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CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001


Delhi: Nobody's city

Ashley Tellis

The writer is an academic based in New Delhi.

In December 2000, there was a mass exodus of poor people on trains and buses out of Delhi. Hundreds of factories closed down, their owners manipulated thousands of workers to protest, riots ensued, some of these workers died. The factory owners did not care, nor did Delhi's population, who suffered inconveniences to and back from work and wondered why. The reason was a Supreme Court directive which called for "all polluting industries of whatever category operating in residential areas" to be shut down. Over the last year, over 15,000 jhuggies, with an approximate total of 75,000 residents, were demolished. The jhuggies were mowed down, smashed beyond repair or burnt and these operations continue. The reasons were, as usual, pollution, beautification of Delhi and the "illegal" occupation of land. Public transport prices increased, even as the government actively supports the car and two-wheeler industry and cuts down on public transport.

Ace Fotomedia

What do these three indicators say? That Delhi as a city is bent on throwing out its poor, destroying them and building a city just for the rich and the affluent. Walk down the streets of Delhi in the middle of the night and you will see thousands of workers, dead with exhaustion, sleeping on the roads, on pavements, on carts. There are hardly any shelters in Delhi. At signals, women with drugged, near-dead babies slung across their pregnant bellies, beg with glazed eyes. There is not a single night shelter for women in the whole of Delhi. People live in slums in the most deplorable conditions of sanitation, electricity, water, quality of shelter. The homeless have only Delhi's harsh weather, the boots of drunk policemen and sexual abuse, especially for the women and children.

What kind of city is Delhi? From the moment you step out on the roads to the moment when you think that you are in the privacy of your own room, Delhi invades you. The air you breathe is so polluted, it is surely and slowly killing you. The auto wallah will fleece you, the bus conductor may just crack your head open with a crowbar, you will watch women being molested on the bus, you will see stupid men behind wheels kill each other on the roads due to rash driving, you will see the worst forms of exploitation of the poor and the powerless, you will hear college students endorsing sexual harassment on TV, politicians endorsing hatred and violence, you will come home to brown water gushing from your tap and you will sleep drenched in sweat because there is no electricity. This is your usual day in Delhi and none of this is unusual. This will happen to you almost every day.

But what is most shocking about the city is its average empowered citizen. This citizen is a selfish, unthinking, self-destructive creature, who cannot think beyond himself/ herself and does not see how that mode of being is slowly killing him/ her. Delhi's problems - pollution through vehicles and industry, lack of drinking water and electricity, road accidents - affect all its citizens across class, caste and gender barriers, though it doubtless affects the poor more. Yet nobody seems to care. Delhi has a mushrooming crop of NGOs and yet they appear to be doing nothing about the real problems under their own noses, which everyone seems to face. All the feminist NGOs cannot build one shelter for women, all the environmental NGOs cannot see the connection between the way workers are treated and the way the industries that employ them pollute the atmosphere.

Ajay lall

A few groups - the People's Union For Democratic Rights (PUDR) and the Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch are examples - do exemplary work in trying to bring injustices to the light, fighting for the underprivileged who are violated most seriously everyday and have no one to represent them. But hardly anyone has heard of them and their reports have anything but a wide circulation. Intellectuals bleat about the Partition in the bloodless environs of the India Habitat Centre (IHC) and the India International Centre (IIC), but do not care about the way workers are driven out of the cities or to their deaths on a daily basis. We impel the violent engine of this city and we wonder why it is so violent.

All those traditional arguments about how Delhi is nobody's city - about how it is a city of immigrants and, therefore, nobody cares about it, how it is not really a city but a concatenation of villages full of the coarse and gormless nouveaux riches flashing their wealth shamelessly, about how there is no concept of cosmopolitanism in Delhi - are fine and may well be true. But what do this city's well-placed denizens think? Do they think at all? What is it about the city space of Delhi (it is called a metro, it is the capital) that makes its citizens accept their systematic and slow destruction?

Ajay Lall
The signboard reads "Basant Friends Welfare Association heartily welcomes you."

Delhi has a history, unlike a city like Mumbai, yet it has no memory. The fact that many parts of it get completely undrinkable water does not concern the media, the antics of a monkey man do. The fact that thousands of dwelling places are set on fire by demolition squads in Delhi does not concern the media. Taking millions of rupees worth of equipment to politicians' offices and bribing them on hidden cameras is considered important and brilliant journalism, for the people. It changes their lives. Everyone appears deluded about the Delhi they live in. People in air-conditioned, closed cars think the city isn't polluted and their children's respiratory problems do not make them see it either. For them, Delhi is those cars, their palatial houses and Punj baroque. Journalists think their rounds of political offices is Delhi, yuppies think it is mobile phones and the Mezz. And so on. Delhi is everything and nothing. It's a DIY city and yet it is out there slowly killing us all.

Living each day in Delhi is an act of survival. Most importantly, it is an act of survival for the very people who built it, who continue to build it, who will eventually make it the jazzy metro-equipped and globalised horror of the 21st Century. And they will be evicted, exposed to hazardous activity, underpaid, overworked and killed for it. While the empowered citizens will just stand and watch like shadow characters in M. Mukundan's short story "Delhi 1981", where a woman is raped in broad daylight and nobody does a thing. The rich will hog the water, electricity and all there is to hog, the poor will suffer, and we will watch. This is the great city of Delhi, which has so wonderfully worked out its social order.


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