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Anatomy of an urban village

Anatomy of an urban village

The only entrance to Jia Sarai – a tiny suburban sprawl in south Delhi, surrounded by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) campus from three sides – is littered with posters. Posters of all sizes scream from the walls names of coaching institutes populating the village, names which range from creative to funny to outright ridiculous: Every entrant has the invitation to become a ‘BrainStorm Achiever’ of GATE or NET entrance exam; or to find a ‘PANACEA’ for IES or PSU entrance; and many more.

The second half of the 20th century saw a great deal of urbanisation all across the developing world. In Delhi, where the percentage of urban areas increased from 22 per cent to 75 per cent between 1961 and 2011, the intersection and conflict between the rural and urban spaces has been starker than in most other parts of India. And yet, while a lot has been written about Delhi (and various facets of its development), less attention has been paid to the oxymoronic entity called ‘urban villages’. Jia Sarai is one of the 112 urban villages in Delhi.

The main road turns left after the entrance, which is where most of the coaching institutes are located. While sweatshirts reading ‘IIT Delhi’ are common, most migrant students are either from lesser-known engineering colleges or science graduates from different parts of the country. Anywhere between 17 and 30 years (and sometimes a little more) of age, these men and women attend the coaching and spend rest of the time studying. For a social life, they gather at one of the many shops selling chai or paratha, where the dominant conversation is often that of this and that examination, and their results.

Over the last two decades, Jia Sarai’s reputation as one of the destinations for preparation of competitive exams (the ones mentioned above, and many more) has spread across tier-II and -III cities and villages of north India. The place, true to its reputation, has the air of lower middle class India at its aspirational best. Almost the entire economy of the village depends on this constant flux of students.

A handful of them succeed. Most don’t, and move on in lives: some enter related professions, often at lower posts; some – women especially – go back to their native places and get married. At least one ex-aspirant I met decided to stay on in Jia Sarai: Shailesh Bharatwasi, who came here almost a decade ago to crack the Engineering Services, runs an independent publishing house called Hind Yugm; the publishing house has recently acquired a reputation for publishing unorthodox literature in Hindi.

But in this island of young men and women and their dreams, a few elderly men and women moving about their daily lives look like an anachronism; this despite the fact that even as students come and leave, this small community of natives is the only connection between the bustling suburb that Jia Sarai now is and the jungle that it once was.

Jia Sarai is named after Jiaram, who, the lore goes, moved here from a village in Rohtak (Haryana) almost two-and-a-half centuries ago – sometime during the later years of the Mughal sultanate. Till as late as the late 1960s, the village was inhabited by 20-odd families of Gaur Brahmins, Jiaram’s descendents. They cultivated their lands, tended cattle, and were shielded from any outside influence.

The village witnessed two major changes after independence: The first began in 1954, when a large chunk of the village land was acquired by the central government for building a state-of-the-art engineering college in the heart of the capital. The IITs were part of the larger experiment of Nehru’s state-led industrialisation drive, and were expected to churn out technocrats who would go on to make the country self-sufficient in science and technology.
With the loss of agricultural land (which, owing to the rocky terrain, wasn’t supremely fertile anyway), many villagers found small-time administrative jobs with the IIT and elsewhere in the city. They used the compensation received from selling their land for other investments: most built a house. From the 1970s, as the city expanded and the migrants started trickling, the villagers saw an opportunity in renting their houses: with time, as savings added up, one became two, two became four. Some villagers also sold land to the outsiders, and, in turn, purchased farmhouses in nearby areas, and slowly started learning the art of real estate speculation.

Around the early 1990s, as Delhi started becoming popular as the hub for preparation of all competitive exams, Jia Sarai became one of its crowd-pullers. This was partly due to its proximity to educational institutes like IIT and JNU, but also because higher education in tier-II and -III north Indian cities was fast declining even as the middle class there increased considerably. And therefore, at a time when the private sector in India was beginning to expand exponentially, Jia Sarai – along with other neighbouring villages in south Delhi such as Katwaria Sarai, Ber Sarai, Munirka and others – became a preparation hub for top-level jobs in the government.

The results were mixed: the influx of students led to many illegal constructions. All single- and double-storey buildings sprang up till five and six floors; individual flats were divided into tiny rooms and converted into hostels and PGs to accommodate as many students as possible. The villagers suddenly found themselves rich.

But this influx slowly started playing havoc on the village infrastructure: the illegal constructions made roads narrow. “Earlier a truck could easily pass through the village; now, if there is a fire somewhere, even the fire brigade can’t come here,” an affluent villager who was thinking of shifting to Vasant Kunj, a posh locality nearby, said. The village also started facing water shortage, which has only got worse with time.

In 1987, all urban villages under the Delhi development authority (DDA) were transferred to the municipal corporation of Delhi (MCD); in 1993, a municipal raj under the 74th amendment of the constitution was imposed on these regions. Caught in the transition, Jia Sarai lost out on all benefits that an area planned under the DDA gets: it doesn’t have a hospital or community centre, or even an authorised parking space.

But perhaps the saddest irony about Jia Sarai is that even as the village routinely churned out toppers in the civil services and other entrance exams, not even a single village kid has ever cracked an IIT or an IAS entrance exam.

In the early years of IIT’s foundation, the relationship between the college administration and Jia Sarai villagers was amicable. Most of the other villagers I talked to deemed IIT a lesser villain. With urbanisation, joint family ties in the village also started weakening. It became more dependent on the city for its daily life and acquired new aspirations for wealth.
Abhishek Choudhary

Abhishek Choudhary

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