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New Delhi: Apartheid city

By Kalpana Sharma

There are chilling parallels between the building of the ‘new’ Delhi by Edward Lutyens exactly 100 years ago and the construction of the global city today. Then as now, the men and women who actually built this increasingly segregated and fissured city have no place in it

In another hundred years, will Mumbai resemble even closely the urban chaos it represents today or will it become an orderly megacity where everything functions?  Will Delhi ultimately fulfil its aspiration of becoming a global city?  And in the process what will these cities lose and what will they gain?

Documenting Indian cities today is a tricky affair.  For they are changing at such a pace that even as you produce a document on a city, it gets outdated. In Mumbai, for instance, what were once the landmark textile mills that gave the city its nickname  ‘Manchester of the East’ have been erased and replaced in less than a decade by glass and chrome structures that display not a hint of the city’s industrial past.  Everyday there are reports of plans to replace the old with the new and destroy arrangements that have served a diverse population.

The changes in India’s national capital are in some ways even more emphatic.  2011 will mark 100 years since the British notified Delhi as the capital of India through a proclamation by King George V.  It is a fascinating century to study for it witnessed not just the dramatic political changes accompanying India’s move from colonial rule to independence but the physical transformation of an old walled city to one that aspires to become a ‘global’ city.  What is striking is the disturbing continuity in attitudes and policies of the colonial rulers and those of an independent India.

Finding Delhi, Loss and Renewal in the Megacity (Viking Penguin 2010), an edited volume by Bharati Chaturvedi, attempts to address the changes in the national capital from the perspective of those who are a low priority for the planners.  Perhaps more than any other city in India, Delhi exemplifies the pitfalls of huge investments that produce a city that fails to satisfy the basic needs of the majority of its residents.  Of course things could change and the city could yet become a more democratic and less segregated space.  But from the lived experience of millions of Delhi’s residents, especially those who have been rendered virtually invisible by the visioning exercises of a ‘global city’, ‘new’ Delhi seems less democratic, more fissured, than the old and historic Delhi.

Chaturvedi’s edited volume is an important addition to urban literature in the face of the direction of transformation in Indian cities.  Unfortunately, although she acknowledges that there are gaps in it – such as chapters that look at the disappearing trees and green spaces – the real gaps are articles that look hard at the economics and politics of land use and the absence of an affordable housing policy.  For in the final analysis, no Indian city will ever be deemed liveable if the desperate need for decent shelter by a growing number of city dwellers is not addressed with a sense of urgency. Yet neither local governments, nor state government, or even the Centre, address affordable housing on a priority basis as part of urban policy.  

Despite such gaps in the volume, at least a couple of the essays are important both for the perspective they provide and for the direction for the future that they indicate.

Lalit Batra’a essay, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Slumdwellers in “World-Class” Delhi’, suggests that Delhi today is an ‘apartheid city’ that is the outcome of an exclusionary planning process.  He points out that while the colonial government made no pretence of being inclusive, the post-Independence governments of a ‘free’ India seem to have abandoned all attempts at being inclusive.

The turning point in Delhi’s history was 1857, following the anti-colonial uprising.  Delhi then was seen as a dirty congested place that needed to be ‘improved’.  A municipal committee was set up in 1863 and tasked to improve and ‘sanitise’ it with the help of public nuisance laws that could be used to discourage activities considered unsuitable in a modern city.  Thus tanneries, keeping draught animals and milch cattle, roadside hawking, slaughter houses etc were banned. (There is an eerie similarity to the current attitude towards some of these activities, particularly roadside hawking, something that gives millions of migrants their first opportunity of earning something when they arrive in a city.)

In 1911, Edward Lutyens was given the task of building a new city, away from the old walled city of Delhi, “as the perfect embodiment of limitless imperial power”.  Lutyens’ Delhi continues to be the embodiment of power even as other parts of the city struggle to survive. 

Batra’s essay brings out the chilling parallels between the building of the new capital a hundred years ago and the construction of the global city today.  Then as now, the men and women who actually built it had no place in it. A hundred years ago, construction workers crowded into an already congested old Delhi or went to live on the outskirts.  Today, they find places in slums that have survived demolition or move to the relocated slums outside the city. 

