The area beneath the Barapullah flyover, just behind South Delhi’s INA metro station, is congested, with vehicles, cows and pedestrians colliding as they make their way through the chaos. The honking is incessant; cows are sprawled on the middle of the road, with motorists often pushing them out of their way. Nearby, a sea of bricks and an excavator marks ongoing construction, while the air is pungent with the smell of sewage.
On days when the city experiences heavy rainfall, crowds of people take cover underneath the flyover, further narrowing the pathway and causing traffic jams. This junction remains busy throughout the day, frequently used by residents of surrounding areas to access the arterial Aurobindo Marg.
A Brand New Flyover
The Barapullah elevated flyover stretches across the city of Delhi, improving connectivity between East and South Delhi as well as Noida, and significantly reducing congestion on the city’s main roads. This particular segment – Barapullah Phase II – is a 2 km stretch that links Jawaharlal Nehru (JLN) Stadium with INA market and was inaugurated by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in July 2018 following a three-year delay. However, right beside this newly-inaugurated structure lies a dilapidated village that is the symbol of neglect.
Pilanji village, whose inhabitants primarily hail from the Gujjar community, is characterised by narrow streets, overcrowded buildings and poor sanitation. It is just a stone’s throw away from the upscale apartments and bungalows of Delhi’s South Extension neighbourhood.
The streets are packed with several pottery shops, vegetable carts, butchers’, grocers’ and barbershops. Animal husbandry constitutes an important source of income for the community, and stray cows in the area are aplenty as are dairies – including illegal ones – that have sprouted up in the region. With no open spaces in sight anywhere in the vicinity, the cows are let loose on the streets. Apart from disrupting traffic, this creates a stressful environment for the animals as well.
The Rise of Urban Villages
The long-standing problem of Delhi’s urban villages is a complex one. Over a century ago, when Delhi was established as the capital of India, land was acquired from various villages across the city to make way for urbanisation. But ineffectual development – and rising unemployment resulting from a loss of sustainable livelihood for farmers after land acquisitions – has led to unchecked construction and rampant commercialization as a means of coping in many of these areas. In Pilanji village alone, which is said to be over 600 years old, the population has since swelled to over five times its original size.
Pilanji isn’t the only proposed model village in Delhi where plans for development have gone awry, however. Scattered across the city are numerous other urbanised villages that exist side-by-side amidst upmarket neighbourhoods but remain in a state of disarray.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) scheme which urged MPs to adopt and develop at least one model village in their constituency. Under this scheme, New Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi adopted the village of Pilanji, declaring the intention of turning it into a model urban village through the implementation of proper drainage and waste disposal systems, curbing of irregular construction and building of toilets. However, far from being the vision of an ideal urban village, Pilanji continues to grapple with civic issues including but not limited to illegal construction, the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, hazardously low-hanging electrical wires and overflowing garbage. Following initial contact, MP Lekhi’s office stopped responding to further questions regarding the project.
The SAGY scheme has been generally criticised by MPs for being impractical, with many refusing to adopt villages and pointing out the lack of funds allotted for the project.
In addition to these issues, prolonged construction of the Barapullah Phase II elevated road, which was originally scheduled to open in 2015 and was delayed due to technical reasons, has worsened traffic, dust and noise pollution in the surrounding areas. Shop owners have had their businesses suffer due to the construction work. Marianne, a resident in nearby Amrit Nagar colony, says that since the start of the Barapullah Phase II construction and its inauguration, congestion has worsened in the area, making rush-hour commutes difficult.
“As the focus remains on motor vehicles, the pedestrians and residents are totally ignored in most city road projects In India. Crossing the roads, accessing bus stops, drop-offs of school buses becomes a challenge,” Jasmine, an urban planner from Delhi currently based in Hyderabad, tells me. “How effective this would be for the city needs to be also examined. I’m not sure whether congestion is actually reduced, as by the time these projects are commissioned the traffic grows manifold.”
Presently, construction of Phase III of the Barapullah elevated corridor is underway. Initially expected to open in 2017, it has been delayed until 2020 for reasons including problems with land acquisition from local farmers. Once opened, the flyover is expected to further ease congestion on Delhi’s main roads. But the congestion within the city’s urbanised villages, however, is not expected to be alleviated anytime soon.