Chronicles The Rural City

Recently 12 men died in a fire in a building in Vishwas Nagar. The building in which they had been locked by their employer for the night was an 'illegal' garments factory. Vishwas Nagar is crowded to bursting point with such illegal industries and their presence is common knowledge to all. These warren holes are severe fire and health hazards, yet their existence has come close to being legalised. Following on the heels of this tragedy, a week later, was an explosion in a spray painting unit. The unit was located in a building which also houses a school, in South Delhi's Madanpur Khadar village. Two workers died in the blast. The Industries Minister's callous response to these deaths was, "This is nature. The tsunami also happened, who could have prevented it"?

Other than a reflection of the gentlemans general lack of sensitivity, the statement inadvertently provides an adequate metaphor for the conditions that prevail within these areas, which could some day unleash a catastrophe of enormous proportions. These pockets of illegal industries are not unique to Delhi alone, but are to be found in cities across the country. As we grapple today with the pressing issue of 'urbanisation' how do we fit in such anomalies as 'illegal colonies', 'illegal industries', 'urban villages' and 'Lal Dora' into the context of planned development?

Today half of the chaos that is the Indian city has been caused by the presence of such categories on the urban map. It takes a severe stretching of common sense to believe that we can even be close to building liveable and healthy cities, when such structures are allowed to proliferate with gay abandon.

To just take the 'Lal Dora' as a case in point. Meaning, literally, 'red thread', the term was used to demarcate the jurisdiction of a village. Today, it is the territory of a village within which the norms and controls of a municipality or urban development authority are not applicable. Armed with this immunity, the Lal Dora has assumed qualities of a hydra-headed monster. Once far removed from the city, these concentrations have now been surrounded by the urban rampage, converted abruptly into prime real estate, with the original inhabitants struggling to hold out against unbelievable deals for their small holdings. Delhi has witnessed the transformation of numerous such 'urban villages', with their traditional architecture transmogrified into teetering towers of concrete, steel and glass.

Commercial enterprises flock to these 'villages' in order to reap the benefits of loopholes in archaic laws. Interestingly, in many of these Lal Dora areas, shops and establishments have been set up by 'upmarket' and wealthy entrepreneurs, who exploit these lacunae in order to escape paying the price for properties which they can well afford. Take a look at Delhi's MG road. Spoken of in bated breath by shoppers, "MG Road 1" has today been transformed into a hangout for the well-heeled 'fashion set' who flock to the many 'designer labels' housed in this complex. These enterprises continue their businesses even though the building is 'illegal' and under notice - currently contested in Court - of demolition. Such notices and the lacklustre efforts by the administration to take action long after these buildings have been constructed and occupied, deter no one, and several other buildings are already up and running next to MG Road 1, also pushing for 'regularisation'.

Reaching out beyond Delhi, a recent study conducted by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development revealed that, of a 196 acres of Panchayat land in the Chandigarh UT, 33.5 acres was under encroachments. In the Raipur Khurd Village along the Chandigarh-Ambala Highway, out of a total of 95 acres of Panchayat land, at least 25 acres in prime locations had been encroached upon, in most cases by speculators and businesses seeking to exploit the tax cuts these areas enjoy.

Only in one case was an attempt made to exploit these villages commercially without disturbing the architectural consonance of the area, or directly harming the interests of the original owners. The Hauz Khas Village experiment started out well enough and the intent was laudable. Situated near the historic monuments of Hauz Khas, the village provided a picturesque backdrop for the location of boutiques and restaurants, but with the proviso that no building or gali would be altered or broken or replaced with a modern structure - a sharp contrast to the developments along MG Road.

Similar experiments, intended at once to protect the original social and architectural forms and the interests of the residents, have been tried in the West and have proven to be major successes. Such arrangement brought the wealth of the surrounding and dynamic urban concentrations into these depleted rural oases, at once integrating them into the new economy, even as the original character of the village remaining unaltered. Such 'villages', today, are major tourist attractions across cities and towns in Europe.

The effort to import this concept into India started with a lone initiative at Hauz Khas Village, with the establishment of an up-market boutique, but it was soon followed by a rash of imitators. Unfortunately, within a short while, instead of a rejuvenated 'heritage village' there was an untidy mess of shops, with cars choking the village entry, and shoppers negotiating dirt tracks sodden with the weight of mounds of cow dung, gawking at elderly gentlemen enjoying their afternoon siesta or a leisurely smoke on the hookah. As the market took off, every corner turned into a shop or restaurant, and soon the idea collapsed under the weight of this unrestrained commercialization. The area has, today, gone significantly to seed, though some quality establishments continue to do business there.

The idea failed in the Indian context because no effort was made to assess the carrying-capacity of the village - and also because, as the only experiment of its kind, it attracted far too many enterprises seeking to cash in on the success of the first few boutiques. Worse, the success of the original enterprise saw no real efforts to replicate the essentials of the experiment in other villages - rather, it led to a discovery by developers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs that there were large gaps in the laws governing these Lal Dora areas, and that there was money to be made in exploiting these.

Today, urban villages are nothing but a complete mess of rapid, lawless and chaotic growth. It has been argued that they bring in wealth to the economically backward inhabitants, but such gains are limited and a one-time windfall, as properties change hands. Seldom have such transactions resulted in any building of independent capacities for productive employment among those who are divested of such properties - and the monies are often squandered within a generation, leaving successors in penury. At the same time, these urban villages turn into shambolic blots on the urban landscape, choking up crucial transport lifelines, mocking every effort to impose some order through patterns of the planned development of the city. Unless we can figure out ways to work out a plan that marries the peculiarities of urban villages with the dictates and necessities of an ordered and planned city, we will continue to see and create urban areas with but a few tiny pockets of superior habitation in the midst of a burgeoning, all-consuming, chaos.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, December 15, 2005



The Urban Imagination
The City In:
Myths And Legends