Brand: Delhi

In Catal Huyuk, at the site of present day Turkey, regarded by many as the world’s first true city, communities began to form where some did not produce any of the food that they ate. This seemingly simple fact is actually the beginning of all that we recognize as being “urban.” Cities evolved, to put crudely the words of those in the know of such things, when people got efficient enough at agriculture to produce enough for all to eat, and to do so while staying put at one place. These new developments led to new needs – vessels to store food in, people to build more permanent settlements, tool makers, carpenters, brewers [evidence of making beer is as old as the history of cities] etc. Tied together by need, these people – producers now in every sense of the word rather than just farmers – stayed near each other in dense settlements that became the world’s first cities. Academics point to the evidence of a shift in life and society because archaelogical evidence shows that most telling sign of urban life: the first known jewellery, a sign of complex social systems, and an awareness of status and symbolism, that, one could conjecture, represent an evolving society that has the time to create culture rather than simply survive.

In some ways, the story of cities remains unchanged today. Questions of borders and citizenship have emerged, as have those of belonging. No longer able to simply take on those that could find some purpose, increasingly cities have become sites of contestation. This fight is, literally, for physical space, employment and livelihood, but also for notional citizenship – the right to be urban, to belong not just to cities, but often to a city, and the identity that such belonging lays claim to. When we speak of urban citizenship, we must therefore speak not just of land, but of a space in the city’s imagination of itself. Conversely, when we judge a city by the dignity of its poor, we must also assess if cities are able to imagine the poor as city residents. Physical and notional citizenship are intrinsically interlinked – cities that can imagine poorer [read: marginalized on any axis: gender, race, sexuality, class, caste, religion] residents as part of their city space are more likely to organically grow into cities that make space for these residents. Notions of citizenship and city identities critically impact both the organic and planned growth of cities.

How do we determine the notional citizenship of a city’s residents? How do we assess the impact of this citizenship on the way different city residents live in the city? How do we change notional citizenship, and the ways in which city identities evolve? In Catal Huyuk, ancestors were buried under the floor of the family house. Families, literally, could prove historical ownership of land and, conversely, their right to the land by the remains of those that came before them. Today, claims to belonging are more subtle, and a lot more contested. In Mumbai, the city where everyone comes to make their dreams come true, there are today voices that consistently call on curbs to migration on the basis of language, ethnicity, regional identity, and wealth. In Delhi, decades of demolitions of slum communities mean that, like the city, there is little subtlety in our communication to those that we believe don’t belong.

In London recently, I saw a billboard called “We are Londoners.” The signage is the work of the city’s Mayor [who, just to complete the signage system is the “Mayor of London”]. To many, this would seem gimmicky. A branding exercise – “brand” being a word many I know would usually use disdainfully, much like corporate and capitalist, to which it is linked inextricably. Perhaps it is a branding exercise. But it has an impact. Post 7/7 bombings in London and given the current debates in the city about the veil and Muslim communities, London, like the rest of England, is involved in a bitter battle about the definition of who is and is not “British.” The city is fighting its own battle – and the government is staking a claim. Now, how people will become “one” is another matter, but the point I want to make is that the necessity of fighting the battle for city imagination has been recognized. Beyond infrastructure, beyond roads, beyond housing, we must take home the importance of fighting this battle in our own cities – making citizens believe that others different from us have a right to live in our cities.

In Delhi, this city that I love and hate with equal passion but that is profoundly under my skin, it is a battle that we have not fought. For the first time, city residents, the courts, and the Great Indian Middle Class have become open about their contempt for the poor, and openly convey this contempt through their words, actions, and judgments. In Delhi, demolitions occur not just because of Supreme Court orders, but because many affluent city residents believe that they are justified – that the poor are illegal and dispensible. Their citizenship in the city is negated. Thirty years of life wiped out in a moment by both legal and social censure. As we fight the battles in the court, we must also fight the battles in the streets. We must create a new identity for Delhi to make it a city that believes that poor people have a place in the city we imagine and desire to live in. We have lost this imagination. We judge our cities not by their basic services, but by the number of Subways and McDonalds there are. Not by the number of chai stalls, but by the number of Baristas. Our markers of progress, pride, and community are altering. Our definitions of what is urban, and who city residents are, have reached a crossroad. It is these that we must reclaim.

