Whose city?


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THE Chief Minister of Delhi has presented a dream of creating an ‘infrastructure-oriented, world class city to be emulated by other ultra-modern developed cities in the world.’ As part of this dream, she has launched a Rs 2,200 crore project for flyovers and elevated roads so as to make travel ‘signal free’. This is in continuation of the JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) wherein, over seven years (2005-2012) the city allocated Rs 11,819 crore – 36% for BSUP (basic services for the urban poor – actually for housing and slum relocation) of which two-thirds was for urban infrastructure development (UID). Within this infrastructure, 27% was earmarked for drainage, 3% for redeveloping the central business district of Connaught Place, and 70% for transport related projects – flyovers, grade separators, elevated roads, corridor improvements, under and overbridges, and parking lots: all clearly designed for the private motorized vehicle. And this in a city whose annual plan budget for 2013-2014, recently approved by the Planning Commission, is Rs 16,626 crore.

Is this pattern of investment justified in a nation where economic growth – officially declared to be the only way in which poverty can be reduced – is slowing down to 5%? Delhi has been clamouring for foreign and private investment, projecting itself as a dynamic, cosmopolitan city. But what are the real needs of a city in which both work and home conditions are rapidly changing for the worse? Only one-fourth of the citizens are resident in ‘planned’ colonies in the core; the rest are housed in various illegal settlements at the periphery. And the economic base has shifted from manufacturing to services with virtually two-thirds of the workers located in the informal sector. Both illegality and informality are part of the global phenomenon of neo-liberal ‘development’ – perhaps the only way in which Delhi (like other cities and towns in India) may be called ‘world-class’. How then does the creation of such infrastructure, heavily dedicated to private vehicles, address the problems of the two-thirds to three-fourths of the population living in substandard settlements and with little access to regular employment?


This is the context within which the issue of urban safety has to be located. If 1,866 people lost their lives in 1,822 road accidents in 2012, compared to 2,066 dead in 2,007 accidents in 2011, 2,153 deaths in 2,104 accidents in 2010, and 2,234 in 2,182 accidents in 2009, then the trend seems to indicate that death and accident rates have been declining. The police, in a self-serving mood, attributes it to strict enforcement of traffic rules, massive prosecution of drunk driving, and a crackdown on dangerous driving by commercial vehicles, especially at night. But the critical fact, often forgotten, is that as many as half the reported road fatalities comprise of pedestrians – this in a city where cars and two-wheelers constitute 77% of the road traffic! In other words, the city design is particularly harsh for this most vulnerable section of citizens and the regulators have little to offer them. Will the present trajectory of urban growth see a continuation of these fatalities, and is there anything we can do about it?

Even the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), anticipating that the urban population will grow from 30% to 70% by 2051, mentions that while the population of India’s six major metropolises increased by 1.9 times during 1981-2001, the number of motor vehicles went up by over 7.75 times during the same period. Evidently car growth is accepted as an iconic form of ‘development’ and an indicator of ‘quality of life’. The policy says that people should occupy the centre stage but also recognizes that the cost of travel for the poor has increased because the use of non-motorized modes like cycling and walking has become extremely risky while sharing the same right of way with motorized modes. So the policy tries to address the issue by proposing that there should be equitable allocation of road space and the construction of segregated right of way for bicycles and pedestrians.

Will this be adequate to ensure safety? Remember that the NUTP also specifies that land may be tapped as a resource for raising investment for urban transport infrastructure as well as to generate revenue from the infrastructure. Such a concept turns land into a commodity whose price begins to rise in the market and, as the price goes up, the general population begins to find it increasingly unaffordable for providing shelter or work. This actually facilitates the shift of the urban economy into informality and illegality, while dislocating poor people from the centre, where real estate is at a premium, to the periphery, where they can once again convert land into a valuable commodity over the next 20 years. This, in turn, marks the formation of a ‘suburb’ or ‘satellite town’ and the long commuting distance involved – mainly to be negotiated by the private motorized vehicle. These concepts are part and parcel of global practices, particularly as followed in the ‘developed’ countries where they are linked to ‘quality of life’ indices.


