In this issue of Gobar Times, we present to you our version of a Reality Show. Of a typical rural habitat, in the midst of a typical urban landscape, feeling the pain and pressure of this transformation.
Make-Over: It is one of the most popular themes that media created ‘reality’ shows, and rogrammes are made of these days. It is a process of transforming a person, or even a thing — like a house or a car — into a sleeker, more elegantly packaged entity. May be it is fun to watch, but only as long as it remains within the realm of entertainment. And when the ‘repackaging’ is done to an individual who is willing to play the game. But what if this make-over business creeps into real life? What if it is forcibly thrust upon a group of people or a community that is not ready for the change at all? And worse still, what if this make-over is half-baked and incomplete — leaving ugly scars in its wake?
Nightmarish stuff, right? Well, almost all of us who live in big cities witness such transformations every day. I am talking about the urbanised villages, or villages which have been forced to surrender their land to the voracious cities with expanding borders. These have been ‘worked upon’ by the urban make-over artists known as the city development authorities, and borne the brunt of their botched-up efforts. In this issue of Gobar Times we present our version of a Reality Show. But its not a dark and tragic story.
As the Gobar Times team went around Delhi — which was used as the stage for this show — exploring deep interiors of these urbanised villages, it met some amazingly resilient people. Men and women who have managed to retain facets of their uniquely traditional lifestyle, even while getting sucked into the great urban whirlpool. Result: a canvas full of colours, characters, and of course, squalor.
Quest for space
Delhi has grown from a small, walled city to this giant metropolis since the beginning of the 20th century. This inevitably involved large scale acquisition of land and taking over of a great number of historic villages. Many of these date back to the medieval period (see box: Historical villages of Delhi). The city has expanded primarily to make space for the continuous flow of people, pouring into it at different times for different purposes. Industrial growth; advent of the railways; shifting of the capital from Kolkata to Delhi by the British; partition of the country in 1947, and ever-increasing immigration from rural areas have been critical factors responsible for the city’s expanding footprints over the surrounding country side.
After India gained Independence there was a major spurt, as refugees from Pakistan came to settle here. Also, a huge number of skilled and unskilled construction labourers came to the city, drawn by the fledgling government’s construction drive. New offices, institutions, residential colonies were being designed then as a part of its nation building initiatives. The government begun acquiring land around Delhi to settle the burgeoning population. Land of around 48 villages was acquired in the period 1951- 61, to develop most of these refugee colonies, which included Lajpat Nagar, Patel Nagar, Kalkaji, Malviya Nagar and Tilak Nagar. These were stretches of agricultural land, where the erstwhile inhabitants used to grow vegetables and other crops...
Historical Villages of Delhi
Rural settlements mushroomed due to a variety of reasons:
Resource distribution: Most of the villages of pastoralist communities like Gujjars came up on the Delhi ridge, as land was required for grazing. The Jat villages sprung up in the plains adjoining the Yamuna, becasue the alluvial land was appropriate for agriculture.
Land: Munirka village is a colloquialism of Munir Khan, the man who was donated the village by a monarch as a land grant.
Religion: Nizamuddin and Chirag Dilli were named after their creators, the saints, Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Chiragh-e-Dehlvi.
Motels/Resthouses: Yusuf Sarai, Ber Sarai, Katwaria Sarai were rest houses for travellers en route to Delhi.
Fortified villages: Mehrauli, Kotla Mubarakpur, and Tughlakabad were villages, which came up on fortified settlements deserted over a period of time.
Land of Around 48 Villages was acquired in the period of 1951- 61, to develop refugee colonies, which included Lajpat Nagar, Patel Nagar, Kalkaji, Malviya Nagar and Tilak Nagar
The process of acquisition was straightforward enough. The residential area of the village was demarcated by a boundary called lal dora (a revenue term in use since 1908) and the surrounding land was developed into colonies. A tiny portion of the phirani or the common land was left as a buffer between the village and the surrounding colonies. So, as the government concentrated on the development of the urban settlements around it, the village or the lal dora area was left untouched. As sociologist, Harshad Trivedi, explains it in his book, ‘Urbanism: A new outlook’ :“As these villages were not declared “Urban Villages” under the regulatory acts of the local government, the common lands within the lal dora was put to commercial use pending future sanction of the municipal authorities concerned.”