Part of this fight is language. It is branding, though not in the sense that we know it when it is used to sell products. It is making the middle classes see that slum dwellers as entrepreneurs, firefighters, bankers, insurers, producers, makers of culture, and, more than anything, ingenuous survivors and producers of knowledge. We make logos for Commonwealth Games, the Times of India will coin a slogan for “World City” and the cities they imagine will slowly begin to take shape, as they are. On its front page three days ago, the Times of India claimed that Delhi’s emerging “transformation” was in part inspired by its Challo Dilli campaign. Could we, if we wanted to, brand Delhi differently? Make slogans about the dignity of the poorest? Make signage that shows open doors to new migrants? Let us change our notions of citizenship and challenge others to a debate on what this city is meant to represent. We can fight the Master Plan all we want, but we must also fight the mindsets that created it in the first place. It is only then that the planned and unplanned evolution of the city will be one that is based on equity.

13 thoughts on “Brand: Delhi”

  1. You’re an idiot. Of the first order.
    The middle-class is the one suffering the most from the demolitions, not the poor. The middle-class own all of the shops that are being demolished. The middle-class are the ones who are forced to purchase illegally-built properties because all legal properties are handed over to the slum-dwellers. You know nothing about what you talk about. And we DO judge cities by their provision of basic services, not by their number of subways or mcdonald’s. Maybe you do, but nobody else does. You’re a complete idiot.

  2. Enjoyed reading this post immensely, Gautam. Between the time your post came in and today, when I write my comment, Madhu Vihar – a lovely, lively marketplace in Patparganj – has been reduced to a ghostly place. Sealed shops and even a sealed school (Vanasthali ‘Public’ school)tell the tale…With the help of armed police and the Rapid Action Force (it was set up to fight communal riots, remember?) has been liberally used, under the directive of the chief justice, large parts of the city are being reduced to such graveyards. Poorer settlements had been demolished similarly, over the years and now the middle class ‘traders’. One upshot is that most things – goods, services – that we got easily by just stepping out of our houses, now have to be got from Connaught Place or Khan Market – miles away, adding to the already mindless traffic congestion and of course oil cosumption!
    Yes, this is a matter of our collective imagination of the city and the fight has scarcely begun. Before the governments and courts are through with it, it might be just too late. Nonetheless, the effort is worth making.

  3. I don’t see this sealing business as a class conflict aimed at the poorer citizens. Having read all the facts one can easily see that this drive was taken up with the sole initiative of seperating commercial establishments from residential one.

    There have been outcries from doctors and traders, but I don’t agree with them. operating a small hospital in the garb of a clinic in a residential area is a planning nightmare. Likewise having a showroom on the ground floor of your flat might look convinient but when the traffic and crowds throng, do you ever wonder what effect it has on the residents. Additionally, a large part of the sealing process was carried out as these establishments were found to be violating basic safety norms.

    It is true though that slums and other such dwellings have been demolished over time. The way these dwellings have been set up is entirely different. Migrant workers pay up some land shark who allows them to set up their homes on illegal land. Then some rich boyt buys the land and the govt mows down the jhuggi. What you see here is an illiterate man being conned.

    By contrast, the “middle class traders”, were more literate and knowing of the code they were violating. I see no reason why you choose to club these two issues together only because they are bound by demolition.

  4. A response to WhoCares: If you have to resort to puerile abuse (the word ‘idiot’ appears TWICE in the course of a short comment, qualified once by ‘complete’ and another time by ‘of the first order’), then clearly you have no argument to make.
    “All legal properties are handed over to the slum-dwellers”?? I’d love to be a slum-dweller on the planet in which you live. In fact, you might like to consider moving out into a slum yourself, you poor oppressed middle-class person, you…

  5. I guess India has really made progress in last couple of years. I never knew demolishing MG1 and MG1 or shutting down South Ex is attacking the poor.

    Times have really changed!


    I must point out, if one is really a middle class person, then it is well nigh impossible to buy a decent piece of property in Delhi. Ask my Dad, he taught in Delhi University for 35 years but after retirement, he had to move to the suburbs. His PF won’t have bought him more than a single bed room DDA flat.


  6. Though linked, the issues surrounding sealings and slum demolitions are cannot be entirely equated. I do think that they come from often similiar [though also different] failures in planning, but they carry gravely different consequences and also are [pertaining to the main argument of my post] recieved differently by society and in public opinion.

    Slum demolitions are directly linked to access to basic shelter and survival. Indeed, some shop closures– of small traders who depend on their daily earnings — have similiar livelihood impacts, but mostly sealing does not as directly impact survival. Most people seem to be clear about the illegality of slums [though I’ve argued in my other post on Kafila that the poor suffer disproportionately in the name of justice] but sealing tends to invite more mixed responses. Many think of it as just, and a feature of planning. This ignores blatant failures by the DDA to ensure that shopkeepers do not need to make illegal constructions, and separates those who create these shops out of need versus those who flout norms deliberately. I agree that these lines are difficult to draw, but that is precisely the outcome of sustained planning failure. People know that the DDA only built 16% of the commercial area it was supposed to. What fewer people know is that a majority of even this space is built at rents that only established businessmen can afford. basically, if you’re a small trader, you cannot afford commercial space. In this system, simply “separating commercial and residental space” is not as simple as it sounds.

