Last summer, during the height of the dengue outbreak in Delhi, the deputy chief minister of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Manish Sisodia, made spot visits to schools to check on their preparedness for dengue outbreaks. At a government boys’ school in north west Delhi, Sisodia found classrooms being used as parking lots for the vehicles of the faculty and staff. To anyone who lives in Delhi, Sisodia’s discovery would likely come as no surprise. In India's capital, while the rights to education, health and security are not always guaranteed, the car-owner’s right to parking has become almost inalienable.
Delhi is far friendlier to cars than it is to people. Vehicles operate in an elaborate feudal order on the city's roads: the size of your car, and the fact that you own one, demonstrates your relative power and dictates the right of way. Delhi has the highest percentage of road space of any major city in the country—space that has only increased over the past two decades with the construction of nearly 100 flyovers. In that time, the number of cars in the city has grown at roughly three times the rate of its population. But car users form a surprisingly small percentage of the city. Car trips form only 20 percent of all motor vehicle trips taken every day in Delhi, and at least 60 percent of all trips are made using public transport—buses, metro and auto rickshaws.
In this context, the Delhi government's recent “Odd-Even” experiment, whose second iteration concluded this Saturday, on 30 April, has proved—perhaps unintentionally—to be very revealing. The original intent of the scheme—to lower pollution levels in the city by lowering vehicular emissions—remains contested; the immediate effect of the scheme was instead a reduction in traffic and road congestion. During the two weeks of the scheme, road space miraculously appeared for the majority of Delhi citizens, who commute by bus, auto, bike, cycle or on foot. The trials reiterated the existence of a different Delhi, one that has been forming for the last three decades: the “Tenth Delhi,” most of which does not use cars, does not live in planned colonies or work in formal businesses. The more democratic allotment of space that occurred during odd-even has implications beyond transport and roads. It raises the question of what a democratic city—in which the majority of the population is given importance instead of the elite few—should look like.
In his 1964 book, An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul wrote that Delhi was “a city built for giants.” And indeed, if you walk in Lutyens’ Delhi or the planned parts of the post-colonial city, his meaning becomes evident—enormously wide avenues that are difficult to cross, huge city blocks, and footpaths fortified by boundary walls that become deserted after dark because they are not lined with any shops. In the residential colonies, there are empty parks, streets choked with parked cars, and huge flats that are too costly for the city’s new migrant middle-class. Simply put, there is far too much space being used by too few people.
Meanwhile, the rest of the city lives in some of the most densely packed quarters in urban India. Walk across from the planned colonies of Saket to nearby Said-ul-Ajaib, or from the flats of Dwarka to Mahavir Enclave, or from Vasant Kunj’s sectors to Mahipalpur, and you will see a contrast where there are almost no parks and no broad avenues. Houses are stuck to one another, alleys and lanes are crammed with shops and pedestrians. It would be irresponsible to imagine these spaces as slums, or inhabited only by the poor. Greatly varied in amenities and pricing, these are the homes of the majority of people that live in the city today. Since the 1991 census, the population of Delhi has roughly doubled, from 9.4 million to an estimated 19 million. For millions of Delhi-ites who have arrived in the city in the last three decades, the non-planned areas are not only places of affordable housing, but also of employment.