IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)

2011 Delhi, India Letter Home

By Melanie Brubaker, with input from Claire Feinberg, Catherine Flint, Alyssa Bucci, Bianca Giaever, and Liz Zimiles.

Students lighting candles

A sato ma sadgamaya
Tamaso ma jyotirgamaya

Much like in New York we enter a room alive with noise, but rather than introductory chatter the chanted prayer for knowledge submerges every open space.

Mrityur ma amritamgamaya
Om shanti shanti shanti

The air smells of lamp oil and carnations.

From untruth to truth lead us
From darkness to light lead us

As we light candles nestled in to an intricate pattern of flowers it hits us...

From death to eternal life lead us
Om peace peace peace

...we really are in India.
No one needs to be told that Delhi has a long and rich history and is a booming, bustling and rapidly expanding city; the name itself conjures caste systems and call centers, ancient trade routes and global market economies, early religions and contemporary capitalism. It did not take us long to understand that Delhi is a complicated and dynamic city.  Considering that each “phase” of Delhi’s history is comparable in centuries to the entire political existence of the United States, we knew we had our work cut out for us.  With each day, each site visit, guest lecture or transportation adventure, Delhi showed us that there is always another layer of information or understanding to be uncovered.

Our time in Delhi began with learning about the history of the city, followed by looking at current issues and the city as it is now. We spent our last week doing case studies in Gurgaon, a rapidly developing town/city that abuts Delhi and is held by many as a model of the future Indian global city. 

Professor Salim Mishra giving an overview of Delhi’s socio-political history

Our first guest lecturer, Professor Salim Mishra, had the daunting task of giving an overview of Delhi’s socio-political history.  Claire Feinberg, a University of Chicago student, said his presentation “helped us to think about the various iterations of Delhi before, during and after British colonization.  I hadn’t envisioned Delhi as a refugee city which is actually what it’s been for centuries. We think of is as a point of departure to America or Europe, not necessarily as a point of arrival.”  According to Professor Mishra, Delhi is a city that has “struggled and been destroyed many times, but it’s resilient and strong; it always comes back.” Throughout its history it has grown and shrunk to half its size, and been conquered, freed, broken down and rebuilt.

Indeed the city’s story can be read in its built environment. As we walked through “Lutyens Delhi”, planned in 1911by the British architect of the same name, it is clear how design was used to make British colonial power visible and palpable. Architect and academic Amit Sarma explained to us how this area of the city was indeed designed to reinforce imperial power with one processional road leading from India Gate to the Presidential and government buildings, the use of wide streetscapes and many areas blocked off from public access.  The British in essence rejected the sites of the existing government and established “New” versus “old” Delhi as if creating a new city despite the booming existence of the present one.  

Neighborhood Day was another moment where students uncovered some key issues and aspects of Delhi as it exists today.  Two of the five neighborhoods visited, Nizamuddin East and Bogul, are both in central Delhi but have very different histories which lead to their current status.

Turning left off the main road into the Nizamuddin East enclave, immediately everything was quiet and the streets were still. Even though the neighborhood is surrounded by an arterial road of Delhi and a large railway station, the walled residences, enclosed gardens, and guards at every gate create the feel of an isolated suburb. Alyssa Bucci, a University of Vermont student, describes her experience on Neighborhood Day: “Walking around Nizamuddin East forced us to consider the lifestyles of these people in comparison with our host families.  We walked around, developed our questions about who lived here and how they lived. Then we talked to people in the street and in the shops to find out if or initial read of the area was accurate, and to get a better idea of what the neighborhood was about.” We learned that Nizamuddin East began as a refugee camp and eventually the pre-British government stepped in, created plots and built basic housing.  Those humble houses passed from father to son for generations and are now elegant three story residences for the original refugees’ upwardly mobile progeny. 

Nizamudin East is very similar in look and feel to many of the residential enclaves that have developed all over Delhi as the burgeoning middle class seeks to carve out its own protected spaces in this large capital city. The enclaves – each with their own markets, restaurants and stores - are changing the face of Delhi. The walled enclosures cut areas and communities off from each other and making it only possible to negotiate the city through large roadways rather then small side streets.

The Bogul neighborhood is another part the city that captures so many elements of Delhi’s history, struggles and resilience.  With its streets spilling over with people passing store to store and vendors selling their wares on the sidewalks, Bogul embodies the vibrancy of Delhi in a very small geographic space.  This eight-or-so block area has a peacefully existing mix of religious communities.  Catherine Flint, a  Macalester College student, noted that the religious diversity of Bogul is apparent even in the design of the area.  “As we explored the area we walked down Church Street, Temple Street, and Gudwara Street, and the Jains are on Center street.” However, Bogul has not entirely escaped religious clashes.  In 1984 after Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh body guard, Muslim soldiers from outside of Bogul went on a rampage in the area and in 48 hours murdered between five and seven hundred Sikh people in this eight-block neighborhood. People we spoke to commented on the strength of the community, that they were able to return to their peaceful coexistence after an event that could have fractured the community entirely.  Catherine commented “especially after learning about partition and its conflicts, it was amazing to see so many different groups of people living in one area, and doing it peacefully.”  Bogul as a neighborhood exemplifies both the incredible diversity of Delhi as well as some of its surprising turns of history as a place highly influenced by national and international events.

“Harit Recyclers” founder Sashi Pandit (foreground) and another waste picker activist

Our group also spent a lot of time looking at issues and activism around waste management in Delhi.  Specifically, we spent a day with the self named “waste pickers” of Delhi. The waste pickers are a group of people who make a living by collecting recyclable, reusable or re-sellable materials out of neighborhood dumpsters and city landfills.  We were all strongly impacted by the organization and determination of the activists from The National Association of Waste Workers and amazed by the generosity of activist waste workers who welcomed us into their community and took an entire day to help us understand the complexity of the issue and their situation.  Together we discussed bigger picture issues of safety, human rights and government policies that keep their community marginalized and vulnerable.

In the afternoon they took us to the informal settlement where they live and to the landfill where many work. It was both humbling to see the conditions in which such a large population lived, and inspiring to learn from activist and community organizers who are working against large and powerful systems, unsupported and completely unrecognized by government authorities.

Our last week in Delhi was spent examining Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi that is the home to dozens of multinational companies and “mall mile”, a street that is lined with dozens of high-end shopping centers.  Gurgaon is advertised as the “Future of Delhi” and we sought to understand the effects of a city undergoing rampant and completely unregulated growth on the people and environment therein.  Through  two-plus days of on-the-ground research with architecture students from the Gurgaon School of Architecture as facilitators and guides, we examined the topics of migrant workers, environmental sustainability, transport, housing and consumerism through the lens of the Urban Politics and Development course. Each case study group gave a final presentation to an audience including students from the Sushant School of Art and Architecture, a university and graduate school in Gurgaon.  Working with the students from the Sushant School was a highlight for our group.  Bianca Giaever, a Middlebury College student, appreciated the peer connection. “They were able to help us with informed local connections and they were awesome facilitators.  It was also great to become friends with people our age from Delhi and see what university life is like here.”

Liz Zimiles, a Syracuse University student, noted that “we can’t talk about Delhi with out talking about our host families! Not only was the food great, but I felt like I was part of the family right away.  Their generosity was amazing, we got to talk with them about what we were learning, and riding a rickshaw to school every day was fantastic.”

Our five weeks in Delhi were full of delicious food, welcoming host families, a wealth of new information and ideas on what forms and influences the development of cities, as well as many questions to bring with us to Dakar. Namaste!

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
USA, Brazil, India, South Africa

Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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