Uncivil City: An Excerpt

Between the Ridge and the River, Delhi lies in incongruity with its commons. As it aspires to become a world-class city, are the environmental trade-offs worth it?

‘World-class’ is a term that is hard to define. But as the Judge famously said about obscenity, ‘I know it when I see it’. Regardless of whether we have been to Singapore or Shanghai, we know when we are in the presence of something ‘world-class’. Like obscenity or divinity, ‘world-classness’ provokes a response from within, an instant shock of recognition. It is more than an aesthetic; it is a total sensuous experience. Stepping into the metro the first time, breathing the air- conditioning, feeling the smooth silver seat beneath, listening to the clear announcements—this was world-class, we knew! It is the seductive power of ‘world-class’—its promise of streamlined ease and efficiency—that keeps us hooked as we fight our way through the congestion, commercialisation and clangour that currently define Delhi. ‘World-class’ also means we’re-as-good-as-anyone-else, a profoundly important feeling for a nation where the elite has always been haunted by its insecurity and sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the West (and, more recently, the East too).

Becoming ‘world-class’ has meant shedding the city’s rather rumpled and shabby image. Until the 1980s, much of Delhi had the stamp of a sarkari city, a low-rise sprawl of standardised Public Works Department buildings in the architectural style best described as Budget Bauhaus. These were interspersed with colonies of private kothis (Punjabi Baroque). There was also the Old Delhi of Shahjahanabad, the ‘urban villages’ that the city had swallowed, and designated markets, but the ruling urban ethos was shaped by the bureaucratic character of the capital. Growing up in the red-brick houses of the Delhi University Staff Quarters, we could not but be conscious of social hierarchies. The professors lived in sprawling C-type bungalows and the karmcharis in F-type tenements. There was an air of rundown-ness about the place but something suggested that the houses were poorly-built to begin with: after all, sarkari contractors weren’t less corrupt in the past. Colonial-era wiring meant that if one switched on the toaster, all the lights in the house would flicker ominously. The standard jaundice-yellow whitewash, the draughty door and window fittings, the primitive kitchen—all contributed to a sense of decrepitude which we vainly tried to disguise with ethnic bedspreads and wall-hangings. But the dilapidation of our private premises was offset by the spaciousness of the public areas that surrounded us—even the F quarters had access to a large maidan for cricket and the community Ram Leela. And—it’s a cliché but still true—one knew people across social distances. The Gorkha chaukidar, whose chief task was to swing a desultory lathi at the cows that wandered into the compound in the afternoons, also doubled as the doodhwala. We would sometimes visit his house to deposit milk bottles, just as we would go over to the dhobi’s quarters with its huge vat for boiling bedsheets. Now, in the gated neighbourhood where I live, the security guards are employed through a contractor who, incidentally, barely pays them the legal minimum wage. Just when one might begin to find out where a chaukidar or maali lives, they get replaced by a new set of faces. Without housing or pension benefits, they come and go, part of a shifting precariat.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the spaces and social fabric of the past from the vantage of a place of privilege. I don’t suppose that the young sweeper who collected our garbage in those days thinks back through a warm golden haze to the leftover food she received and was expected to be grateful for. Nor have I forgotten that, as an adolescent and young woman, every bus ride and walk on the streets meant running the gamut of men’s groping, rubbing and pinching, their stares and leers, lewd suggestions and vicious remarks. And I remember 1984 when plumes of smoke slowly drifted into the clear October sky as homes and shops owned by Sikhs were burned down, ordinary people murdered and raped, forced to hide and flee from state-sponsored mobs. No. The Delhi of those times was a deeply flawed social landscape, as it is now. But when I remember the open spaces that we took for granted while growing up, I now know what I could not then: that our city was ecologically far superior to the place we now inhabit.

Being a sarkari city, large areas of Delhi were owned by the government and, until the 1990s, a lot of land just lay about in a state of benign neglect. On the higher ground of the Ridge, there were gnarled trees tangled with lianas, sweet-smelling shrubs and the insistent call of the Grey Francolin. By the river’s west bank were tamarisk groves and giant tufts of kaans grass with white feathery plumes that caught the light. Mongoose and peafowl were commonplace. The wild and the rural existed in the heart of the built-up and urban. This paradox was one to be proud of. In which other city of this size could one sit in a tiny patch of garden and count more than fifty species of birds? Where else could you stand in the middle of a city and be surrounded by fields of vegetables, fruit and flowers while the metro sweeps past overhead? Despite the grievous assaults on its wilderness, Delhi still encompasses all this and more. Last year, while walking home along the ganda nala, I casually glanced at a peepal tree overhanging its spume-flecked water and spotted a party of Grey Hornbills deftly plucking berries off the branches with their clumsy-looking beaks. This year I watched farmers plant melons on the sand-banks in the middle of the Yamuna. I enjoy these incongruities, but I appreciate even more their importance for the ecological well-being of the city. The Ridge and the river—the geographical parentheses that enclosed the city for hundreds of years—give us water and clean air, a space to breathe, a place to rest one’s eyes and soul. These are our commons—open to all, from the labouring women who collect firewood for their chulhas to the young boys who glean plastics for recycling from the river’s flotsam.

Crucial though the Ridge and the Yamuna are to Delhi’s ecology, few seem to care about them except as places ripe for redevelopment. Major sections of the Ridge in Delhi have been destroyed to make space for hotels and malls, and even larger areas are being built upon and quarried in the neighbouring states of Haryana and Rajasthan. The Yamuna floodplain has been constricted by embankments so that land that should accommodate the river’s monsoon swell can be used for luxury apartments, malls, a metro depot and the Akshardham temple complex. This commodification of the commons is also a privatisation of public land. Places that, with a careless generosity, welcomed all—different species of living things as well as different classes of people—are now being parcelled out into the custody of the privileged few and placed out-of-bounds for everyone else.

Instead, paying customers are invited to the new ‘public’ spaces— sanitised, surveilled and air-conditioned—where desire consists of ogling at things to buy and pleasure is conditional on spending money. In certain quarters, shopping malls are the subject of much moralising and exaggerated shuddering and I don’t have much to add to those voices. Here, I would rather view them as part of a city-wide assault on the commons by Construction, Commerce and Cars—the three monsters we have sheltered and fed. Construction of ‘infrastructure’ as well as ‘prestigious’ projects accelerated before the 2010 Commonwealth Games and, after the global downturn, is again picking up speed as the government partners with private firms to commercialise public lands in south Delhi. Razing long-established residential neighbourhoods, their old trees and parks, and replacing them with high-rise offices and shops creates a ‘world-class’ skyline and packs many more people and businesses into limited space. But while this vertical development may take up less room on the ground, its ecological footprints on the city’s water, energy, sewage and traffic maps go far deeper. Not only will it bring about a sea change in what Delhi looks and feels like, it will further flout environmental limits that the city should by now have learned to respect. We already have a public health crisis caused in great part by vehicular pollution. The Yamuna is a flow of untreated sewage and we get our drinking water by damming distant Himalayan rivers. Smouldering mountains of our garbage poison the air and ground. Summer temperatures soar because of the heat island effect caused by glass-concrete-tarmac and waste heat from air-conditioners, generators and vehicles. We can’t handle any of these problems and yet the government wants to build more, crowd more into an already congested city. Is this what we should be constructing: more ecological mayhem?

Text excerpted from Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons in Delhi by Amita Baviskar – Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, India, with permission from both the author and publisher.  January 2020 | 300 pages |Hardback | Price: ₹1,195.00| ISBN: 9789353289409| SAGE YODA Press

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