Delhi Urban Village: Reality or Gem of a Sham?

Urban villages in Delhi are as undefined, peculiar and diverse as other facets of the country. What’s disturbing, though, is its added murky quality.

Delhi has at least 135 urban villages, all of which once existed as rural settlements. The metamorphosis of these areas basically differentiates them from their western counterparts.



The lal dora lands are today the urban villages in Delhi. Lal dora (red thread in English) was the term used for that part of the village land which was segregated from the agricultural land for habitational use. The name caught on because of the practice of tying a red thread to mark the area of habitation. This marking also signified the land as protected land, and was given immunity from the jurisdiction of the municipal authorities and urban development plans, as an act of preserving space for habitation.

The urban villages in Delhi today are these “protected” habitation lands which have been exempted from the urban development authorities and are not affected by any building by-laws. The owners, therefore, have free-reign to develop and use their share of lands for arbitrary purposes while remaining unfazed.

“A typical rural village is very clear; who’s in control. In an urban village, nobody knows who’s in control. There is no clear governance. Each person is his own boss, and it’s a land mafia literally at work, each trying to maximize the revenue from anything possible,” says Kapil Chaudhery, Urban Planner, and Director of Spatial Designs. On the flip side, Mrs. Neemo Dhar, Director, Public Relations, DDA, said, “Urban villages have existed here for many years. There’s no problem of urban villages.”



A number of people were asked to explain what they understood of “urban village”. A lot of face-puckering and flailing of the hands ensued, but no straight answers.

There is really no sense in always looking to the west for answers, but in this case, a comparison of some sort is imperative, for a better understanding of what urban villages are.

It was in the late 1980s that the concept was born in Britain with the establishment of the Urban Villages Group. Ever since, the ideals of urban villages have been applied to new fields of green developments, architectural and housing experiments and urban renewal projects all over the world. According to this, an urban village is an urban planning and design concept at work within the urban limits. It refers to a well planned space in an urban area which has certain characteristics of a village, with typical features like mixed-use zoning, which is the practice of allowing more than one type of use in a building or set of buildings, good public transit and urban design, particularly pedestrianization and public space, with ‘medium density development,’ which refers to land development that is zoned to allow for a higher population density. This concept seeks to reduce car reliance and promotes walking, cycling, transit use, and provides space for people to live, work and recreate in the same area.

Urban village typically would mean a well-planned set-up with a village-concept of being fairly self-sufficient and not having the need to travel long distances to get daily things done. What is most important, perhaps, is that it’s intended to tackle the problem of increasing population in cities.

The Delhi urban villages have some of these salient features, especially mixed-use zoning. What has become more apparent, though, is how each urban village here also differs from the other. Says Kapil Chaudhery, “I think the concept of a village in Delhi has become totally messed up. Hauz Khas village is a gentrified, yuppified hang-out space for tourists. It’s actually a piece of land where you can by-pass Delhi regulations and go build something, that’s all.”

Munirka, on the other hand, seems to cater more to the lower middle class of the urban population, with small-scale businesses tucked in every corner of the village, and its residents ranging from migrant labourers to students from all parts of India.

DSC_0245 copy

Hauz Khas Village

DSC_9395 copy

Munirka Village

It is likely that this is nothing but a reflection of how different owners put their land to use, and as a result of that, it is now characterized with a certain level of uniqueness and a whole lot of confusion. The very fact that the urban villages in Delhi are the protected lal dora lands, and the following consequence of that means that it is by its nature different from the western definition, although they share some common features.

The general features of an urban village, like mixed-use zoning, encouraging pedestrianisation (often due to lack of space as more areas are being consumed in constructing and expanding houses), are very much a part of the Delhi urban villages. But the fact that the residents in these areas have been given freedom to maximise land-use has its pros and cons. Sheila Juneja, a Master student of history says, “These places offer students like me affordable places to live in. Safety is a problem, though.”  Another, Bonny Gangmei, a resident of Munirka village says, “Over the years I’ve been living here, I’ve realised that the owners just want profit out of the lands they own. There’s hardly enough space left for two people to pass through some of the roads. Donkeys are used to bring in material through these narrow lanes for construction because it is not possible for any sort of vehicle to pass through.”



Kapil Chaudhery explains, “It’s your revenue records, it’s your land revenue that does it. As Delhi expands, it acquires farmland and all the basic farmland becomes urbanizable land. But all the inhabited area of the village which is a designated revenue record gets left out from the planning process and gets circled and just marked aside and said, ‘This is a village, which is now going to come within the urban fabric of Delhi’. Then it gets renamed as an urban village. But nothing changes. It’s only a land-use connotation where earlier it was a rural village, now it’s recognized as an urban village.

Just as you have different land uses, residential land use, commercial land use, you need to have a land use designated as village land. And in that, you need to come up with a new plan. You can’t take a city of 1,500 sq. kms. and apply the same norms all across, when you are rapidly expanding and absorbing different villages. What is basically happening is that we’re just circling the village, then building around it and letting that become a dead zone. Somebody then wakes up to an after effect and says, ‘Why don’t I convert this into commercial? Nobody’s there to stop me’. And that’s unfortunate, the way it’s going.”



The urban villages don’t stand much of a chance as organized habitable living spaces unless we recognize that they need to be managed and protected differently. There is no dearth of mechanism to cater to this, but it is maybe proving to be more a case between ‘all the rules are written down, not carried out’ and ‘better rules have to be written down for some change to take place’.

We have the DDA (Delhi Development Authority) and the Master Plan of Delhi 2021 especially dedicated to developmental plans and developmental work in the city. Overall, on the face of things, the city seems to be progressing, what with all the flyovers being built, the city’s high point in transport, the Delhi metro, and the preparations going on for the Commonwealth Games 2010.

As mentioned, there are at least 135 urban villages in the city, and a number of them don’t even have proper water supply system or regular supply of electricity. These are some of the issues that have been taken up and written on by concerned citizens and journalists in the past, and yet things have remained the same. Mrs. Neemo Dhar had this to say, “There is an effort to provide all the basic amenities in the urban villages so that you can have all the basic facilities available. Because it’s not a planned area, other facilities, whatever can be provided to them is being given.”

However, Kapil Chaudhery had the last say, “If you look at all the programs in the country right now, like the Rozgar Yojna, none of that addresses our conditions of living. What we really need to do is regardless of an urban village in an urban setting or a village which gets converted into an urban setting, we need to recognize that we’re dealing with people and living spaces and you need to give them some infrastructure.”

Gaigongmei Gangmei.


~ by thegai on November 5, 2009.

3 Responses to “Delhi Urban Village: Reality or Gem of a Sham?”

  1. Good story but painfully long. Where are the photos of the issues that you have raised?

  2. Tilak, urban village in India is a complicated thing. I couldnt very well have summed it all up in 2 to 3 paragraphs now, could I? I totally agree about the photographs though, and I’ll be putting up a separate series of photos on urban village. I’ve only used two photos here, each representing the differences in varying urban villages in Delhi… Will definitely take your feedback into account and think about balancing pictures with texts the next time:)

  3. Nicely written. Do you have more pictures of the urban villages that you speak up from your work? Can you please post them?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: