Elevate Difference

Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in the Megacity

New Delhi is a city that has undergone many incarnations in its lifespan. Just a century after the British built the city to be the capital of the crown jewel that was India, Delhi is racing towards becoming a world-class city. Published on the eve of the city’s hosting the October 2010 Commonwealth Games, which was supposed to serve as Delhi’s coming out party in the twenty-first century, the collection of essays in Finding Delhi explores what happens to the lives of its twenty million inhabitants as the city is re-engineered and re-imagined for the new millennium.

What happens to people who are driven out from the urban city centers, the places where they ply their trade, to live on the outskirts of town? What happens when public spaces are increasingly replaced with private malls and coffee shops, spaces that are no longer free to everyone? Who has the right to public spaces? Is it just the middle and upper classes, or do all inhabitants of a city possess this right?

Environmentalist and Delhi-based writer Bharati Chaturvedi attempts to answer such questions. The co-founder of Chintan, an NGO that works to increase environmental justice and reduce ecological footprints, Chaturvedi makes Finding Delhi unique by not assembling the usual cast of urban planners and educated intellectuals to discuss the city’s metamorphosis; she brings us the voices of fourteen full- and part-time residents, ranging from environmental activists to “urban-sector” workers, street vendors and other entrepreneurs who have contributed to Delhi’s vibrant formal and informal economy for centuries and risk being erased from the glittering new city streets and urban edifices that are being planned for New Delhi. Each chapter reflects the unique voice and opinion of these diverse individuals.

In her introduction Chaturvedi discusses how in the not-so-distant past it became fashionable to characterize what she terms “work on the greens” as being detached from the reality of the poor, but, as she aptly points out, the greening of the environment is also of importance to the working poor: “Lamenting the loss of tree cover in Delhi, an itinerant vendor remarked during a meandering conversation, ‘I miss all the trees now. I used to enjoy looking at the leaves and my mind used to become fresh even in the heat of summer.’” Chaturvedi notes that the idea of a green city came up over and over again in numerous conversations she had with residents who are considered the working poor of Delhi.

In the chapter “Remaindered Things and Remaindered Lives,” contributor Vinay Gidwani asks the reader to consider what happens to their discarded gym shoes and introduces us to Mundka, a township on the edge of West Delhi that Gidwani dubs a “site of reincarnation not just for Delhi’s detritus, but the entire world.” Gidwani describes a recycling industry that operates in an almost subterranean fashion, including the 150,000 to 200,000 ragpickers who make a living sorting and selling recyclables that are found in Delhi’s garbage. He points out that Delhi produces 7,500 tons of garbage daily. A large amount of this is recycled by the ragpickers, who are very poor and work in hazardous conditions.

Because Delhi’s focus is on the formal-sector economy, city officials view these workers as unskilled and not contributing to the retail economy, but Gidwani contends that the informal sector workers provide an array of services that enable formal sector workers to continue their privileged lifestyle—from vegetable vendors to cycle cart pullers who deliver appliances, or grocers who deliver bulk orders to households. He contends that Delhi today is inhabited by two “eco-classes.” He notes, “On the one side, a way of life that churns out growing quantities of waste; on the other, lives that live off this commodity detritus.” Gidwani asks the reader to consider what a different city Delhi would look like if the ruling elite actually learned to recognize and value the important contributions that these marginalized people and places make to their daily lives.

In “Women Reimagining the City,” Kalpana Viswanath discusses the harassment and violence that women encounter on a daily basis in the city; she writes that “being a woman in Delhi is often an intimidating, frightening, worrisome and, at the least, uncomfortable experience.” She points out that although Western cities were historically viewed as male spaces (hence the term streetwalker to describe women who walked the streets alone at night), developing urban areas also provided female friendly spaces in the form of department stores, tea rooms, and promenades. Viswanath notes that class plays a significant role in a woman’s experience in Delhi.

Delhi does not fare well when it comes to gender equity indicators; only seven percent of the Delhi police force are women, and according to recent crime data, Delhi accounts for thirty percent of reported rapes in India’s largest cities. Taking public transportation in the city exposes women to potential harassment and abuse, and Viswanath indicates that no women are immune to gender-based violence by highlighting the highly publicized murders of young women of privilege. She closes by writing, “The big challenge will be to transform people’s attitudes towards women as citizens with equal rights.”

I found Finding Delhi to be one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Some books have a profound effect on how one thinks about their world and this is one of those books. The topics and issues discussed are not unique to Delhi; cities across the globe are increasingly having to balance the need for economic and industrial growth without losing the sense of humanity and culture that gives a city its soul. It is a delicate balancing act and one that can benefit from each person playing an active role in re-imagining their cities and interconnected destinies.

Written by: Gita Tewari, January 15th 2011