Do the people of Delhi really want to follow these global practices? Take, for example, the much maligned three-wheeled scooter rickshaw (or ‘auto’) that is an integral part of para-transit modes in the city. There were about 86,000 of them at the turn of the century but only 45,000 licenses were issued until recently, thereby rendering nearly half of them illegal. Thus, there is a thriving black market for their purchase by prospective owner-drivers and the cost can go up by as much as threefold. But the driver also has to pay 20% interest and this increases the financial burden manyfold. Illegality also increases the harassment and extortion by the police with huge fines being arbitrarily levied for parking, waiting for passengers, and ‘misbehaviour’. Much of this practice is related to the pressure on the police to keep the roads free of ‘congestion’ for the private car, as well as to the government’s fiat to make Delhi a world-class city that will only have radio cabs and air-conditioned buses for public transport.1 


Other Delhi-wallahs on the streets are an estimated two lakh waste pickers and junk dealers who keep the city free of a considerable amount of waste. At least three-fourths of them use cycle rickshaws and cycles to transport the waste, thereby enhancing their earnings because bigger loads can be carried on the rickshaws. But the core elite area of the city is governed by a nominated administration which does not permit the entry of cycle rickshaws on grounds of ‘security’ and ‘congestion’. Harassment of the waste pickers is routine because there are no segregated cycle tracks; they are supposed to be ‘illegal’, apart from being considered dirty and anti-social. Worse, many are arrested as ‘Bangladeshis’ and deported as ‘foreigners’ under the Foreigners Act, which places the onus of proof on the detainee, or banished to the outskirts of the city where it becomes even more difficult to transport the waste.2, 3 

Similarly, cycle trolleys, which carry between 200-400 kg of goods per trip and each trip could cover 30-50 km. They normally wait at markets where they are routinely harassed by municipal officers even when they have licenses and are located at official stands provided by the government – with their trolleys seized on the road and taken away to the pound, where a fine of Rs 325 is levied for its release on the first day and, if not recovered within a week, the vehicles crushed and destroyed. These trolleys are far cheaper, more efficient, and occupy much less space than other motorized modes used for the same purpose. Yet, they are persecuted by both the municipality as well as the contractor-mafia for extraction of more money. A rough estimate of this extraction from all over the city amounts to a ‘legal’ Rs 200 million per year by the municipality and an illegal Rs 960 million per year by the mafia. Also, as the new signal-free road infrastructure comes into place, their easy movement is hampered by flyovers and avoid separators.4 


Bus drivers are yet another constituency on the road. The Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) is a descendant of previous public sector undertakings that had been set up as early as 1950 to overcome the inadequacies of a private transport firm and was successively rationalized in 1958, 1971, 1996, and 2003. Consequently, under the new profit-making imperatives, only 31% of the buses are deputed to ply within the city to ferry commuters, and there has been no fresh recruitment of drivers since 1990. Currently 82% are contract drivers employed on a daily basis. This increases the workload, with drivers covering an average of 150-200 km per day, brings down the monthly wages from Rs 12,000 to Rs 2000, and increases musculo-skeletal, respiratory and neurological problems. The changeover from ‘dirty’ diesel to ‘clean’ CNG engines in 2002 seems to have actually worsened their working conditions, with comfort, safety and ventilation being cited as major issues.5 


There is another category of workers who are not visible on the road but are adversely affected by the creation of ultra-modern infrastructure. These are the sewer workers who work on contract for the municipality because new workers are not being departmentally recruited. The hazardous nature of the work can be assessed by the fact that an estimated 100 workers die every year while entering the confined space at high temperatures, with slippery walls and floor, and in the presence of toxic gases, sharps, chemicals, and insects. Even above the surface, the workers face verbal abuse from road users and local gentry for obstructing car movement and spreading dirt, working under constant fear from the surrounding traffic, and experiencing social humiliation and discrimination because of their lower caste status.

