Walled Out, Gated In

Published: Tue, 02/08/2011 - 09:06 Updated: Tue, 02/08/2011 - 09:10

Boundary walls and iron gates dominate Delhi's landscape and imagination - a telling metaphor for a city that preys upon its public spaces even as it expands abnormally
Ratna Raman Delhi

Cities play a significant role in moulding and modulating the lives of their inhabitants. Take New Delhi for instance. This city has functioned repeatedly as the locus of power through the long march of history. The earliest reference to Delhi is as the fabled town of Indraprastha, built by the Pandavas after wresting the Khandava tract from their reluctant cousins in Hastinapur. Indraprastha flourished under the rule of the Pandavas. 

Yudhisthira's becoming emperor was a high point in the city's life and all manner of celebration on the occasion is recorded in the 'Sabha Parva' of the Mahabharata. Yet, outside the stretch of munificence and festivity, power and administration, the boundaries of insider and outsider were distinctly drawn. Visitors who thronged to meet the emperor and partake of the celebrations, formed serpentine queues outside the imperial gates and were often turned away by the royal attendants. 

The 'Sabha Parva' documents an important aspect of shared community life in Indraprastha, highlighting the city's significance as a site of administrative polity, its social and cultural significance, and its ability to forge a collective identity. Although the nature of the rulers and the ruled has changed considerably, the city's role in absorbing varied influences and administering to a social dynamic probably continues even today.

Delhi continued to be the preferred site of power under many medieval kings. Small wonder then that Delhi replaced Calcutta as the seat of the government of India in 1911 during British rule and continued to be the capital of independent India subsequently. 

Today, the Delhi we are familiar with has grown from several clusters of inhabitations, several kingships in different geographical terrains and time periods, each dominating one particular section of the city. Around all these terrains, the city grew, eventually morphing into the city that exists today.

The 100th anniversary year of Delhi as a modern capital is a good time to recognise that our city has grown in a specific direction and with clear demarcation of boundaries. The enclosed clusters and mushrooming colonies have always catered to specific needs of different communities. Built for different reasons and coming up at different points in time, these colonies have over the years been yoked together in the manner of varied odds and ends of fabric that need to be put to use and are stitched together to make a patchwork quilt. Each piece that has been stitched in has added its own particular design to the larger fabric. 

Perhaps this is how settlements which grew into cities were established in the days of yore, but long after we moved from Old Delhi to Lutyens' Delhi, New Delhi and the National Capital Region, we have continued to follow this very quaint process of development. As a city, Delhi has been growing in geometric proportions, not only in terms of its cityscape but also in terms of geographical area, population, animate beings and inanimate objects. 

Lutyens' Delhi was created as an annexe to Old Delhi and in the decades that we independently engaged in nation building, several colonies came into being as signposts of our motley new Republic. Whether it was the colonies for refugees, or the resettlement colonies for the unhoused poor, the enclaves for doctors, lawyers, journalists et al, each of our colonies, from the very posh to the most basic, catered to what the state perceived as the specific requirements of a particular group. 

Soon enough the era of cooperative building was supplemented by private builders and moneyed residents who elbowed out the state apparatus. Delhi's colonies today are an amalgamation of an enormous diversity of size, infrastructure and socio-economic impulses. 

How do these colonies interact with one another? Each colony formed by a different and unique process has usually sought to define itself as separate from the colony adjoining it. Increasingly, each colony has begun to function as a miniscule city structure in itself. Yet, like the uniform lining that supports any patchwork façade, our unplanned metropolis shares a commonality of problems. 

Our slums, an integral part of our city's composition, plumb abysmal depths due to the absence of water, electricity, sanitation, hygiene and stable construction. Small wonder then that paved footpaths on arterial roads in south Delhi serve as defecation sites for the residents of nearby slums. Road dividers also double up as clotheslines and facilitate the airing of a great deal of winter linen.

Meanwhile, our villages, interspersed between government and private colonies with limited water and electric supply and sewers, fall short of shared community privileges. Despite Sulabh's intervention, public conveniences remain few and far. This has resulted in constraining the city's women, who in any case remain very apprehensive about their safety outside their homes. The men boldly relieve themselves at every available wall or gatepost, doing what men in a metropolitan capital should never do. 

When public conveniences lag far behind, what can we say of possible community pleasures? There is an absence of good libraries and reading rooms that could foster an engagement with the printed word. There is a shortage of playing fields and a paucity of swimming pools. For a city with a river and weather that stays hot seven months of the year, water-related sports and swimming activities have been given short shrift. 

So here we are in the midst of magnificent medieval forts, tombs and monumental parks, and splendid colonial public buildings and wide avenues, interspersed with assorted government colonies, private colonies, slums and villages, add or subtract a moribund or thriving square park (modelled on the Charbagh), a dilapidated baraat ghar (marriage hall) or a discreet club, a smart shopping market like Jorbagh or the amorphous ramshackle markets of Motibagh and RK Puram. 

However, it is always easy to spot the common factor connecting all these disparate spaces. Yes, these are the defining boundary walls and iron gates that have dominated the cityscape and the imagination of the extant Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) since the 1980s.