The pressure for affordable housing has been a constant in Delhi, greatly exacerbated first by the wave of refugees post-Partition, an estimated 4.5 lakhs, and thereafter the steady stream of migrants from the states surrounding Delhi and further afield.  As early as the First Five-Year Plan, the presence of slums in urban areas was noted and they were seen as a “national problem” and a “disgrace to the country”.  The Second Five-Year Plan acknowledged that any policy dealing with slums should ensure minimum dislocation of slum residents.  The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Delhi Master Plan were supposed to address the need for affordable housing.  Indeed one of the features of the plan was “getting rid of slums by providing standard ‘decent’ housing for everyone.”  Yet between 1959-75, the slum population grew rapidly as provisions in the master plan were routinely violated. By the late-1990s, despite these efforts at planned development, Delhi had 3 million people living in 1,000 slum clusters.

By the time the age of liberalisation dawned, even this attempt to deal with the problem was abandoned, argues Batra, and was replaced by the concepts of “legal and aesthetic”.  Slums that were illegal and certainly not beautiful could have no place in such a vision.  And so began the policy of slum removal and relocation outside the city.  Batra estimates that between 1998 and 2010, an estimated 10 lakh poor people have been displaced in Delhi.  That is an astoundingly large figure.

The result of such a policy towards the urban poor is the creation of a city that has the superficial markers of a modern city but is based on making invisible the people who actually make the city work. 

A vivid description of exactly who these people are comes through in Vinay Gidwani’s fascinating essay on Delhi’s recycling industry.  It mirrors such industries in other cities, where thousands of silent workers pick, sort and remove the growing mountains of waste that modern urban living produces.  Yet, even as the service they render is being recognised at a time of growing environmental consciousness, there is little or no attention paid to their wages or their health. 

A memorable section of the essay describes women removing the PVC outsoles from discarded sneakers.  “As the soles heat up, along with the adhesive that binds them to the body of the footwear, plumes of noxious grey smoke waft into the air.  The smoke catches the back of the throat, so acrid that it is difficult to suppress a staccato of coughing.  ‘Dioxins’, my colleague mutters.  The women, who have no safety gear at hand, merely cover their noses with their chunni or pallu.”  What will be the lifespan of these women workers who inhale poisons on a daily basis?

Gidwani rightly argues that the recyclers of waste illustrate well the interdependence in the urban economy of the formal and the informal.  Yet while the formal is valued, the informal is not.  “How different might Delhi look if its ruling classes learnt to recognise the sprawling universe of people, places, activities and things that they currently scorn as marginal, peripheral, illicit or annoying as the enablers of their own lives in this city.”    Yes, indeed, all our cities would look different if the ruling classes had such an epiphany.

The volume also contains an essay on the Yamuna River by Manoj Misra.  Delhi is described as a city located on the banks of this 1,400-km-long perennial river.  Yet the part that flows past Delhi is pure poison and the city’s residents know little and care even less about this.  Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan illustrates in his essay the callous and ignorant attitude of city planners toward the river and the flood plains that in the past absorbed the excess water in the river during the monsoon.  Today, the threat of flooding has become greater because the Delhi authorities have chosen to exploit what they deem are ‘vacant’ lands.  Despite expert advice to the contrary, they have gone ahead and built a Metro Rail Depot and station, an IT park, the Akshardham Temple, the Commonwealth Games Village, an electric sub-station and a mall on these flood plains.  Needless to say, the poor communities that lived around this area have been pushed out.

Perhaps the volume should have been called ‘Losing Delhi’.  For it is clear from the essays in the book and other writing on Delhi that what marked it out as a city with a history, a beautiful environment and a diverse population is quickly being replaced by an unsustainable and unequal megacity.

FINDING DELHI, Loss and Renewal in the Megacity, edited by Bharati Chaturvedi, published by Viking Penguin 2010, pp 171, Rs 350

Infochange News & Features, December 2010