Matters have been made worse as ‘quality of life’ improvements have introduced non-degradable materials into the sewer, the new materials of construction add to the friction in the sewer, and road widening has done away with the vents that were installed for safe release of toxic gases.6 

There are an estimated 200,000 street vendors in the city and this set of road users has to not only worry about their own transportation but also about the safety of the perishable goods they carry, mostly by public transport, which is not available at their convenience, or by para-transit modes. There is also constant harassment and extortion by the police as well as the municipal authorities on the charge of illegal trading or ‘obstruction’ of traffic. The idea of hawking zones, propagated by executive and judicial authorities, does not appeal to them because the street is where their customers are located and the norms stipulated by municipal officials do not correspond with the demand of market forces. In fact, when compared with the modern malls and retail centres where their goods are now being offered, they create little traffic congestion, use lower amounts of energy, and provide eyes on the street to reduce crime.7 


Informal sector workers in the city are provided with some relief in the master plan as it grants a number of informal sector units for each formal sector unit. But this code was formulated in 1962 and has not been revised since then. In addition, there is no provision for shelter near their place of work and so many of them, particularly those engaged in transportation and related activities, have no home other than what the road provides – on the pavements, under flyovers, in the lee of markets and warehouses, and on the streets and at road junctions when traffic stops at night. They face air and noise pollution, are victims of road accidents at night, are subject to verbal and physical abuse, do not have a place to keep their meagre possessions, and are often perceived as anti-social and criminal elements. Frequently, the police wake them up and force them to vacate the space they are occupying as it ‘impedes’ the movement of traffic. Thus, the road was never designed keeping their needs in mind because planners are not even aware of the needs of those whom they never notice.8 


Following from studies conducted by feminist groups that have interrogated women’s security in places of public transport, there needs to be a better understanding of why women travel in the city. There are various purposes for which they use roads: for work, dropping or receiving children from school and bus stops, going to markets for buying provisions, to post offices and banks and religious places, access to health services, and see road space as a social site for many activities. Women seem to prefer cycle rickshaws over auto-rickshaws because of the cost factor, but find that these are becoming increasingly unavailable because of the police drive against ‘congestion’. Safety is a critical issue for them (and for children and the elderly), particularly because for working women who use public transport, the police appear as a big threat to security. Hence, contrary to the media demand for better policing, women’s perception is that stopping private motorized transport, providing better lighting, and ensuring the presence of working people on the road is what provides the structure of safety.9 

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor in Delhi illustrates only too well the hurdles faced by any form of public transportation that caters to the needs of the majority and challenges the right of the private motorized vehicle to untrammelled space on the road. The single BRT corridor was inaugurated in 2008 and immediately ran afoul of the English media which launched a sustained campaign against it, calling it a ‘killer’, a ‘mess’, ‘flawed’, ‘a nightmare’, ‘a fiasco’, ‘chaotic’, etc. Eventually, an NGO dragged the matter to the High Court urging that ‘the large number of other vehicles is far disproportionate to a small number of buses which ply on the exclusive corridor, reducing further the already insufficient road space for other vehicles.’ This patently absurd position was vociferously supported by the English newspapers, one editor going to the extent of calling the BRT a ‘demented scheme (that) was forced upon innocent citizens of Delhi.’ Mercifully, the High Court dismissed the petition, but a seal of death has been put on the other 14 proposed BRT corridors.10 


In the final analysis the question must be asked: Who is the ‘innocent citizen’ of Delhi? Is it the motorized vehicle owner or the individual commuter who walks or cycles (and even buses) to work? Do the rickshaw pullers and waste pickers, bus drivers and sewer cleaners, vendors and causal labourers and working women, buses and auto-rickshaws have any claim to the city? Or are they perforce going to be always victimized as those whose labour is needed by the affluent in the city even as the city will offer them nothing in turn. Their ‘illegality’ and ‘informality’ makes them all subject to systemic harassment and humiliation by the police, the municipality, and the contractor mafia even though they constitute the vast majority of those who live and work in the city. What is there in the ultra-modern, infrastructure-laden, world-class city that will yield them a life of dignity and freedom?


