malpura located on the side of the highway where the industries are concentrated, farmers have rapidly shifted from agricultural practices to other activities, either by starting shops, small industries and warehouses or by entering the transport business. Some sold their land to small industries. In response to the need for migrant workers’ accommodation, some landowners chose to build dormitories, with rows of rooms, which are rented for Rs 1,000-1,200 per month and accommodate three to four migrants each. In these three villages, the migrant population doubles the population and this has led to the multiplication of labour contractors. More recently, in villages located on the other side of the highway where townships and apartment buildings are coming up, farmers have been selling land at high prices to developers. This is the case in the villages of Ghari, Ghatal and Maheshwari in particular (10).

The tool of the ‘controlled area’ is powerful in many ways. First, it acts as a trigger for price escalation since the designation of an area as ‘controlled’ indicates that the government sees potential for development. The consequent development plan is followed by the ‘arrival of the sectors’ (11), that is, future planned residential areas to be developed by HUDA (Haryana Urban Development Authority) or by ‘colonisers’ (private builders) into township or apartment buildings (12). Private builders who did not enter joint ventures followed the more classic method of assembling land by buying it from farmers in surrounding villages.

Second, it creates a maze of complex official procedures and unofficial mechanisms to obtain change of land use. As a young town planner told us, by the stroke of a pen, when designating a piece of land as residential, commercial or for public amenities purposes, s/he can make a millionaire or a pauper of the owner. Influence, collusion of interest and malpractice are all involved in processes by which state intervention shapes the city. Within the town, when colonies come up because of market forces and individual decisions to develop land, they become the ‘illegal city’. Even though planners defend their rationale to exclude these areas from development, based on the absence of adequate public amenities in these colonies, their ‘illegality’ also prevents municipal action from building basic infrastructure, leading to a continued exclusion.

At another level, the planning process is also allegedly shaped by the local power structure, since those with influence can ensure that their land is not going to be acquired for public amenities but rather, be given high potential land use. This ad-hoc nature of state intervention brings us back to the tension between planned and contingent urbanisation. Seen in this way, the local narrative of a tussle between the chief minister and the local zaildar is an encapsulation of the ad-hoc, accidental and ‘unplanned planned’ nature of development.

Lived spaces and social changes

Is this form of development also reflected in the reality of spatial practices, experiences of lived spaces and mental representations of the settlement itself? If one attempted to make a simple typology of neighbourhoods in Dharuhera, one can distinguish the following types of localities: (a) the old town that houses the old and decaying haveli of the zaildar family; (b) their new lavish houses, the market and poorer streets; (c) the residential sectors developed by HUDA; (d) the unauthorised colonies of Baas road; (e) the recent upcoming townships that provide modern housing and amenities; and finally (f) the villages and their new housing structures for migrants. Despite the spatial proximity of these neighbourhoods, do they come together to form the idea of a ‘city’ with dependent interlinkages? While describing Dharuhera, most interviewees make a clear difference between the ‘village’ and the ‘city’. Many interviewees point to their lack of knowledge of the haveli, or to them never venturing into the old town except to use the market facilities at times. In particular, this is the case for the important floating population of professionals who live in Gurgaon or Delhi, work in Dharuhera and commute on a daily basis. For the unskilled labourers of the original village, their daily practices remain mostly circumscribed to the lal dora area. For many there is a liminal frontier between the ‘village’ and the ‘city’ and only those who straddle both locales use other terms. Among them, the term ‘mini city’ is the most striking because it points to the search for a term to define the new physical reality of Dharuhera. Residents of the HUDA sector, of Baas road or the surrounding villages, or of the original village, often mention social functions as moments where they move from one area to another in the city. Spatial mobility is then partly embedded in the existing social networks. Indeed, beyond lifestyle changes often put forward to describe small towns, an important question is whether small towns are emerging as sites of social mobility and play a transformative role in social structure or, on the contrary, sites where the resilience of the local elite and its ability to capture local political institutions remain the norm, as argued by De Bercegol (2012) for eastern Uttar Pradesh.

From our exploratory field work and structured interviews with all the elected councillors, one can briefly sketch four types of group trajectories.

First, the landless inhabitants of Dharuhera and surrounding villages, which were traditionally engaged in menial or agricultural labour have not greatly benefited from the urbanisation process. Employment opportunities on farming land have reduced and jobs are not easily found in the industrial area, either because of lack of education or the strong reluctance of industries to employ local labour (13). This population group appears to be both socially and spatially trapped.

