Battleground Gurgaon: The brewing war between the village and the city

Gurgaon is a poster-town built on the idea of insulation: Gates, guards, tinted glass, private water and power supply, rights of admission reserved. But the villagers are getting ready to storm those gates, no longer willing to be shut out.

hidden August 08, 2011 11:08:52 IST
Battleground Gurgaon: The brewing war between the village and the city

By Avirook Sen

Some time after 800 AD, one of the world's great civilisations hurtled towards a quick and dramatic end. Their denuded forests, and consequently, their fallow land plus the worst drought in 7,000 years, conspired to wipe out more than 90 per cent of the Mayan population over the following centuries.

But there was another critical factor, Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, points out, and it was political.

If the elite in any society are able to "insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions", writes Diamond, they are creating the blueprint for collapse. As their subjects battled famine, the Mayan kings "bought themselves… the privilege of being the last to starve". Eventually, the palaces they had built at the expense of those who served and fed them were burned down.

But what have the Mayans or Jared Diamond got to do with Gurgaon, the poster-town of emerging India? Quite a bit, actually.

Until it acquired its status as an aspirational address, this part of Haryana was advertised as '0 km from South Delhi'. Now, says a friend of mine, Gurgaon "floats gently above the real India". It may well float gently, but that's not how it is likely to land. A more plausible outcome is that it will collapse — on the remnants of the three villages from which the Gurgaon as advertised was carved: Nathupur, Sikanderpur and Chakkarpur, the places it now seeks to keep out.

The middle-class elites in Gurgaon are not Mayan kings. They have little or no political clout, except at a sub-local political level of, say, the Residents Welfare Associations. But they have three things in common with the unfortunate Mayan rulers. They appear to live in palaces. They consume substantially more resources. And they live by the idea of insulation.

It is what Gurgaon is all about. Gates, guards, tinted glass, air-conditioners run by private power supply (24-hour back-up!), toilets flushed by private water, no thoroughfare, rights of admission reserved. If there isn't an insulator for something, it will be invented pretty quickly. That is the way of the middle-class elite in Gurgaon. Diamond's 'blueprint' is a work in progress here.

Battleground Gurgaon The brewing war between the village and the city

In Gurgaon the villagers are now encroaching upon the city. Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

As you turn left off NH8 after the great big toll bridge, driving through rubble and dust (a local line linking to Delhi's Metro is under construction), you can see Cybercity to your right, a huge complex of buildings that have numbers for names. The buildings are alive 24/7, servicing clients in every time zone; this is one of the places from where those annoying calls are made — and perhaps a few useful ones, too. The clusters of Taveras and Indicas parked wherever they fit — to ferry the hordes that flow in and out — tell you there is no public transport in Gurgaon.

The liquor vend, with its adjacent "designated drinking place" has been demolished fairly recently. But this doesn't mean there's no place to drink — that is the least of Gurgaon's problems.

Another vend, with an ahata attached, has come up a few hundred yards down the road. The ahata is a curious concept. Introduced formally only a few years ago, it is a supposedly a public area in a village where drinking is permitted by tradition (but evidence of this is hard to find in actual villages). For a one-lakh fee paid to the excise department, the premises can permit people to buy booze at the shop next door and come in and drink — perhaps have a Rs 120 peanut masala on the side. There are 57 such places in Gurgaon and they are located "strategically", according to officials, much to the dismay of gentlemen and ladies in the residential neighbourhoods where they have come up.

The logic of earmarking these drinking holes was this: everyone has a right to drink, not everyone can afford mall prices. This was the beginning of friction: after decades of it being the other way round, the village was encroaching upon the city. By some coincidence, the ahata easiest to access from Cybercity is called 'The Village'.

'The Village' attracts the tie-clad city boys as well; they stick together, enjoy the cheap booze. It is also the kind of joint where Kishanbhai feels at home, but not necessarily because of the cheaper prices. His family has lived in Nathupur for six generations. He points to the land they had owned, land on which hundreds of town houses have come up — sold to DLF in the early 80s at Rs 4 lakh an acre (current price: Rs 100,000 a square yard). He is a self-proclaimed 'don', and whether or not those who now live in the townhouses agree, he is a part of the Gurgaon elite. Insulated from poverty – rather than its lesser citizens – because he has managed to remain a landlord.

Just beyond the last white townhouse, across a giant, permanent 50-foot puddle that now marks the entrance to Nathupur, Kishanbhai owns two buildings that house a tiny fraction of the labour force that keeps Gurgaon going. Each of these U-shaped blocks has about 500 people living in them on three floors, spread over a hundred or so rooms. They share 12 toilets between them. They pay Kishanbhai between Rs 1,800 and Rs 2,050 a month for a 10X12 space. The rent is always revised upwards every Diwali, but may also increase any other time in between.

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There is one other stipulation: it is mandatory for all tenants to buy their rations from Kishanbhai's store. You get thrown out if you don't, says one tenant. Not a good situation, since space in Gurgaon is in heavy demand — people are constantly arriving to find work. Kishanbhai, and other villagers like him, make their money from these new migrants.

The question is: where do they spend it? This is the question at the heart of the battle for Gurgaon.

Last week, at the Sahara Mall on Mahatma Gandhi Road, a bloody fight broke out between bouncers and a group of youths from Chakkarpur. It was a full-on knives-and-baseball bats affair that could have resulted in fatalities, especially if the firearms alleged to be have been handy had been used. As it almost always is in these places, the issue of contention was denial of entry.

Sahara Mall has six pubs on a single floor and a police van parked outside at all times. It has become the preferred destination for, as a former manager of one place delicately puts it, "a different type of gentry." By which he means people who live outside the high-rises and townhouses. People who turn up in shorts and vests, and often carry weapons in addition to money. They are not necessarily criminals, but are usually involved in the roughish trade of real estate where weapons are a part of the toolkit. For the most part, they are boys helping their farmer dad spend the money he got selling ancestral land.

"We would try and tell them as politely as possible that stag entry wasn't allowed," says the ex-manager. Of course, for the 'right' type of client, this rule does not apply.

Rohit Shorey ran a pub called Crave at the mall until 2008. He gave it up realising that it "wasn't worth it being woken at two in the morning, to be told there was a situation." Under its new owners, Crave became Prison — one of three bars shut down after the fracas last week.

But it didn’t matter what the place was called. The clients that Crave didn’t want remained doggedly loyal — they were happy to go to Prison, or to any of the other bars on the floor. Demanding entry into the perpetual party that they were never invited to attend. Where a smattering of young women would invariably be knocking back cocktails; and where, with a mixture of aspiration and entitlement (this is their home ground), they might ask for a dance or strike up a conversation.

Success would mean instant acceptance —perhaps even a short-term way around the ‘no-stags’ rule. Rejection just means trying again and trying harder.

This is the bar manager’s nightmare. Since women are seldom unaccompanied by men, a brawl is assured. But if they aren’t, then things can get genuinely ugly. It was one such incident, and the bad publicity around it, that made Shorey give up on the pub business.

The ongoing tussle between the interlopers and the gatekeepers reached a flashpoint at Ignite last week – and the fallout continues. On Saturday, 3,000 irate villagers stormed the mall. They sealed the six pubs with their own locks and chains with the police looking on. The message was clear: if you won't let us in, we will shut you down.

In many ways, Sahara Mall is the frontline: every skirmish here a symptom (and any day now, a possible trigger) for the brewing battle for Gurgaon. It’s where the village comes into town. It’s where the limits of insulation are tested.

Avirook Sen is a journalist and author. His first book Looking for America was published by HarperCollins in 2010.

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