    One last point: the reason we take as a given that “the presence of commercial units in residential areas is undesirable” befuddles me. Many cities of the world thrive on regulated mixed use residential-commercial areas. I dont see what is so obviously awful about it. It is also know that it is residents of A and B colonies who complain most bitterly about the reduction in their quality of life. The RWAs of C and D colonies went public during sealing saying that they didnt think their quality of life was affected by someone having a small tailoring shop in their homes. I fail to understand why doctors, lawyers can now have home based offices, but small time tailors and other shopkeepers can’t.. how is a class based divided system of approval urban planning?

  7. Gautam,

    The Supreme Court has already given relief to small traders. I hope you understand that opening a small tailoring ship in say Defence colony makes no sense. Most of these were large show rooms which have created parking problems and ruined the life of non-trader citizens.

    You say sealing don’t impact livlihood? How do you reach that conclusion? I would be very curious to know. For the record, I am fully in support of the current sealing drive, if the court had not cracked the whip, the current urban mess could have continued for ever.

    Finally, if I buy a house in a colony under the impression that it would be non-commercial, I am entitled to that. I have nothing against mixed used colonies as long as developer makes it clear from the very beginning.

    Yes, DDA has failed to provide commercial space. But why hasn’t any one adovcating taking the control of land out of DDA? Why don’t people talk of real solutions?

  8. To Nivedita,
    While WhoCares has been ‘abusive’ by your standard, he/she makes a very good point – who judges cities by the number of McDonald’s in it? Second, maybe if you owned one of those shops and that was your daily earning, you might be more angry than WhoCares. I love the hypocrisy that comes into play whenever anybody other than the poor suffers. Apparently, nobody else’s suffering compares. This is why the Middle Class turns a blind eye to the suffering of the poor. Because the leftist politicians, and people like you turn a blind eye to them. And let’s be very clear, if the middle class suffer, rates of crime and terrorism rise. It is not the poorest of the poor that rise up against the rest. It’s when you alienate the middle class – the people who have an education, whose parents have struggled to put them through school, and who are just trying to get by. These are the people that get frustrated and try to strike back.

  9. Dear Confused,

    I am not saying that sealing doesn’t impact livelihood – but I will stand by my point that there are different [and much graver] consquences for livelihood during slum demolitions than there are during the sealing of shops, because the question involed is also one of immediate shelter and services. Within sealing as well, there are different grades of livelihood impacts — clearly the owner of Jagdish store isnt going to starve because his shop got sealed, but the small trader in Seelampur will see a strong impact on his survival.

    If you buy a house in a non-commercial colony, you are entitled to a transparent idea of what the planning entails. I agree. But, if according to the Tejender Khanna report on the DDA, 75% of the Delhi’s colonies are unauthorised, what meaning do those planning regulations have? Let us equally not assume that residents of most Delhi colonies willfully broke planning rules and deserve to be punished.

    Where was the DDA when everyone in DDA flats was building extra floor space? Did they demolish those extra floors? No. They regularised them. Did they tell te Metro IT Park that is built illegally on river bed land? No. Three months after construction, they changed the land use. They changed it again for the Akshardham.
    So river bed land that is “not fit for construction” is all right for big constructions, but not all right for slums? Why didnt they regularise Pushta? Build it into a low income housing community rather than a slum, just like they’ll now build the games village?

    For the record, let me say that I am not unabashedly anti-sealing. I recognise the intent of the effort and respect it. but this is not the way. You cannot be arbitrarily just one moment when you are yourself the greatest violator of your own “norms”. There should be more real solutions, and many are advocating them — allowing for more flexible, localised planning solutions for neighborhoods [and retaining uniform ones for more public areas like roads, highways and district centres] is top amongst them. Perhaps more important than the rules that emerge is the process we take to get them — lay down some non-negotiables, and then bring poeple into the planning process. Right now, you and I are both guessing at what people want.

    I agree with you about the DDA, and many of us are fighting against it with everything. It needs to either be drastically re-structured. that is the long term fight. but the question is: on what principles and practices will you make the new DDA?

  10. Actually, as far as survival is concerned, sealing of big commercial establishments directly affects the workforce. Some of these workers like salesmen, waiters, beuticians etc are paid on a day to day basis. Sealing does leave them in the lurch. I don’t suppose people check if their employing establishment is legit.

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