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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Delhi – A city of two halves

Thanks to the Delhi Assembly election that has just concluded, media and other pundits have come up with a theory that they think is new, namely, that Delhi now has two clear parts – the haves and the have-nots.

The haves, says this theory, are those who earn more than Rs 10,000 a month, while the have-nots are those who earn less than that. The latter lot account for around 65 per cent of Delhi’s population, it seems. Most of them are new migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The theory says that most of the have-nots support the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). It is promising them a lot of free things.

The theory is seductive because it fits our modern sensibilities. We have all been told that the world consists of only the rich and the poor.

But Delhi is different. It has always been divided between the rulers and the ruled. Regardless of which period we are talking of, this has been the main division in Delhi. Don’t be fooled by anyone who tells you differently.

Upward mobility here is measured not by money, which Brother Kejriwal rejects. It is measured by power and privilege, to which he aspires.

Distance then and now
As long as the physical separation between the rulers and the ruled was not very much because Delhi was small, everyone got along pretty well. Of course, the social rules had to be observed.

Thus, there was Shahjahanabad under the Mughals. It was a tiny little town opposite the Red Fort started in 1639. Except for the royal family that kept aloof from the rest, the distance between the people was not much. Everyone huddled together in about 3,000 acres.

In 1860, the British government took over India. A new component was added to the old town to the north of Red Fort and the new rulers took up residence there. The distance between the rulers and the ruled had increased but this time it was also based on skin colour.

In 1911, the Imperial capital moved from Calcutta to Delhi. Now, yet another bit was added, this time to the south of the Red Fort. The white rulers shifted there. Thus, some more physical distance was added to the colour separation. The latter by this time had become enormous.

After independence and the partition in 1947, two other components were added by the new elite. The one to south for the new rulers was built by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD). The other, in the west, was built by refugees from Pakistan for themselves where the government gave them land.

The race and colour distance disappeared but the physical distance increased. West Delhi lay across the heavily forested ridge from Lutyens’ and the new CPWD Delhi.

This arrangement continued for 35 years till the 1980s when the now slightly bigger town – it wasn’t yet a city – finally expanded to the east across the Yamuna. It was for those who could not afford anything west of the river.

East Delhi accommodated both the new professional middle class and poor migrant labour. The physical distance between rulers and the ruled increased even further. This time it was divided by a wide river as well.

Then came the economic reforms of 1991. What for hundreds of years had been a slowly growing town has now suddenly become a megalopolis. Around 20 million people live in and around it.

The landless aristocracy
Today, the nature of the distance between the rulers and the ruled has changed. It is no longer defined by race, colour, caste or economic class. It is defined by just one thing – privilege.

There are three types of privilege in Delhi. At the top is the privilege that the government bestows on the people who work for it. They live off the taxpayers in the New Delhi Municipal Council area while oppressing them. It is a wonderful situation to be in.

In the middle are those who have money as well as friends or relatives in the government. The new entry norms have made this easily possible.

At the bottom are those who have only money. Even those among them who can compete with the Croseus have to buy privilege.

It costs. Quite a lot. In cash.


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