Rights to a ‘World-class’ City

Ajay Immanuel Gonji

In a previous blog article, I had mentioned that in many Indian cities, there exists a certain shared precarity between poor humans and non-humans in access and rights to the city, and both groups are often similarly excluded (Narayanan & Bindumadhav, 2019). In this present article, I wish to elaborate on this very aspect and will see how this is true in the national capital, Delhi. Focusing on the city’s unintended and unplanned human-made spaces such as slums and squatter settlements, and naturally occurring ‘wild’ spaces such as forests, rivers and wetlands, I wish to highlight some of the notions that are associated with these spaces and how this has an effect on their human and non-human inhabitants.

Slums as a ‘Nuisance

In her recent book Uncivil City, Sociologist Amita Baviskar (2020) writes, ‘Delhi matters because very important people live and visit there; its image reflects the power of the nation-state, its capacity and competence to govern’. This mindset, the author points out, led governments to completely restructure Delhi’s landscape, livelihoods and lifestyles, with a broader vision of creating a ‘world-class’ city that is prosperous, hygienic and orderly. This was to be achieved by the creation of Delhi’s Master Plan, for which the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was constituted in 1957 as the agency that drafts and implements the Master Plan, as a result of which large tracts of agricultural land from villages in and around the city were acquired and handed over to the DDA (Baviskar, 2020; Ghertner, 2011).

However, the need for a planned city was deemed necessary in view of the haphazard distribution of people in the city following the post-independence exodus of some 450,000 Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. Another event that amplified the need for a planned and modern city was the 1982 Asian Games held in Delhi, which saw an estimated one million labourers come to the city from other states for the building of roads, flyovers, luxury housing and sports facilities. More recently, the 2010 Commonwealth Games saw public money being gradually directed away from health, housing, education and food subsidies and toward the building of ‘modern’ infrastructure such as the Delhi Metro, new highways, flyovers, bridges, toll roads, a revamped airport, and the Commonwealth Games Village (Baviskar, 2020; Ghertner, 2011).

Although the intention of successive state governments has always been to create a planned Delhi, one of the major consequences of this endeavour has been the simultaneous mushrooming of an unplanned Delhi. Since the Master Plan did not have any provisioning for the very people who were to help build a ‘modern’ Delhi, informal spaces in the form of slums and squatter settlements that shelter the working class have cropped up in and around the city. In other words, through the years, an ‘unintended city’ has gradually come into existence (Baviskar, 2020; Sen, 1996), although these informal spaces which make up the unintended city are seen as ‘illegal’, and have often drawn the ire of the city courts and the bourgeois environmentalists of Delhi.

Speaking of what counts as legal/illegal, Asher Ghertner’s (2011) attempts at understanding world-class city making in Delhi points to how the visual appearance of space is crucial in deciding what is legal and what is not, and therefore what should be visible and what should not. While shopping malls and other infrastructure developments are seen as epitomes of ‘world-class’, slums are seen as polluting, unplanned and illegal. And while the former is made to be highly visible because they are ‘modern’, the latter makes for an unsavoury sight and must be hidden (Baviskar, 2020; Ghertner, 2011). Ghertner (2011) talks about how substantial parts of the Ridge forest of Delhi were cleared to pave the way for India’s largest shopping mall complex in Vasant Kunj, despite the project being a land-use violation under the Delhi Master Plan. In this case, the DDA managed to convince the courts that the visual appearance of the posh mall was sufficient enough to point to its ‘planned-ness’. On the other hand, a nearby slum settlement was declared unplanned and illegal by the DDA because it was a ‘nuisance’ to the neighbouring middle-class residential establishments.

Neglecting the River and the Ridge

The two main ecological features of Delhi are the floodplains of the Yamuna river and the Aravalli’s which are referred to as the Delhi Ridge. In her paper on the commodification of the Yamuna riverbed, Amita Baviskar (2011) talks about how despite its significance in Hindu mythology, the river Yamuna is neither revered nor considered as having any cultural importance to the citizens of Delhi. In fact, in the vision for a ‘world-class’ city, the sight of the Yamuna is an embarrassment, and its floodplain is seen as a wasteland. The Yamuna is a wilderness of shifting sandbanks, grasses and crops, and for Delhi residents, the riverbed does not fit within popular notions of nature – a nature that is reminiscent of manicured parks and gardens. The Yamuna river, as Baviskar (2011) points out is a watery nothingness and a ‘non-place’.

