The development & repurposing of urban spaces is inevitable for a city to accommodate its growing populace and their needs. However, charting a path of development that is sensitive to the population's diverse socio-economic landscape is a very different challenge. This project, Crossing the Lal Dora, brings forth the case of 135 Urban Villages in Delhi, its quarter of a million inhabitants and their culture, that has had to face the crushing impact of rapid urbanisation.
The metropolitan town of Delhi has been built on the agricultural lands acquired from its old inhabitant villagers. After initially relocating these villages to the outskirts, the government later began to simply acquire the agricultural lands from the farmers, in exchange for monetary compensation. Their residential space were left intact, circumscribed by a red line, termed the 'Lal Dora'.
The Report of the Expert Committee on Lal Dora, which outlines the proposed future of these lands, paints a picture of great prosperity & economic growth. Their vision claims to take 'maximum advantage of the opportunities that urbanisation has to offer' and proposes undeterred vertical growth of these residential areas to accommodate for the expansion of the city.
Our ethnographic study led us to one such Lal Dora—Shahpur Jat. Surrounded by Delhi's upmarket residential areas, Shahpur Jat has grown into a thriving shopping district lined with the studios of fashion designers and their chic boutiques. It has become the destination for bridal wear in Delhi.
The former farmers having lost their source of agrarian livelihood have had to adapt to these new circumstances by renting spaces to boutiques & shop-owners, turning into rich landlords overnight. In order to support the fashion industry, migrant worker colonies have mushroomed in its cramped underbelly, further feeding the landlords' pockets. Behind this booming industry lies a very complex culture of class discrimination and alienation. And the inequality created by this system, has had devastating effects on their culture and daily life.
Compelled by the stories of these villagers, 'Crossing the Lal Dora' is an ongoing thought-initiative that brings to light the heavy price paid by culture for the sake of progress. It questions the transactional nature of land acquisition, where communities are left to fend for themselves as the urban jungle grows around them.
Shijra plan, Shahpur Jat villageLand acquisition in Shahpur Jat happened in two phases. The first phase was carried out in 1954 (for development of Panchsheel and Gulmohar Park) and the second phase in 1979 (for the development of Asian Games Village), reducing the total land area from 34.02 hectares to 17.32 hectares.Deepak Mallya, Shreya Garg
Mix use buildingsOld buildings in the village have been repurposed to suit the growing fashion industry. Homes of farmers have been converted into mix use buildings rising upto 6-8 floors housing boutiques, factories, local stores, migrants and their families.Shreya Garg
Dark lanesOwing to the dense vertical construction, most lanes in the village remain dark even during the day. Having constructed over 100% of the plot size, balconies emerge as extensions on narrow streets blocking sunlight and air.Shreya Garg
Villagers playing cards'Panwar Jats' who are the original residents of the village, became rich due to increase in real estate prices. Unemployed, many of them are seen sitting together in groups smoking hookah or playing cards. This has become associated with the very identity of being a 'Jat man'.Shreya Garg
Cultural practice of veiling in the villageThe women covered in their veils, are mostly confined to the boundaries of their house or are chaperoned by a male member from the family wherever they go.Shreya Garg
BoutiquesThe glitzy lanes along Shahpur Jat's famous fashion streets.Shreya Garg
Garment factoriesFactories that fuel the boutiques. These factories operate in small cramped rooms, each accommodating 10-15 workers.Shreya Garg
VR filmA scene from virtual reality film 'Crossing The Lal Dora'.Shreya Garg
InitiativesUse of posters and stickers to spread the stories from Shahpur Jat to the larger public in collaboration with Sticklit.Shreya Garg, Deepak Mallya
Workshop CardsEach player receives a set of three cards - one that describes the inhabitants (character card), a situation which the character is facing (a scenario card) & speculating a day in their life in that scenario (activity card)Madhu Priyanka, Deepak Mallya, Shreya Toshniwal
In the process of building liveable, inclusive and sustainable urban cities, governments require land to construct and reconstruct civic infrastructure, accommodating for population rise, migration, transportation and commercial activities. However in the same process, many voices go unheard, as the slow tide of socio-cultural change hits the many that are unprepared. This project presents the case of the 135 urban villages of New Delhi and the stories of the people who inhabit them.
Originally agrarian communities, these villages were, at one point, surrounded by farmlands with a central residential area. Dispersed across the spreading capital city, the fate of these villages was laid out with each Master Plan for development. As Delhi grew, these village lands were subjected to systematic land acquisition by the government, leaving only the farmers’ residential areas or the “The Lal Dora”.
As stated in the The Report of the Expert Committee on Lal Dora the government undertook the task of urbanisation to develop these areas and make them a part of the city’s expanding economy. Unsurprisingly, these areas have been engulfed by urban Delhi at a frantic pace; its inhabitants left to cope with the drastic effects of this whirlwind change.
Shahpur Jat is one such area. Dotted with designer boutiques for clothes, jewellery, home accents, and cafés serving gourmet food–each space resplendent with its distinctive decor and unique offerings; this village is a maze of hidden delights for the regular urbanite.Interspersed between these up-market spaces are smaller grocery, barber & dye shops in tiny alleys. To most visitors, Shahpur Jat resonates as a cultural experience that beholds a special charm-being immersed in the urban and the rural, the exotic and the essential, all at once.
Our intrigue with its wide economic diversity led us deeper into its territory. What we found, was a state of dissonance which was not merely a transition from rural to urban but a tragic loss of identity, culture and purpose that is inescapable for the inhabitants and invisible to the outsiders.