Second, at the other end of the spectrum, the traditional landed elite as well as a number of traders have harnessed the potential of urbanisation. Some of them have moved away from the old city and have relocated to the already developed high-end residential complexes in nearby Bhiwadi. In villages, some landowners commute regularly between their house in the village and another residence in Gurgaon. Among the younger people interviewed, increased access to Delhi, with its metro, expands possibilities for recreation as well as education. They represent ‘people who are interstitial because they are in some senses between the rural and urban...’ (Young and Jeffrey 2012: 46). The Rao family’s ability, and that of a few others, to straddle the local, national and international scale and still ‘interact with people without being aliens’ (14) makes them close to what Corwin (1977) names ‘societal elites’.

Third, among the newcomers to Dharuhera there are different professional and personal trajectories. Skilled workers with secure employment have been able to improve their livelihoods in Dharuhera, often being able to buy a house in the residential sector.

Finally, among the newcomers, one can also note the emergence of a group of entrepreneurial individuals from outside Dharuhera who have seized opportunities to develop activities that will provide them with economic and social mobility. An interesting case is the profession of real estate agents. From a couple of them seven years ago, there are now scores of real estate agencies in Dharuhera and, with the exception of a few agents from Uttar Pradesh, all come from the south of Haryana. They see Dharuhera as a stepping stone to building a professional career and the more enterprising branch out to become part or founders of associations, resident welfare associations among others, to build long-term stable social networks.


Dharuhera reflects the rapid economic, spatial and social changes that occur when a small settlement grows and urbanises. Even though located in the proximity of Delhi and consequently a top candidate in the economic agglomeration story, the manner in which the city is planned and shaped is clearly embedded in the monopolistic land ownership structure, dominance of some groups and forceful state intervention. Further, this ‘mini city’ is the site of resilient dominant groups, but it also provides opportunities for a form of urban entrepreneurialism even though the systemic exclusion of those without land and education is a serious drawback. Consequent changes in social structure are additional elements of the ‘in-between’ nature of these small towns that go beyond urban-rural economic linkages and find expression in its governance structure, which remains an area for future study.

(Marie-Hélène Zérah is Research Fellow, Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi) and Institute of Research for Development (Paris))


1 Two years earlier, in 1985, Pusapati Spinning and Weaving Mills Limited was set up in Kapriwas village
2 Interview conducted on March 1, 2012
3 There are at least two truck associations in Dharuhera, one named the Kapriwas Truck Union that runs 400 trucks of owners located in seven villages. Interviewees mentioned a number of trucks varying from 1,000 to 2,000
4 See http://credaincr.org/news_details.php?nid=13124
5 A zaildar is a ‘leading rural notable, selected and paid a small honorarium by government to represent it and help it in the zail (or sub-division of a tehsil)’ Brayne, F L. 1929. The Remaking of Village-India. Mysore, Oxford University Press. p 262
6 Interview conducted on March 1, 2012
7 This is the case of at least three ongoing projects in Dharuhera
8 According to the Punjab Scheduled Roads and Controlled Areas Restrictions of Unregulated Development Rules, 1965, as amended in September 2012
9 This usually follows implementation of the controlled area by a couple of years
10 These three villages are located very close to some upcoming townships and, according to interviews, land that was sold for Rs 5-10 lakh per acre five years ago has today reached at least Rs 1 crore
11 This term is often used by interviewees to indicate the link made between HUDA’s planned residential areas and development of a city
12 In the residential sectors developed by HUDA (Sectors 4 and 6, see map), some low-income buildings are provided as well as plots which are mostly inhabited by the large number of skilled labour that has shifted to Dharuhera
13 Interviews conducted among a few industry human resource managers confirm that local labour is not preferred because they are less reliable and often absent, they can organise better and gain support from their neighbours and families in case of a dispute
14 Interview conducted on January 20, 2012. The family remains anchored in the city where they hold posts in the urban local body and other political positions, but the new generation studies in some of the best Indian boarding schools before going abroad for their graduate studies. They own houses in Haryana, Delhi as well as other places in India and travel internationally on a regular basis


Brayne, F L. 1929. The Remaking of Village-India. Mysore, Oxford University Press
Corwin, L A. 1977. ‘Great Tradition, Little Tradition: The Cultural Traditions of a Bengal Town’. Contributions to Indian Sociology 11 (1): 21-44
Dahiya, M. 2012. ‘Land Use Study of Dharuhera’, Draft Report. Delhi, Centre de Sciences Humaines: 28
De Bercegol, R. 2012. ‘Analyse de la Réorganisation des Pouvoirs Issue de la Décentralisation. Sur la Gouvernance de Petites Villes d'Uttar Pradesh’. PhD in urban planning and urban studies, University Paris-Est 431 p
Uchikawa, S. 2012. ‘Small and Medium Enterprises in the Indian Auto-Component Industry’. Economic and Political Weekly, XLVI (25): 51-59
Young, S and Jeffrey, C. 2012. ‘Making Ends Meet. Young Enterprise at the Rural-Urban Intersections’. Economic and Political Weekly, XLVII (30): 45-51

Infochange News & Features, August 2013