Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Rise of the Cellular City

Most of Delhi looks like a Concrete wall at the edge of the pavement. I could say that and I would not be wrong. Or Delhi is largely 6 lane tarmac. I would not be wrong again.

In the past eight years, I have progressively, turned ignorant of what most Delhi neighbour-hoods look like. This is not the outcome of less travel. With the increasing number of cars, and the decreasing average occupancy of these cars, one has to spend large parts of the day entirely on the roads. And yet, I still know little of what Delhi looks like.

The explanation is simple. Delhi is an unsafe city. And a warped understanding of personal safety is wrapping whole chunks of the city into psychological safety cocoons linked to each other by all that is now left of the cities public space, the black tarred transportation networks.

But Delhi wasn’t always unsafe. The last 10 years have seen a marked rise in the perception of Delhi as unsafe. How safe it is or is not lies entirely outside this debate. Delhi is considered unsafe.

Delhi is a city of immigrants. Where the alien far outnumbers the domicle. There is no dominant culture, or dynamic or in another alternative interpretation there exists now a dominanat culture in steady decline. It is a sort of cultural eclectic or a social anarchy. The ultimate democracy, ready to collapse under its own virtual perfectness. Any one can do any thing here, and that gives most fear.

Delhi is unsafe because you do not know what your neighbour is doing. Or worse you do not even know who your neighbour is or far worse you are scared to find out who your neighbour is.

And that brings me back to the very first idea of this article. I do not know what most of Delhi looks like because I cannot pass through gates that remain locked though peak hour traffic, or are manned by questioning guards. And even after these guards, you cannot look over a 15 foot solid concrete wall.

Delhi is a land of opportunity and new money. A city that has suddenly engendered a new type of urban inhabitant. Delhi now has three types of people. The haves, the have-nots, and an enormous number of immigrant have-nots who suddenly can-have.

A hoard of refugees. An uncomfortable other who continually threaten the system and wreck havoc with its power and political balances by the sheer strenght of their numbers. However the minority of haves are usually the ones who influence most policy decisions and their fear shows. Delhi thus develops gated colonies, public roads turn private with controlled access, and the side walk is now the only public space left.

Delhi then builds high walls, locks doors, and puts up steel grills that keep people outside and themsleves in a cell, with a 6 inch checker- board view of their garden and the sky.

The city then installs video phones at gates. And infrared motion detectors.

In five years your gate is now the fifth gate from the colony entrance at the main road. So now when you are slaughtered like a lamb in your own back yard your neighbour can’t see, or hear, or notice.

Houses in the better colonies of Delhi seem to resemble bunkers. One would imagine New Friends Colony were preparing for Civil war and wide spread arson.

In the whole mad obsession with personal preservation the idea of a societal structure seems to have been lost. The idea of collective safety seems to have completely disappeared.

It becomes quite apparent that the fictitious land use plan has been a complete failure. The city is less efficient than 50 years a go. You no longer can work where you live. You spend more time traveling, and less at your desk. And invariably most work has to be redone. It takes four times as long now to get any where. Every vehicle needs two and half parking spaces. Localities now have eight hour activity cycles. The other hours these lie largely de- peopled, un- used, un- observed and thus pregnant with the possibility of crime. Modern day city planning has coffers filling, but has every one fearing for their lives.

It might be pertinent to observe that the crime rate might be decreasing as statistic. If you look closer, there is an alarming increase in one kind of crime. Crimes of familiarity. Victims found dead, with no witness, no observable intrusion or trespassing. On the outside the same regulars come and go, the same trusted work force, service providers, friendly neighbours, and milkmen. Yet we read of retired couples found battered, or lonely grand mothers slashed to their deaths.

And no one seems to know. Neightbours have no idea, no one unfamiliar passed , and nothing was seen.If you cannot see you cannot tell.

If you could see your neighbour, you can tell that he is safe. And if he can see you he knows you are safe too. Visibility and awareness are regulatory activities - social policing. You feel safer. It is almost as simple as that. No miscreant can get at you behind your four foot open wire fence. But if you lived in fort Bharatpur I wouldn’t know when someone got in and chopped you up like your favorite tandoori chicken: and invariably it’s some one on the inside who does the job on you. No one can see you any way and if I can’t hear you 2400 watt p.m.p.o. sound system on new years from behind your wall there is little chance any one will hear you scream.

The rest of the city is Social Housing Society Model that seems to be just another gated colony where rents are cheaper and no one knows any one. And if you happen to know your neighbour its invariably because you live in an insular, insecure, cultural ghetto like Zakir nagar or Chitaranjan Park. With its own guard and draw bridge.

The denizens of the city no more live their lives out in the city space, but in their private safe houses, behind closed doors and barred window. Each in his own bunkered world.

The city as a participatory exercise seems to have died an unnoticed death. Delhi’s side walks are vanishing. The roads have no pavement but no one seems to mind because they haven’t stepped out in years. Shops open right off the tarmac, even in places as elite as Khan Market. All open space is parking lot, like Connaught Place, and the throngs are squeezed between the parking lot and the shop window. No one notices the absence of trees along sidewalks in a climate that hits 50 degress Centigrade in summer. The aseptic new urbanism that the city is turning to seems to be designed more to keep people off than on it.

We have hue and cry about the Master plan, the allowing of mixed land use, better real estate. Delhi will not become a better city by these, and not be these alone.

It is a city witness to insular, self obsessing, and pathetically insecure urbanism, that has systematically broken down and subverted the very foundations of what civil society is built on. Delhi denies belonging, refuses identity, and disallows ownership.
Delhi is a city of psychological violence. A city of fear and exploitation. A city feared by itself first and most of all. A city turned on itself. A people turned on themselves in confused and misguided good intention.

The city lives through its people. So long as they have no life we cannot expect much from the city. What Delhi lacks is a feeling of collective safety. A feeling of small town familiarity and comfort. A reason and an identity to belong to. A feeling of home, where you do not need your 150 square meter unit of cellular city to know you are alive.

Delhi is a ghost that haunts most of us. Delhi needs, not building up, if it wishes to thrive (not survive as the basal reality) but breaking down. A demolition would do the city a world of good.

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