Our research was carried out using ethnographic methods. To get as close as possible to the lived experiences of the participants, multiple methods of immersions were designed, each suitable to a subgroup or a situational context. This research was conducted on morally challenging grounds, where it was very important to be be conscious of our footprint in the field and the affect our presence might have on the lives of certain respondents on prolonged engagement. This became even more crucial while adopting methods of role play, towards being sensitive to the nature of the site. (Attached report)
Key Insight—Loss of Work & its impact on Space.
Although the villagers were justly compensated for their land acquired by the government, what they lost in the process was their livelihood. Having had only agricultural skills, they were left jobless.They had to come up with a whole new way of living and earning.As an immediate measure for sustenance, they began renting out small sections in their houses, to labourers working in nearby industrial areas. The low rental prices also started attracting commercial enterprises of various kinds.
Over the decades, real estate prices have boomed, turning these modest villages into rent economies. Beyond the glamour and fairy lights, Shahpur Jat exists as an island of concrete with oddly erected buildings shooting out of the ground and leaving only a sliver of light to shine through. The landlords have expanded their two-storied houses to as tall as 6-7 floors, flouting construction and safety norms to hoard as much space as possible, hence make as much money as possible. Covering a 100% of the plot size, the balconies emerge as extensions on the streets, allowing very little sunlight to pass. Haphazard construction and chaos characterise these dark lanes, they exist in dangerous conditions—accidents waiting to happen.
Key Insight—Loss of Purpose & its impact on Culture
With enough income from rent, there was no longer a need to work—a way of life associated with the pride of the community. However, without anything to do, the men have resorted to a life of drugs, smoking hookah and gambling.
The younger generation, inspired and influenced by their fathers, is disinterested in going to school. Education being synonymous with getting a job and earning a living, is now considered a futile activity. They are growing in a conservative patriarchal bubble, insulated to the progressions of the surrounding world - one that is going through constant cultural reformation. To assert their masculinity, the men now resort to other expressions of power and control. The elder generation holds on to hookah, whereas the younger generation loiters in the by-lanes, eve-teasing and engaging in illicit activities. Different generations of men, in the name of holding their honour within the community resort to domestic violence in situations where their masculinity becomes a performance in front of the rest, especially the opposite gender.
Urban tenants and the arbitrarily priced rents they pay are welcomed by them. However, their modern, liberal lifestyle is starkly opposite to the villagers’ traditional patriarchal value system. Threatened by its potential influence on the community’s women and children, the men and elders of the community ferociously guard their culture. This can be seen as sections of the village are demarcated for certain residents.
Key Insight —Duality & Conflict
Shahpur Jat as a space houses duality and conflict in various forms. Buildings that are the addresses for high-end boutiques are also home to cramped, dingy garment factories – small rooms with 10-15 migrant workers in each, working through long hours. While these factory workers’ lives are a saga of immense toil in difficult conditions for a meager income, the Jats’ lives are the exact opposite – high cash inflows without any work.
The female designers who often run these boutiques and the many urban women who are their clients, are educated and independent. On the contrary, the wives of the Jat men, living just behind these boutiques, have not been allowed to step out of their lanes for decades.
The village’s youth is caught in between the duality of these contrasting cultures. From differing clothes and work cultures to broader gender dynamics, they feel largely disoriented in terms of their own ideals, conduct and behaviour.
Key Insight — Isolation & Alienation
These starkly different lives of people living in such close proximity are tainted with apathy to each other’s reality. This social distance also dictates rigid space use patterns that reveal buzzing class and caste tensions. Different classes exist in clusters in the village. The migrants are confined to their colonies, barred from entering the poshest shopping areas. Different factions of people–Jat families, migrant families and boutique owners–continue leading their lives in isolated silos, interacting only for monetary transactions.
This complex co-dependent web of social, cultural & economic dynamics can be seen as a means of adapting to rapid urbanisation: one where people who are suddenly thrust into oblivion build reactive mechanisms to cope. What does become concerning is the kind of adaptation that has emerged in Shahpur Jat, where one begins to wonder if it is in tune with the intended progress laid out for the land & its people.
Equipped with insightful data from the cracks and crevices of Shahpur Jat, we were faced with a two-fold design challenge-how might we design interventions for & beyond the complex ecosystem to (i) reduce the alienation & extreme polarisation of cultures found in these urban villages, and(ii) in the long run, ensure holistic models of further urbanization, beyond the transactional nature as in effect today.
So as to not reduce the complexity of the required intervention with short term immersions, we re-briefed our objective towards driving a mass-scale thought-movement intended at critiquing rapid urbanization through the tools of critical thought & discourse.
As early facilitators of this movement, we first constructed an online repository to represent information in easily digestible & verifiable formats. This repository, along with providing detailed accounts of cultural-social dynamics from our research also links to government reports & facts.
We then built a series of content touch-points, available for public download. These include a VR film that immerses the viewer into Shahpur Jat’s narrow lanes with an aim to tease her on the darker side of the glitzy boutiques.A set of stories inspired by the people & culture of Shahpur Jat also sets the tone to question the current policies of urbanisation.
Equipped with a starting repository of content & information freely accessible, we now engage with established ground-up initiatives, apart from driving our own.To this effect, our ongoing collaboration with Sticklit is aimed at facilitating awareness around the conditions of the Lal Dora through placing posters of our stories near educational & government institutions. Having garnered interest it has resulted into a series of critical thinking workshops, where we take the participants through the lives of the inhabitants & co-ideate possible future-scapes towards sustainable, viable living conditions.
By continuously updating our repository of accessible content we wish to equip & encourage people to drive initiatives within their communities, in hope of sparking a long term change towards how we think of urbanisation.