The transformation was not limited to physical landscapes only. Upheaval caused by this ‘urbanisation’ process disrupted village economy, altered social hierarchies, and transformed culture and conventions of the villages forever. Agricultural lands were bought by the government and villagers were given some amount of money as compensation. They had now lost their basic means of livelihood. So the hunt for alternatives, that fitted in with the changing economic structure began. The landless found employment in the city, but continued to live in the village.
The more affluent cashed in on the city’s ever-growing demand for cheap accommodation. So multistoryed residential blocks were built along the existing houses.These catered to the low-income group city dwellers and the huge migrant population. Bursting in the seams As the villages were not provided sewerage facilities initially (even now only a rudimentary system is in place), the living conditions deteriorated, becoming more and more unhygienic. Moreover, as there were no civic rules and planning regulations here, the streets became narrower and cramped. Such was the deterioration of these villages that the municipal authorities declared some of them as slums.
Again, as per a 1963 Delhi government notification, people in lal dora areas need not get a building plan sanctioned before they construct. In other words, no buiding by-laws apply here. No wonder construction works in the lal dora areas are random and haphazard. So most of the urban villages now have turned into urban nightmares. They are concrete jungles, with towering houses and narrow lanes, which block light and ventilation. Also, these serpentine lanes are inundated with traffic. With not an inch of vacant space left for parking, the village interiors are choked with vehicles, making even walking through the streets a challenging task. But the process of urbanisation of villages still continues.
More and more rural areas are being acquired to meet the housing and other needs of the rising population of Delhi (see box). According to Kishore Singh, a development consultant in Delhi, as many as 33 villages were classified as new urban areas in the 2001 Census. As of now, Delhi has around 200 villages, which have been ‘urbanised’ and with the growing city, more villages are joining the category.
Flavour of the past A typical urbanised village in the capital is a pot pourri–an odd assortment of car mechanic shops, Internet Cafés, and makeshift living quarters standing next to remnants of ancient monuments. But almost all these villages are characterised by some basic common features, which make them stand apart from the rest of the city’s mundane pattern.
GT team found the Chaupal of Shahpur Jat abuzz with multiple teams of villagers playing cards. In some areas they are used to host weddings. The Pitampura village Chaupal is being put to more innovative use. A local women’s group now conducts sewing classes here in the evenings. Although the village panchayat has been abolished in urbanised villages, but still a committee of elders is active, and the members collect money for maintenance and repair of Chaupals. But their popularity is clearly on the wane, as youngsters prefer to ‘hang out’ in markets of the neighbourhood colonies.
Khaat / Khatiya: It is a traditional cot, which has a coir couch woven over a wooden structure. Every village households owns at least one of these. Even some of the ‘immigrants’ have fallen victim to the cosy comforts of the khatiya. It is usually placed in the courtyard of the house, which is also the traditional drawing room. Old timers take a nap on it during the day or just sit on it with the hookah. They are also used as beds on hot summer evenings.
Hookah: We all know tobacco smoking is injurious to health, but try preaching this to a hookah addicted tau (uncle) in a village! A cylindrical smoking device, which filters the smoke by passing it through water, it is now a rage among the youngsters in the city’s spiffy restaurants.
But in a village it is not fashionable trend, but a daily requirement. You would typically find the elders sitting on a khatiya and enjoying the hookah. Anytime of the day.
But keeping animals is becoming an increasingly challenging task now. Swaroop Singh, a cattle owner from the traditional cow herding community of Gujjars told GT that he and others have to buy fodder (in a settlement locked on all sides by buildings there is no grazing space!) which comes in trucks from Haryana. Reminiscent of the old village economy, the truckers unload the feed and replace it with gobar or cow dung to be used as manure in the villages of Haryana. That’s barter system operating right here in the city!
Old governance systems: The momentum of metropolitan expansion has almost wiped away the once powerful and assertive landed peasantry of Delhi Territory as a social class. Till the late 1980’s the village panchayats, representing the locally dominating castes — the Jats, Gujjars or Rajputs — held sway over the rural zones, spread mainly across Outer Delhi. These bodies were influential enough to mould the destinies of the local political candidates. Now the social context has changed.
The old systems of governance reign supreme in the village, but very loosely, and outside any formal system. Although there is no formal panchayat system in existence, the erstwhile pradhans or headmen and village elders still form a sort of local governance system. These key people still settle nonrevenue social disputes. They also collect money from old households and run the Chaupal. The chowkidaar or the guard at the Chaupal is paid by villagers. One very important village elder is the lambardar or the erstwhile revenue collector.
