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Society, Politics & Law

A tale of two cities

Updated Friday, 13th March 2009

Melissa Butcher visits Delhi and sees the development taking place in the run up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games

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Travelling through Delhi is a reminder of the transience of power. From a rickshaw or the new Metro, rapidly becoming one of the largest public transport networks in the world, reminders of various rulers that the city has outlasted flash by; from crumbling walls of Turkish sultanates to the white columns of the British Empire. The layering of history over the some 2600 years that this place has been settled has led to the development of contradictions that Delhi’s residents absorb on a daily basis. And none are more obvious than the division between the north and south of the city, between ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Delhi.

In Old Delhi I am penned in on all sides by rickshaws and honking, narrow laneways of bangles, wedding haberdashery, stationary and books, the smells of kebabs, parathas, sweets in clay pots, the smoke from barbeques, and tables piled with calendars and plastic monuments. The sweet seller remembers me from my last visit 18 months ago. He has been there almost every night for as long as he can remember. This is Chandni Chowk, with the mighty, flood-lit Jama Masjid at its heart. Chaotic cables and electricity wires are as entangled overhead as its laneways and knotted communities.

Delhi [image by wili_hybrid, some rights reserved] Creative commons image Icon wili_hybrid under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

Across the round-about at Delhi Gate is New Delhi, with its Barista and Costa Coffee café chains, hip clubs, neon signs, mega-malls with premium high-street brands at European prices, wider roads, greener spaces and construction sites. Next to the broken walls and parapets of history are other buildings being broken, a new one built, another storey added. Metro and Bus Rapid Transit corridors divert traffic, including almost 300 000 new cars added to the roads in recent years. Traffic is now a constant crawl, giving commuters time to read the billboards that line the flyovers, promising ‘world class lifestyles’ in satellite cities that are green oases on the outskirts of this megalopolis of almost fourteen million. Newspaper advertising highlights the ‘global experience’ of living in these enclaves.

Delhi has followed a pattern of redevelopment that concentrates investment in gentrification enclaves; intensifies state intervention, for example, building new infrastructure and designating others as ‘illegal’; and fragmenting the city into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ terrains, with those areas marked as undeserving also marked for demolition. Boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are drawn and there is the physical removal of those that don’t fit within Delhi’s 2021 Master Plan for urban development.

Edge cities have been created to cater for the flow of transnational corporations and transnational professionals as well as a burgeoning middle class. If you get a call from an Indian call centre chances are they are in Noida or Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi. These edge cities are marked by new condominiums, villas, proximity to malls and multiplexes, and facilities such as health, education and leisure centres, crèches, lawns and landscaped gardens, yoga centres and spas, with clearly delineated boundaries and internal homogeneity maintained by gated surrounds.

But there are other types of edge cities being created as well. ‘Cleaning up’ Delhi to achieve global city status required the removal of shanty towns, jhuggis, the closure of small traders, and whole neighbourhoods of what were predominantly resettlement areas of rural migrants and socio-economically marginalised populations being demolished and their inhabitants forced to move to outlying areas of the city.

At this moment in Delhi, a locality, a slum to use the more familiar word, is being surveyed for demolition. This community has ‘illegally’ and organically established itself since 1969 at the crossroads between Old and New Delhi. I have driven past this place dozens of times and not realised that some 15000 people live behind the crowded, jumbled shop-fronts. Officials will ask each household in the locality to prove, via a ration or voter registration card, that they have lived here prior to 1998. If you can prove this, and you can pay Rs 7000 (approx. £100), you can be given a plot of land approximately 12.5 square metres in a new resettlement area called Ghevra; perhaps a larger plot up to 18 square metres if you can prove you lived here before 1990. Your home will be marked with a cross and it will be demolished. You will then have to move your family to Ghevra, live in temporary shelter, under plastic or metal sheeting or thatch, in blistering summers, pouring monsoons and bitterly cold winters, until you can afford to pay for a new home to be built. If you can’t prove you lived in the locality before 1998 then you have no options; you must simply move into another crevice in the city.

Ghevra is some 50km from the city centre and will reportedly become one of the largest resettlement colonies in Asia once the planned demolitions and forced displacements have occurred. During a visit to Ghevra in March 2007, there was little infrastructure in place: water was trucked in, there was yet to be a school built, and latrines were portable, made of metal, shimmering in forty degrees of early summer heat. Most of the inhabitants were unemployed, removed from informal employment networks when they were moved out of the city and away from trading centres such as Old Delhi. Returning on this trip, two years later, little has changed. There are more pucca, brick houses, but there are still thatch shanties and there are still people living in tents waiting for their legal status, their entitlement to a plot of land here, to be sorted out in the never-ending bureaucracy. Most of the houses have metred electricity now and there are cement latrines and washing areas but there is still no running water. Meanwhile, an apartment built for the Commonwealth Games athlete’s village, built on land from which people were displaced, can be bought for Rs 2 crore (£284 000) to Rs 3.5 crore (£497 000). The viewing apartment contains a flat screen television which can be viewed from the bath. Saskia Sassen’s geographies of margins and centres are clearly played out in Delhi in this spatial relegation of those already at the social and economic periphery of the city.

Power is explicit in this process, in both the hegemonic acceptance of a particular aesthetic in urban planning, and, as we are seeing in other cities throughout Asia and Europe, the removal of increasingly invisible people. There is little consultation with those about to be displaced and little debate in the media about the violation of the right to secure housing. There is hope, however, in the creation of new social spaces, including cyberspace, in which dominant political, economic and cultural systems can be challenged by everyday experience and learning processes that can shape interpretations of the environment. Consequently, protest becomes centred on other fragments of the city being no longer able to ignore the presence of its peripheries. The urban landscape of Delhi, marked by the fragility of power in its historical landmarks, is a daily reminder of the possibilities of such new alliances in the city.

Find out more

Slum demolitions in Delhi since the 1990s: An appraisal

'City Transformation and the Global Trope: Indianapolis and Cleveland'
by David Wilson
in Globalisations no. 4

‘Economic Restructuring, Urban Change and Regeneration: the Case of Dublin’
by Michael Punch and P J Drudy
in Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, Vol. 29

Open University courses such as Understanding Cities





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