Delhi's two faces: One rich, the other poor

The slums in the capital city will keep on growing unless the villages around it are allowed to prosper.

By Mridula Garg
Published: Saturday 15 May 1993

-- I LIVE in Delhi, India's capital and one of its oldest cities. Seven times it has experienced a violent death and like the phoenix, seven times it has risen from its ashes. The city's historical monuments span its founding by the Pandavas who called it Indraprastha to its seventh incarnation, the New Delhi of the British Raj.

But there is a Delhi that is even newer. Unplanned and haphazardly built, this Delhi grew out of necessity after Independence. This Delhi is actually two "cities": South Delhi, a neighbourhood of upwardly-mobile traders and technocrats, and the Jhuggi Jhompri (commonly called J-J) slum colonies, populated by refugees from the countryside. The J-J colonies are spread all over the metropolis and consist of shacks made of cardboard, tin, straw and mud, which serve as homes for the poor.
A necessary evil These J-J colonies, as much a Delhi landmark as any of its illustrious monuments, are a necessary evil -- necessary, because they are a source of cheap labour, both industrial and domestic, and whose occupants bring daily to the doorstep of the affluent essential commodities such as milk, vegetables and fruit; evil, because they are congested, polluted and a source of diseases.

These illegal slums can be easily laid waste -- and they often are -- by flood, fire or municipal fiat. J-J residents are indispensable to the upkeep of the metropolis, but they themselves live without basic amenities or civic rights. Once in a while -- usually before an election -- the civic powers resolve to regularise a few J-J colonies: Ration cards are issued generously even though fair price shops in the area are stocked parsimoniously; a semi-tarred road is laid down in part of the colony; a tube-well is sunk; a health clinic is opened, and even a primary school may be inaugurated with much fanfare. But then the occupants are left to their fate -- until the next election.

The continuing inflow of ecological refugees from the countryside to the city is the result of such factors as privatisation of common lands, deforestation, destruction of wetlands and encroachment on pasturage -- allo of which deprive villagers of real income and basic survival inputs. Once starvation looms, the victims have no choice but head for the city in search of work, any work and at any wage.

These refugees compete with one another and against newcomers, resulting in depressing their already low wages. Everyone in the family works: men, women and especially children, who are popular with employers because they are cheap to hire and easy to train. Families with unemployed adults are only too willing to send their young to work for a pittance.

Child workers are to be seen in Delhi at dhabas, in stone quarries, in sweat shops, doing almost anything, anywhere. This phenomenon is not unique to Delhi, for it occurs in the other growing cities of India, big and small. Much of the traditional craftwork displayed at Indian stalls in trade fairs abroad, are made by low-paid children. Cities like Delhi feed on the broken wings and dashed hopes of millions of children and rarely do they set free anyone they have ensnared. Some of these children, in a state of desperation, cross the thin line into crime.

Forced to live in suffocating proximity, the occupants of J-J colonies must learn to be stoical. But half-empty stomachs and frequent fights over underpaid jobs take their toll and this Delhi erupts intermittently into a frenzy of violence -- communal, ethnic or merely wanton. Violence is its own catharsis and so, after a while, the colonies revert to their normal state. Meanwhile, the other Delhi remains unaffected. Its people do not have to learn to be indifferent; they already are, ensconced in their own cocoon of newly acquired wealth and ostentation.

Growing materialism
Strange as it may seem, the two groups do share one important quality: an overriding concern with material goods. For the poor this occurs because they lack commodities essential to their existence. Their pursuit renders the entire act of living mechanical. On the other hand, the rich value everything as a commodity, even human life whether another's or their own. The innate love of beauty and art for which the rich were known in the village, has long been forgotten and now they value art objects of pedestrian taste but high price. It is hard to believe when looking at the drawing rooms of the rich, cluttered with expensive but odious objects gathered worldwide, that the first book on aesthetics was written in India.

I ask myself: to which Delhi do I belong? I, too, came here as a child from a village, but not as a child worker, for I was lucky. It was my middle-class, educated father who came in search of work. I went to school, not an elitist public school but a humble municipal one, and then on to the university. I remain a resident of the metropolis because I do not know where my former home is -- most likely submerged by the reservoir of a dam or lost in the smoke of an industrial plant.

I guess I am fortunate enough not to belong to either of the two Delhis. There are others like me who do not feel at one with either Delhi. They are neither satiated nor somnolent, so there is hope. Hope that together we can create yet another city of Delhi -- a city of beauty and enterprise, in harmony with the environment. But Delhi can be saved only by the villages that surround it. If we stop ravaging them and allow them to prosper as individual entities, rather than as colonies, they can give Delhi back its heart and lungs. Delhi may then become a home for people, instead of a vast dump for the unwanted.

---Mridula Garg is a writer of short stories and novels who frequently uses environment as her theme.

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