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

2013 Letter home from India


Cities Spring 2013
India Letter Home

Written by Kate Scarbrough, with contributions from Trustees Fellow Katie Smith

Fresh off our group’s first international flight together, we arrived in Delhi full of energy and excited to explore the city’s layered history, develop relationships with our homestay families, and study the complex challenges facing cities in the world’s second largest country. For the majority of our time in Delhi, we stayed at the International Youth Hostel in a part of Delhi near many embassies. The neighborhood was spacious, with a legacy of colonial architecture, an abundance of greenery and very few people living on the sidewalks, a sharp contrast to other parts of the city we would experience. Students quickly learned how to bargain with auto rickshaws, the dominant form of transportation. For many students, the feel of New Delhi was comparable to Washington, D.C., with the dominance of government and institutional buildings as well as wide boulevards. And much like D.C., as the nation’s capital, the government’s activities seemed to overshadow Delhi’s own identity.  We were told multiple times that Delhi was the city of government in India, as opposed to Mumbai (the business capital), or Chennai (the technical center).  Because of this political significance, several students were able to visit the capitol buildings and witness political protests, including One Billion Rising, a march for women’s rights and safety.

Students lived in their first homestays for 10 days and were able to experience life for middle class Indian families, including attending multiple extravagant weddings! In the 3rd week, after saying goodbye to our host families in Delhi, we took a 14 hour train ride to Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat.  Ahmedabad is a smaller city in India, but one that is experiencing a boom of development, and Gujarat has one of the fastest growing economies in India. The first thing we noticed in Ahmedabad was the difference in traffic and people on the street.  While the streets were still crowded, there were many women on the street who not only rode but also drove motorcycles.  Almost every driver wore scarves over the lower halves of their faces because of the air pollution.  People smiled at us on the street and greeted us, and in contrast to Delhi, almost everyone we spoke to had great pride in their city.   The warmer climate and warmer people made us feel immediately welcome in Ahmedabad.

At the same time, Ahmedabad proved to be the place where our group was really challenged for the first time by our program site visits, which exposed great inequalities and injustices. We learned about the 2002 Muslim-Hindu riots and their influence on the city. Some students visited an area on the riverfront where residents of informal housing settlements had been displaced for a large scale development, while others visited an exclusive housing development on the outskirts of the city.  We began to question the meaning of the word development: what it means, who it affects, who controls it.  These questions started to frame the way we examined Delhi and Dakar.


Upon our return to Delhi we had more free time to conduct individual research for our Comparative Analysis projects, as well as take trips to other parts of the city and country.  Many students visited the Taj Mahal.  Another group of students visited the foothills of the Himalayas. Some managed to do both!  It was exciting to be able to get around on our own after experiencing Delhi rickshaws and the metro, Ahmedabad buses, and the India train system.

Throughout our time in Delhi we visited various shopping areas on site visits and through our own exploration.  At the very spacious but crowded Connaught Place we were able to see the juxtaposition of informal market places and street vendors with British-influenced stores housing Western brands.  In Shahjahanabad, the labyrinthine Old Delhi, we squeezed through small, even more crowded streets to purchase spices and other goods. Even in Shahjahanabad we could see the juxtaposition of Indian and British colonial architecture.  We visited another prominent market, Dilli Haat, which houses artisan merchants and is an attraction for many tourists looking to bring home vibrant, handcrafted gifts.  Yet another large market, Lajpat Nagar, housed cheap Indian and Western goods (and multiple piercing parlors).  We learned the art of bargaining at all of these places.

After trying to squeeze in some last minute visits and shopping, we loaded all of our luggage onto the roofs of taxis and drove to the airport to fly to Senegal.  India was a challenging experience, but it proved an incredible opportunity to grapple with complex questions about poverty, culture, and development.


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