As the above cases illustrate, the notion of the road as a mobility corridor competes with a more integrated (and intelligent) appreciation of the road as a public space in the social sphere with multiple users and functions. The perception that private motorized vehicles add to safety on the road or to the quality of life is not widely shared, except in a select forum of urban decisionmakers and planners. It is also curious that policy makers wish to convert a largely car-free society into one that treasures the motorized vehicle as an emblem of ‘development’, and tackle the problems created by motorized traffic after the change has taken place, rather than build upon what is of economic and ecological value in the existing social structure. It should be the task of an intelligent planner to understand all these multiplicities through a dialogue with all the users and to design the spatial functions in such a manner that conflicts between users is minimized, safety and security is ensured for all, and the use of road space has a value in democratizing society.

This is not as difficult a task as is often made out to be by academics and professionals. Some of the perfectly commonsensical aspects that working people illustrate through their lived experience, clear from the cases presented above, may be enumerated as follows. First, all the multiple users desire legal protection of their rights so that they are not harassed at every turn by policemen and officials. They point to the need to define multiple uses as legitimate and, therefore, the evolution of differential norms for varied functions. In addition, even the ‘world-class’ city has to provide for the numerous informal service providers who reach out to every citizen and, for this, road design has to incorporate the connections between manufacturing, markets, consumers, and the hinterland on either side where these activities take place. And finally, such a democratic structuring of the road will only be possible when the process of designing itself becomes participatory. In other words the planner has to dialogue with those whom he/she wishes to plan for.

Safety is not merely a mental construct to be facilitated through ‘awareness’ programmes and harsher ‘disciplining’. Effective and safe road design and transport planning has to address a set of conflicts implicit in the social context within which roads are built and transport is provided. Planners generally think in terms of ‘mobility’ while a majority of road users are concerned about ‘livelihoods’. The role of research and analysis for road safety is thus often (and unthinkingly) left to the ‘expert’ who tries to generate awareness around his/her perceptions, even though the ‘people’ who use the road frequently have a completely different perception of the road but are not allowed to express it in decisionmaking arenas. Consequently, the central issue remains the politics of voice and human rights and how they may be brought to the core of designing the street as a democratic and public space. Does this process have an indigenous ‘undeveloped’ quality or must it, because of the political imperative driven by the interests of large corporations and the global forces, follow the false models created by the ‘developed’ nations?



1. Dinesh Mohan and Dunu Roy, Operating Characteristics of Three-wheeled Scooter Rickshas and Their Drivers in Delhi. (Monograph). Hazards Centre, Delhi, August 2002.

2. Chintan, Space for Waste; Planning for the Informal Recycling Sector. Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, Delhi, 2004.

3. Citizen’s Campaign for Preserving Democracy, Democracy, Citizens and Migrants; Nationalism in the Era of Globalization (booklet). Hazards Centre, Delhi, 2005.

4. Rajdhani Riksha Chalak Unity, Badalte Shahar Mein Riksha Chalakon ka Sthan; Riksha Chalakon ki Samasyaon ka Vivaran (report). Hazards Centre, Delhi, 2006.

5. Pritpal Singh Randhawa and Basab Paul, ‘Restructuring’ and ‘Efficiency’: The Case of Delhi Transport Corporation (booklet). Hazards Centre, Delhi, December 2006.

6. Sarika Singh, Safe Worker? Or Safer Workplace? A Study on Occupational Health and Safety Status of Sewage Workers in Delhi (booklet). Hazards Centre, Delhi, July 2010.

7. Ujjwal Pahurkar, Vegetable Sellers in Delhi (report). Hazards Centre, Delhi, 2007.

8. Sonam Joshi, ‘Old Delhi Labour Chowk’, in Volunteers’ Report, 2007-2008 (booklet), Hazards Centre, Delhi, 2007.

9. Jagori, Safe Cities Free of Violence Against Women and Girls Initiative. Report of the Baseline Survey Delhi 2010 (pdf). Jagori and UN Women, Delhi. Available at: http://jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/ Baseline-Survey_layout_for-Print_12_03_ 2011.pdf (Accessed 16 February 2012).

Lopamudra Baruah and Radha Kapuria, ‘The New Workforce Survey on Delhi: Beauticians’, in Volunteers’ Report, 2007-2008 (booklet). Hazards Centre, Delhi, 2008.

10. Hazards Centre, The Bus Rapid Transport System in Delhi: An Independent Evaluation. Hazards Centre, Delhi, 2012.