The term ‘non-place’ the author has borrowed from Marc Augé (2008) who describes it as ‘a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical, or concerned with identity’. Such a perception of the river led the Central Government to declare the riverbed as a ‘development area’ in 1989, and the DDA was tasked with its redevelopment (Follmann, 2015). Ever since, the Yamuna in Delhi has transformed from a ‘non-place’ to a prized space for real estate development by private and public corporations. Further, slums and squatter settlements that came up on the riverbed over the years were demolished, and their inhabitants who were mostly migrants were displaced, their precarity enhanced by their status of ‘belonging elsewhere’ (Baviskar, 2020).

Similarly, the Delhi Ridge has been viewed as an unruly space and in need of being disciplined.  From the time of the British, the Ridge has been gradually domesticated and made more useful and productive, and this legacy continues even in present times. Urban forests are seen as ‘wild’, barren or hostile to humans and therefore in need of ‘development’ (Palmer, 2003). A 1999 publication of the Delhi Government featured maps that labelled large swathes of the Ridge forest as ‘wasteland’ by completely overlooking their ecological functions (Crowley, 2015). Such a view has been instrumental in the so-called ‘parkification’ of the Ridge forest where systematic intervention by the management has led to the conversion of native vegetation patches into manicured, recreational spaces that are high on aesthetics (Baviskar, 2018). Efforts to bring law and order to the Ridge has taken a physical form, and from being an overlooked, overgrown space, the unruly ridge has been manicured and is now accessible and inviting to middle-class citizens. Further, by designating natural spaces in the city as ‘wild’ and in need of ‘development’, urban planners simultaneously overlook the many non-human creatures that occupy these natural habitats, their precarity enhanced by their invisibility (Palmer, 2003).

Returning to the point I made at the beginning of this article, it is clear how Delhi’s squatter settlements, the river, the ridge and their human and non-human inhabitants are all similarly excluded from the city and rendered invisible. Important to note here is how these human and non-human entities are perceived as misfits in the city because they look ‘informal’, ‘illegal’, ‘unruly’ or ‘wild’. In other words, the state has embarked on a civilizing mission to bring order and beauty to the city mainly by means of adopting an ‘aesthetic mode of governance’ where what looks good stays and what looks bad is removed (Baviskar, 2020; Ghertner, 2011).


  • Augé, M. (2008). Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. London: Verso.
  • Baviskar, A. (2011). What the eye does not see: The Yamuna in the imagination of Delhi. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(50), 45–53. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781526402059.n16
  • Baviskar, A. (2018). Urban Jungles: Wilderness, Parks and Their Publics in Delhi. Economic & Political Weekly, 53(2), 46–54.
  • Baviskar, A. (2020). Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons in Delhi. New Delhi: SAGE | YODAPRESS.
  • Crowley, T. (2015). Fractured Forest: The Political Ecology of the Delhi Ridge (First Edit). New Delhi: Intercultural Resources.
  • Follmann, A. (2015). Urban mega-projects for a ‘world-class’ riverfront – The interplay of informality, flexibility and exceptionality along the Yamuna in Delhi, India. Habitat International, 45(P3), 213–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2014.02.007
  • Ghertner, D. A. (2011). Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi. In A. Roy & A. Ong. (Eds.), Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of being Global (pp. 279–306). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444346800.ch11
  • Narayanan, Y., & Bindumadhav, S. (2019). ‘Posthuman cosmopolitanism’ for the Anthropocene in India: Urbanism and human-snake relations in the Kali Yuga. Geoforum, 106, 402–410. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2018.04.020
  • Palmer, C. (2003). Colonization, urbanization, and animals. Philosophy and Geography, 6(1), 47–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/1090377032000063315
  • Sen, J. (1996). The Left Front and the ‘Unintended City’: Is a Civilised Transition Possible? Economic and Political Weekly, 31(45/46), 2977-2979+2981-2982.

Cover Image by Rohit Rath from flickr

One response to “Rights to a ‘World-class’ City”

  1. […] and the illegal as a process for the making of world-class urban improvements. According to such an aesthetic mode of governance, development projects in metropolitan cities are declared planned if they look “world-class”, […]

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