Recently, I realized that there is no one version of a city. Of course, I’d heard it said before: so many different authors, so many stories. But it hadn’t struck me, not affected me; I never thought about the other facets, so they weren’t there.
I’ve lived all my life in Delhi. Since I joined college I’ve been commuting by the bus, and anyways, the road is for everyone. So I did see the poor, the working class, the informal sector. Sometimes I admired them, for they never let an opportunity for moneymaking pass. There are people who get on the bus at one stop, hawk their wares (Delhi maps, sets of pens, pencils, tablecloths, lighters) and get off at the next one. What I’m trying to say is: I wasn’t unaware. Maybe I was just uninterested.
This last winter I learned about the Genda Phool Project. Himanshu Verma, an art curator, had launched it to ‘save the phool mandis’ of Delhi. When I heard that he was looking for some help mapping the flower markets, I volunteered. We explored the Meharauli, Fatehpuri and the Connaught Place mandis. Again, I saw the people, loved the experience, the hustle and bustle and feel of the informal markets. But I wasn’t sure about the project. After all, what was so wrong about shifting them all out of the city into a brand new, swanky flower mall?
Slowly, I understood. These were real people, and this would affect their lives (and of those connected to them) in ways I couldn’t even contemplate: economics, the commute, the supply, loss of customers. But the worst realisation of all was that I couldn’t answer the question: Why were they being moved?
I’d always trusted the administration, the politicos and the ‘experts’. When the demolishing of all the illegal colonies and unauthorized commercial activity was going on, I thought, good. They deserve what they’re getting; the Master Plan says they can’t be here, so how can they be here? But now that the band-aid had been ripped off, I suddenly saw the other side.
The mandi people were making an honest living, occupying MCD/DDA space, yes, but they weren’t obstructing anything; rather, they were giving life to a dead zone. The Plaza in front of the State Emporiums on Baba Kharak Singh Marg is idle at all times, except those three-four hours every morning when India’s largest phool mandi brings it alive. And moving them out would serve no purpose, besides making Delhi even more antiseptic and sterile, seemingly ‘world class’. Does world class mean losing its own identity, becoming more linear and ‘city’ like, while pushing all that make it different from New York and Shanghai under the carpet? Slowly, we were losing our urban heritage; these mandis were just a small part of a larger agenda. We were too busy with “what will foreigners think?” to understand that if we ignore all that gives us character we might just lose our appeal. An older Times of India campaign shouted ‘Delhi: from walled city to world city.’ Why couldn’t we have both?
The seminar we organized for Utopia this year, Delhi Dallying, on the imageablity of Delhi, and a Delhi 2050 discussion I subsequently attended, both reinforced this opinion. The speakers again brought to life this other part of Delhi, the labouring poor, who, I realised, were cogs in the framework of Delhi. Without them, while the city might not come to a stop, it would certainly lose most of its steam. The informal sector engages with the city on so many dimensions that we only see the tip of the iceberg. Surely, if I could realise this, so could the bureaucracy. I was left wondering: did people genuinely not care, or was it just a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality? Certainly all of this was happening not because of the ‘hostility of the poor, but because of the hostility of the rich’. There was this ‘class war’ being fought in the city without my knowledge. I wanted to know: Why can’t we be more inclusive, more accepting?
The kabadi bazaar in front of Red Fort has already been moved, and the Darayagnj book market has just barely been saved from a similar fate. I don’t know about the kabadi bazaar, but I’ve explored the book market (and discovered some amazing finds), and I know that it’s a brilliant use of space. Darayganj is closed, and would have been empty on Sundays, if not for this. Even all these weekly sabzi markets that pop up, they all add value, identity and meaning to the areas they occupy. They give character, and of course, there are the issues of energy efficiency and economics and reducing the number of middle men. Do we really want to replace all the sabzi mandis with malls, all the phool mandis with malls, the book market with malls?
Most of us would probably answer a vehement no!. I realize now that we’ve been asking the wrong questions. It’s not ‘What do people think? Do they care? How do you make them want to care?’ as much as ‘This is what is happening, the full and the whole of it. What do you think?’
The problem is, we’re never asked.