Tenth Delhi: What the AAP Should Learn From Odd-Even

Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
03 May, 2016

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.

In the early 1970s, the urbanist Patwant Singh coined the term the “Ninth Delhi” to describe the capital built after Partition—a city of refugee colonies and planned residential areas that were governed by the Delhi Development Authority, and the Master Plan, a legal document that had been formulated a few years earlier, and which laid out the plan for urban development for the next two decades. Singh’s use of “ninth” was a reference to the earlier versions of Delhi, from the mythical Indraprastha—the residence of the Mahabharata’s Pandavas (the first city), through the medieval sultanates and Mughal settlements, to Lutyens’ Delhi (the eighth city).

The Ninth City was born of Partition. Between the years of 1948 and 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government scrambled to build rehabilitation colonies for refugees. Delhi's population grew from 920,000 in 1941 to 1.7 million a decade later. The need for a citywide planning authority became apparent and, in 1957, the central government set up the Delhi Development Authority, or DDA. In 1962, the government developed the first Master Plan, to be implemented by the DDA for the next two decades.

Between 1951 and 1991, the population of Delhi grew from 1.7 million to 9.4 million. In his recent book Triumphs and Tragedies of Ninth Delhi, Jagmohan, the former lieutenant governor of Delhi, wrote that, in that time, the DDA acquired a whopping 72,000 acres of land in the city. By the 1990s, the DDA had built 14 lakh housing units and ambitious planned colonies such as Dwarka, Pushp Vihar, Saket and Rohini, as well as office complexes such as Nehru Place and Bhikaji Cama Place. It also built over 100 parks and forests.

Much of the area acquired by the DDA was farmland belonging to Jat and Gujjar families, original residents of the area around the Eighth City. These families continued to live in ever-decreasing portions of their land, which the DDA did not acquire but designated as “urban villages,” cordoned off by a “Lal dora,” or red boundary, on a map—a zone of exception in an otherwise planned space. These urban villages are easily discernible even today. If you walk around present-day Vasant Kunj, Hauz Khas, or Maharani Bagh —just about anywhere around the planned areas of the city—somewhere nearby you will find a “village,” with people who used to graze their buffalo on the land, or grew wheat and maize in the erstwhile fields.

The Tenth City of Delhi was born of economic liberalisation. After 1991, people moved in droves to Delhi, to find jobs, for education and other newly available opportunities. Over the last 25 years, the population doubled, from 9.4 million in 91 to an estimated 19 million today. But space—or planned space—has remained scarce. The DDA’s planned development could not keep pace with migration and economic change occurring in the city. In a 2013 article for the journal the Economic and Political Weekly, titled “Planned Illegalities,” the urban planning expert Gautam Bhan studied how the failings of the DDA’s plans contributed to pattern of illegal settlement in the city. Bhan noted that the DDA itself admitted that it built 4 lakh fewer housing units than it was mandated to, and that 88 percent of that shortfall was in housing for the “Economically Weaker Sections” (EWS)—for the poor. In that shortfall, a range of unplanned housing options mushroomed in the city to meet the demands of migrants in Urban Villages, as well as informal or illegal forms such as Jhuggi Jhopri (or JJ) Clusters and Unauthorised Colonies—two types of settlements where residents are squatters on the land they occupy. Much of what has come up today as Unauthorised Colonies or JJ Clusters are on land that the DDA acquired but never developed, and on which enterprising land dealers settled migrants. Elsewhere, such developments are on areas that are urban village land, or on other agricultural land that has been illegally turned into residential housing.

According to a report written by the researchers Shahana Sheikh and Subhadra Banda for the Centre for Policy Research, only a fifth of city’s residents live in planned areas. Most people in Delhi live and work in spaces that are “informal”—legally, these places should not exist. According to Sheikh and Banda, there are at least 1000 unauthorised colonies occupied by 35 percent of the city’s population, and many more millions live in the JJ clusters, which are also technically illegal. Millions of others live in legal, but unplanned areas such as Urban Villages or “Unauthorised Regularised” Colonies—those that have undergone a process of legal recognition by the state government, and whose residents have, in some cases, even been given land titles.

For millions of Delhi-ites, these areas are also places of work, because they are the locations of thousands of workshops, warehouses and small businesses. According to the 2005 Economic Census of Delhi, three out of every four businesses in the city are informal—they have no legal registration papers, and are beyond the regulation of the government.

In the summer of 2013, Durba Chattaraj, an anthropologist at Ashoka University, Moulshri Joshi, who teaches architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, and I conducted a multi-disciplinary case study of Taimoor Nagar, an area near Okhla that has DDA flats, an urban village, a JJ cluster, and an Unauthorised Colony—in other words, a range of housing types representative of the Tenth City. By gathering house-to-house survey data, we discovered that ordering and regulation of water, electricity and other services in these spaces is often arranged through local-level politics, such as through the MLA. Among those in the area who voted, for instance, more than a third had met their MLA personally to get work done. In a metropolis where the majority of settlements are unplanned, and the majority of employment informal, this indicates that changes in spatial ordering have political implications.

In Delhi, state governments have historically reacted to these areas with indifference and non-interference, while periodically providing sops during elections. The residents of these areas have divergent needs in terms of schools, health care, transport, land rights, and safety, among others. For example, unlike JJ Clusters, Unauthorised Colonies are almost never demolished or resettled. Sheikh and Banda’s study had also found that, in many cases, the extension of state services such as water and sewage have also been linked to having “regularised” status, and so all major political parties court voters in these areas with the promise and lure of regularisation each election cycle, often only to drop the issue until the next election.

But it is in these areas that a constituency for the AAP has emerged. In Patel Nagar, for instance—a constituency whose winning party has always formed the Delhi government—there were reports that during the AAP’s first 49-day rule, there was a decline in harassment by the police and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi employees toward those that live and work in places that are unauthorised, informal or illegal. There were similar reports elsewhere in the city. For the residents of these areas, paying bribes or “haftas” to the local authorities in order to be allowed to run their shops or live in their homes is an important issue, among others that, to them, the AAP seems intent to fix. The AAP’s state assembly election victory in 2013 and then its whitewash win in 2015, saw, perhaps for the first time, the Tenth City emerge as a political entity— joined not by community or caste, but by space. The areas where AAP dominated in the 2015 elections included vast unplanned parts of the city like Badarpur and Sangam Vihar. In a geographically stratified city, the victory was also the assertion of the demographic power of the unplanned spaces that make up the majority of the city.

At one level, AAP's promises of a corruption-free city for the common man, seem to have meant things such as less harassment by police and MCD of informal businesses and in unauthorised settlements. But an anti-corruption agenda does not address the structural problem of a city where the majority of the residents are crammed into the margins. Delhi still remains a city that denies the majority of its citizens the basic dignity of being able to live on the right side of the law.

Forty years ago, the urbanist writer Jai Sen published an essay in the monthly journal Seminar, called the “Unintended City.” The essay was based on his experiences in community-based planning in Kolkata. The lives of the migrants to the city, Sen wrote, “are made difficult and sometimes illegal, all because of conflict with the codes of the ruling urban citizens.” “The use of the word ‘illegal’ here is wrong and immoral,” he continued, “‘extra-legal’ outside the present law, is really the condition. If the lives of such a large proportion of citizens can be defined as illegal, then it is time to look at how relevant our laws are.” This requires creative and radical rethinking of urban policies and laws so that they can serve the majority of a city's residents. Though it may not have intended to do so, Odd-Even showed that such democratic forms of ordering the city for the benefit of the majority are possible. This experiment should be the beginning of innovation by the AAP government across the policy spectrum.