The lambardar used to be the person, who collected the land revenue from villagers and hand it over to the government. Although that system of revenue collection is no longer in vogue but everyone knows the house of the lambardars in the village. Interestingly, the recent wave of demolitions, following the High Court order, brought out the old leadership back into action. As the elected municipal counselors floundered, the old pradhans took up the battle. The mahapanchayat organised in protest, was attended by village leaders from across the city.
Caste System: The system remains, although in a comparatively understated manner. The dominant castes in the Delhi’s villages are the Jats and the Gujjars. But there are other castes as well, spread across different parts of Delhi. There are some Brahmin farmers and Baniya shopkeepers, both higher in social status than Jats and Gujjars but less influential in the villages’ social hierarchy. Then there are the Schedules Castes — mainly Jatavs and Balmikis, who constitute about one-fourth of the rural population of the capital.
Wells: Most of the village wells still exist. The outlying wells in the agricultural fields were covered up by authorities for safety reasons. The remaining have been taken over by DDA, to supply water to the rest of the city. Wells have been traditionally used for many rituals and in most villages of Delhi, there is a ceremony called kuan poojan or praying to the well ceremony, which still exists. In Shahpur jat, the well is covered and an idol of the water god placed on top, to complete the formalities of the ritual.
Rural architecture: The villages are dotted with structures depicting traditional architecture. Gigantic gateways or entrances to old courtyard-type houses still remain, although the courtyards have been constructed upon. The arches can be distinctly identified in the villages.
Hafta Bazaars: While finding out more about these urbanised villages GT found that even the weekly bazaars set up on the pavements of the city, date back to the medieval period. Now kiosks are set up on fixed days in a week on footpaths of colonies next to the villages, and cater to a much wider clientele. Sohail Hashmi in his article on http://www.kafila.org/2007/08/06/the-hafta-bazaars-of-delhi/ offers an interesting perspective.
He writes that while new items like flashy clothes, toys and plastic goods are on sale, many traditional household wares like whole spices (turmeric, rock salt, ajwain) utensils, medicinal ingredients like Amla, behera continue to occupy space here. All of which, he says, are "things that the villagers bought and those villagers who have yet to be modernised by this urban jungle still do."
So the urban villages still stubbornly cling on to some facets of rural life. But the spirit is on the wane. Old timers miss the ‘community feeling’. Jaswant Singh Yadav, ex-lambardar says, “There is no reason to interact now. Earlier, when we grew crops, everybody was interdependent. If one didn’t have bullocks, he borrowed from neighbours. Now, we visit only when we are invited to a wedding.” The signs are unmistakeable. GT team found out that Sector 7 of Rohini was made on the agricultural fields of Naharpur village. But now the address reads ‘Naharpur village, Sector 7, Rohini’. Developed on the fields of Naharpur, ‘Sector 7, Rohini’ now defines the village. Perhaps it is time we look at the future…
Where do we go from here?
Experts believe that the future of these villages lies in urban renewal – in widening narrow lanes, creating parking spaces and doing away with unauthorised constructions. They also are emphatic that steps need to be taken that new villages which are about to udergo the makeover as per the city’s Master Plan, get urbanised in a planned manner unlike their predecessors. The development of most of the urbanised villages happened in a haphazard manner. In most cases there was no integration with the neighbouring developed urban zones. Most of the colonies were developed with their back towards the villages, as if to deny their existence.
As a lot of the commercial activities in these villages cater to the colonies, like – gift stores, cyber cafes, godowns, it would help if commercial areas are clearly defined... GT spoke to Prof. Neerja Tiku of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi, who is involved in the development of Pochanpur village in the Dwarka area of Delhi. Her group conducted a survey of the village and developed a plan keeping in mind the major needs. She said, “Our aim is of weaving the settlement seamlessly into the urban fabric.
There needs to be ease of movement, open areas and space for parking”. She, however, reiterates that pedestrianism is perhaps the best model to decongest these villages — the lanes inside the village were never made for such heavy vehicular movement. Delhi-based Indian National Trust for Art and Natural Heritage (INTACH), which has evolved development plans for villages, is focussing on restoring natural water bodies like wells and ponds. It is heartening to know that experts are on the job to ensure a better future for the urban villages. But what they plan on their drawing boards would only work if it suits the needs and aspirations of the people who live there!
Let’s hope the two match… and in future even if we keep doing make-overs, they are at least painless and scar-free…