Once upon a time only bungalows and large public buildings had boundary walls. Eventually, this became a feature of every colony, privately owned or belonging to the government. A sense of insecurity brought on by general lawlessness, exploding populations, international events like the Asiad 1982 and the subsequent horrors of 1984, resulted in the large-scale consumption of steel and grill, cement and gate in the average Delhi household. The city has not looked back since then.

Boundary walls are useful for demarcating specific areas and work very well for public institutions. Walls and gates in the cooperative colonies built by collective enterprise or by the DDA from Patparganj to Vasant Kunj are purposeful. They enclose the residents of a particular cooperative and provide regulated entry and exit points as well as protect parking space. 

This follows the age-old pattern of the city politic where anyone who did not belong could be walled out or left to queue up in front of the gate. As markers of territory and membership, walls and gates are no doubt a necessary evil. The problems arise when these ostensible markers begin to prey upon what is collective public space. 

Common or shared public space has been dwindling over the decades that Delhi has expanded and proliferated. We still have parts of the ridge, the Buddha Jayanti, Lodhi and Jamali Kamali gardens, Nehru Park, Hauz Khas deer park, and a few delightful tombs set in gardens as well as stray museums that we can still call public spaces, not to speak of markets such as Ghaffar, Ajmal Khan, Connaught Place, Lajpat Nagar and Khan. 

Every one of these spaces is now extremely populous, and the increasing footfalls have resulted in shrunken spaces. This also holds true of our new shopping citadels, the burgeoning multiplex-malls. Increasingly, the average citizen is being squeezed out of the city and its public spaces. 

Ironically, this modern city is, after all, a democratic triumph, a construction by the people, of the people, and for the people. Today's citizen, however, does not celebrate the cityscape, or display any attendant pride in this rich inheritance. Our parks and sidewalks, and highways littered with plastic and glass and paper that we have finished using, are testimonial to our civic sense. The increasing non-availability of public space has created Delhiites who are hemmed in and enclosed by the gates and grills of their nondescript colonies.

A bird's eye-view of any colony reveals houses leaning shoulder-to-shoulder and jostling forward neck-to-neck, overlooking narrow streets. It is not merely the large colony which has turned into a miniscule city, each household unit is laid out in the manner of a small fortress or garrison. 

Every little owner of a piece of land in this city knows that he alone has inalienable rights to the pavement outside his house and the street on which he lives. So the pavement in front of each house is cordoned off and becomes a haven for potted plants, while the service lane is now an extended private backyard. All this is effectively enclosed personal property. 

Next, a few like-minded neighbours get together to form a RWA and collect money from the block to set up gigantic gates at random points all over the colony. This completely illegal procedure is apparently a security measure to keep out the so-called anti-social elements and prevent thefts and burglaries. Hapless chowkidars with sticks patrol colonies, sleepily defending residents against all imaginable dangers with a whistle and a stick, supervised by giant locked grilled gates. As a rule, most colony gates, despite court orders to the contrary, remain shut all through the day and into the weeks and months, disrupt and obstruct vehicular movement in the smallest of lanes, wherein private vehicles that fuel daily life clog all movement.

The average citizen returns home to his grilled and barricaded house every evening, squabbles over parking space and, the next morning, manoeuvres his vehicle away from back-to-back parking on the pavement, into the street. This is easier said than done, since the street, other than being narrow and bordered with cars on both sides, is filled with other people taking out cars, children going to school, vendors with pushcarts selling vegetables and fruits, residents of varying ages on foot, dustmen with garbage carts, sealed metallic RWA gates, and so on and so forth. 

Skirting and dodging one's way through the colony is thus a difficult feat. This involves following a circuitous route to the main road outside the colony since all ready access has been systematically blocked. Not surprisingly, then, everyone is bad tempered and late and out of sorts, due to such close encounters of the everyday kind! 

The main roads overflow with traffic, the lights are reliably on the blink and traffic snarls are matched by snarling drivers behind the wheel at the start of a regular bad commute morning. No one gives way to the traffic on the right. No one thinks that pedestrians at zebra crossings are human beings or that they have a right to be on the road. No one slows down while approaching speed breakers. Ambulance vans with their emergency sirens at full blast grind to a halt because of well-insulated, air-conditioned cars that no longer heed them and will never make way for them to pass. The same discourtesy is extended to fire engines as well. 

Indeed, all city commuters remain in the grip of a terrible, relentless rage. Occasionally this escalates and usual churlish behaviour is replaced by a flexing of muscle, resulting in road brawls that end in injuries, fisticuffs, stabbing, mayhem and death. What sort of city do we live in? What sort of public space do we occupy? What sort of public life do we endorse? Increasingly we seem to be a city under siege, a city in rage! Maybe it is time for us to ask whether we can expand the claustrophobic space we inhabit into a greater freedom by developing a strong civic sense, and by doing a little more for each other, for our neighbours, our colonies and our city.

Boundary walls and iron gates dominate Delhi’s landscape and imagination — a telling metaphor for a city that preys upon its public spaces even as it expands abnormally
Ratna Raman Delhi

Read more stories by Walled Out, Gated In

This story is from print issue of HardNews