Urbanity as an idea doesn’t come easy to us Indians right now. We have been told that India is a land of villages and urban has always been looked upon as the ‘other’. This however is far from the reality. India has been one of the first countries that can boast of a ‘civilisation’ and formation of a ‘society ‘as seen in the Indus valley civilisation.

 An urban society is a heterogeneous construct that through its behavioural and societal traits learns to live together in amiability and a common rationale. Also, it is my conviction that an intrinsic part of this heterogeneity is the element of ‘poche’[1] or the interior and sometimes hidden. And it is this ‘interior urbanity’ which is quintessential urban in the India context and also significant, such that it gives our cities a unique layered flavour.

Recently, I attended a discussion ‘Meaningful City in India’ where the panellists were trying to theorise the rationale of the present day city and what then is the ‘meaning’ of the city. Each panellist chose an aspect that they were aiming to ‘include’ in the city construct to dwell upon. From the present day city that is primarily designed for automobile and ignores the pedestrian, a city which doesn’t guarantee safety to women, a city that is unequal and unjust and promotes exclusion either because of income, caste, class or religion, to also a city that despite of these ‘injustices’ grants an anonymity that an urban dweller seeks, grants a freedom and individuality that he might not have enjoyed in a rural setup where the family and societal ties are much greater.

I believe that in case of the urban poor, this exclusivity takes form of an urban poche or the interior urbanity that runs adjacent to the ‘other’ city but resides in ‘left over pockets’ of the city. Poverty dwells in the no-man’s land of the city, which have not been defined in the ‘official master plan’ of the city. These spaces are land next to the railway line, land under the high tension wire, and land near a storm water drain or even an open sewer, ghettoes, unconstructed plots, ecologically sensitive areas such as near a pond, river or the ridge. These areas which were left ‘white’ and un-defined in the master plan adapt a new identity and morphology and in large sense become an underlying skeleton for the city and are essential for the functioning of the city.

Urban poche’ in Vasant Vihar Delhi : The google map above shows the important ‘planned’ VasantVihar and the Public school with a blue line depicting the nala or a planned rainwater drainage channel. 

Urban poche’ in Vasant Vihar Delhi : The google map above shows the important ‘planned’ VasantVihar and the Public school with a blue line depicting the nala or a planned rainwater drainage channel. 

However the map misses to show the basti residing all along this nala as seen in the images below. Such ‘interiority’ is the urban poche’ (highlighted in red in the map below)

One of the speakers at the above mentioned talk spoke of the Dalit community and how they have found a ‘respite’ and an ‘escape’ in the city. How they ‘choose’ to live in a slum, which is nothing less than heaven in comparison to the atrocities based on caste and class they had to face back in the village. These migrants have lived in slums not less than10-15 years and are happy. They do not want the ‘city order’ to be enforced upon them. Their basti might have an eclectic mix of rural and urban and that’s how they choose to live. Such is also the case in the above mentioned example, Basantgaon doesn’t seek to be VasantVihar!

One then wonders that how should we ‘include’ these pockets of poverty in the other urban fabric. Slums had been part of every civilisation right from the Indus Valley to the Industrial Revolution. Sometimes the existing city order was enforced upon these new entrants and sometimes they were engulfed in the city but with a divide. Which of these is the solution?

The answer lies in remembering that the urban way of life in these pockets differ from the other city.

It is also essential however, to be aware that even though this urban poor is seeking solace in its anonymity it still feels the need to be included in decision making. This inclusion is probably the only form of inclusion a heterogeneous city requires and thereby can have its multiple layers of meaning. The poor are not asking a quick fix solution imposed upon them through resettlement plans, apartments to replace their hutments, relocation etc. What they are really asking is to be ‘heard’. The poche might be hidden from the outsider eye but its existentiality comes from the same, like the inside of a pocket loses its significance when exposed, similarly the urban order within a basti/slum also gets disturbed when loaded with modern planning techniques devoid of stakeholder consultation and participation.It is easy to ‘see’ the opposites ofinterior and exterior urbanity in our cities – but what is important is to speak of an ‘inclusion’ and a symbiotic relationship between the two rather than one being a parasite on the other or being engulfed in all its entirety.

Katputhli colony in Delhi is set to become one of the first redevelopment of a ‘slum precinct’, following the famous Slum Rehabilitation Model of Mumbai where a private developer builds high rise apartments for the slum dwellers and other commercial and residential development on the same plot from which he extracts his costs and profits and makes this project of redevelopment through private players a profitable one. Residents of Katputhli colony however do not call their settlement a slum – infact in many circles it is identified as ‘living heritage’. This colony is at least 40 years old and is house to the mystic of the Delhi city - puppeteers, magicians, folk singers, painters, dancers, acrobats, jugglers and storytellers etc. They are objecting the redevelopment and also the relocation to a transit camp. As they say - “If we are shifted into flats then how will all the wood workers, singers who practice their skills, idol makers, puppeteers who make 15 feet tall puppets, those of us who walk on 15-foot tall stilts, rickshaw pullers, weavers, tailors, painters, construction workers, rope makers, toy makers, magicians, sanitation workers, drummers who play dhols that weigh 50-60 kgs and many others workers and artisans who live here be able to sustain our work and livelihood”. ‘Urban flats’ are not a solution for this community – but then what is?!

- Nidhi Batra


Nidhi Batra is our first guest blogger for billionBRICKS. She is an urban development practitioner and is a consultant to The World Bank and Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA). Her work is focused on environmental urban design, urban poverty and participatory planning issues. She also anchors an urban forum called Terraurban (http://terraurban.wordpress.com/) and is the consulting editor for The Urban Vision. She enjoys traveling and is glad her work takes her places! She can be reached at ar.nbatra@gmail.com