By Aarti Betigeri
It seems to have become the favourite indoor sport of Delhiites to pour scorn on Hauz Khas Village, the small neighbourhood in South Delhi that has blossomed into a popular eating and shopping precinct. It's too gentrified, it's overpriced, it's a firetrap, the parking and traffic are awful. It's full of cashed-up, no-taste rich people who come in their 4x4s to gawk at this grassroots alternative to DLF Emporio. Independent shops, cafes and restaurants are increasingly being taken over by chains. And did we mention the traffic?
It's easy to ridicule something once it grows mainstream, and criticise a place you once loved, now that it has been discovered by the masses. There's no challenge in dismissing HKV as having jumped the shark and become a victim of its own success. It's not a chore to announce that from now on, you'll only patronise up-and-coming precincts like Meher Chand Market or Shahpur Jat — until, of course, they too are ruined by the 4x4 brigade.
It's less easy to drop the cynicism and artifice, see it clearly for what it is and what it could be, and add your voice to making a commitment to protect what is special and unique.
And Hauz Khas Village is special and unique. There is nowhere else like it. South Delhi might be dotted with forts in ruins, but in which other spot can you sit amongst them and watch the changing shadow patterns over a 14th century water tank, far from the aural assault of car horns? Where else can you spend just 70 rupees on a properly authentic Italian gelato and wander down to the park to watch the local children play cricket in the golden light of the setting sun? Where else can you barhop on foot in this city — while wearing exactly what you want, free from prying stares?
But let's strip fact from fiction. Hauz Khas Village is not Williamsburg, the Brooklyn suburb that's currently the locus of the hipster universe, and can't ever pretend to be. It's a village, one of 40-odd urban villages in Delhi that retain their cloistered, intimate quality despite having been swallowed up by the growling metropolis. Its handful of laneways are narrow and mostly unpaved: when it rains they become mudslicks, and thick swarms of flies and mosquitos take up residence. Overhead, tangles of rope-like power cords hover uncomfortably, a constant reminder of the omnipresent fire danger.
But what HKV is, is the closest that Delhi has gotten, so far, to an urban mecca of cool. It has a cluster of interesting shops, restaurants, bars and creative studios, complemented by a winning location. When you're sitting in one of the rooftop bars or restaurants looking out over the lake and a veritable sea of evergreen treetops, you almost forget that you are in the middle of a badly-planned, dusty and inhospitable city. And vitally, what separates HKV from other commercial spaces, like the gleaming Dubai-inspired shopping malls, is that it is completely of its place: it is like the essence of Delhi, distilled, like the best of the city in one small space, welcoming and authentic.
Still, the criticisms are valid. Getting there is a bitch. You could waste a hour of your life on a Friday or Saturday night sitting in traffic on that half-kilometre stretch of road. Walking is the obvious option, but what an uncomfortable walk it is: winding through petrol fumes belched out by other cars and small-scale industry and past an enormous rubbish dump, all of which coalesce into a deeply unpleasant entree to what is meant to be a fun day or night out.
There are local leaders who are making efforts to improve conditions, but it's not enough to keep pace with development and demand. You can't blame them really, they are mostly villagers led by a local political advisor. They try, but they simply don't have the knowledge to allow the village to manage the hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors each day. Building owners are benefiting from rents that are higher than ever, but worry that when the bubble bursts, their newfound wealth will evaporate.
Local business owners have been working to improve the area beyond their boundary walls, for example the French proprietors of The Rose hotel have ploughed money into the small park that the hotel overlooks. It's an effort that results in not just a nicer view out the window for The Rose's patrons, but also benefits locals, who have another well-maintained open space to enjoy.
Delhi is, by any measure, one of the least liveable, the least loveable cities in the world. There's reason you'll never see it hovering close to the top fifty, or even top hundred, in rankings of the world's top cities — such as those conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit, Monocle or Mercer. These use metrics including culture and environment, tolerance and the ease of starting up small businesses, to assess a city's liveability. For each of these, Delhi gets a fail. Granted, the MCD has other pressing needs to attend to — but a city's citizens and their attitudes go a long way towards creating the kind of living environment they feel they need.
Take Pondicherry as an example: the dedicated INTACH chapter down there some years ago succeeded in having motorised vehicles banned from the main seafront promenade, Goubert Avenue, from 5pm to the following morning, each day. Residents now have a wide space to stroll each evening, free to wander across the road without fear of being mowed down by a speeding Enfield or copping a mouthful of black fumes expelled by a poorly-maintained bus. It is, quite possibly, the most pleasant stretch of road in all of India.
So that's my top suggestion to improve Hauz Khas Village: ban all motorised vehicles, not just inside the gates but extending all the way to the temple. Rather, cycle rickshaws could ferry people from the drop-off point to wherever they're headed. It's a solution that is ecologically sustainable and would create employment opportunities for local villagers. (Plus, it might just have the added benefit of dissuading the rich elite that some deride, from visiting.) Villagers of course would have permits allowing them sole access to the car-park, and delivery vehicles would have a strict window in which to do their drop-offs and pick-ups. Perhaps shuttle share cabs could be introduced at night time to ferry people to the closest taxi stand, as a safety measure for women.
The result: a calmer, cleaner and infinitely more comfortable village space.
It's not a solution that will please everyone, but take it for what it is: the start of a conversation about how to manage urban development in an already-choking city. Because who else is going to do it, if not us who have to live in this place? It's better to be part of a solution to a problem than a parasite, sucking dry each undiscovered gem of a neighbourhood until it's bereft of the very thing that brought you there. Rather than tear our public spaces down, let's work towards building them up.
Aarti Betigeri, originally from Australia, is the New Delhi correspondent for Monocle (www.monocle.com). You can follow her on Twitter at @pomegranitaa
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Updated Date: Jun 26, 2013 12:02:19 IST