Thoughts on arrival in the urban jungle

Alexander McCleeryUniversity of Cambridge


As the seatbelt sign went on and we circled downwards from the early morning sky towards Indira Gandhi International Airport, the view from the airplane brought Delhi NCT’s incredible size and scale firmly into view – despite the inevitable monsoon. Rapid urbanisation in the capital over the past forty years means that Delhi is today ranked as the second largest megacity in the world. As such, the city is a prime example of planetary urbanisation, a thesis developed by scholars at the Harvard Urban Theory Lab who put forward the idea that the demarcations of space separating urban, suburban, and rural zones that continue to dominate urban debates are no longer fit for purpose. Rather, the idea that there exists a stable non-urban space as outside of the urban – namely the rural – falls short of socio- environmental realities present in the 21st century.

In Delhi, urban accumulation has presented both opportunities and extreme challenges for the city’s residents and policymakers. Despite the introduction of the Delhi Metro in 2002, the city’s largely traffic- induced air pollution continues to be a significant health problem, according to UN indicators. Moreover, the effects of this pollution, while affecting everyone, are not evenly felt; Delhi’s urban metabolism is an unfair beast, and the destructive effects of inequality are palpable. Nevertheless, the urban jungle offers potential for change, just so long as it is helped on its way by a politics that challenges the unjust and unstable status quo. In Hauz Khas, where I both live and work, informal settlements intertwine with the landscape, adding vibrancy to the local community. However, while such romanticism is indicative of informal settlements’ materiality as spaces of hope and lived experience, such an account can belie the improvements that need to be made regarding public access to space and rights to land that are so crucial to community empowerment. In the nearby Deer Park, urban nature – the innocence of the five- striped palm squirrel and the impertinence of the adolescent monkey – is juxtaposed with piles of damaging rubbish thrown into undergrowth. What does this mean in the long-run for Delhi’s future?

I look forward to working with Tata Trusts over the next seven weeks on the incredibly exciting Parag initiative, and learning more about access to education in rural India. But at the same time, I am equally relishing exploring more of Delhi, in all its unknowable magnificence.

‘आप यहाँ पर आराम कर सकते ह:ैं

शरीर को ढीला छोिड़ये। लम्बी साँस लीिजये और प्रकृ त का आनन्द उठायें।’

(The words from a sign in Hauz Khas Deer Park: ‘Here you can relax’)