College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota
College of Science and Engineering

A city of barriers

"I see Delhi as a city of barriers," our facilitator from micro Home Solutions made my thoughts more eloquent than my sleep deprived mind could have as we walked through the cramped streets of Govind Puri, an informal settlement in Delhi. Despite a hectic day of travel yesterday and relatively sleepless night, we were on the bus by 8:45 a.m., and on our way to a slum workshop with the social entrepreneurs responsible for micro Home Solutions (mHS).

As the bus navigates the enclaves that give rise to the metropolis that is Delhi, I notice high concrete walls with pikes and barbed wire. A casual observer may at first glance assume the barriers are meant to keep out the forest animals that still roam the city, but after only a few days learning about the dynamics of modern Indian life, it is clear the barriers are meant to keep undesirable people out of affluent neighborhoods.

Image Our bus squeezes past cars as it travels into the gated community to drop us off at the home of our weekend hosts. Learning a brief history of the informal settlement, now more permanent than the 1979 Bengali refugees had likely intended it to be, does not necessarily prepare us for the winding alleys that the students of Katha school lead us down; their impressive mental maps showing how they have internalized their community.

Our facilitators from mHS translate and provide support for our student guides and us. While the government of India may call them informal settlements because they sprang up organically without formal title or planning, they are much more permanent than the name indicates. What were once tents are now brick and concrete structures built by their inhabitants as they strive for better lives.

Even without walls to keep outsiders away, there is a clear division between communities as wider streets filled with vendors and people ring the settlement. Walking down one of the streets running along the outskirts of the settlement, our facilitator Nipesh notices me staring at the large concrete wall opposite the "informal" settlement that is Govind Puri. Pulling the thoughts from my mind, he notes the barriers that divide life in Delhi.

0imageHaving spent the week studying rural India and reading about Indian urbanization, it is becoming clear that barriers to life in India are more than walls of concrete separating the affluent from the struggling classes; however, the divisions are not as solid as they might at first appear.

Back in the mHS office, we learn that the exterior of the settlement is geared toward services external to the community. Additionally, domestic workers may purchase fish from the interior fish market to cook at their employers' homes. It seems the pieces of Delhi society work together to create a vibrant city teeming with options not possible for any single section.

So while our hosts may live behind walls of affluence themselves, they are a collection of people who see the connections between these communities and are working to break down those barriers to life in Delhi by empowering the people in informal settlements like Govind Puri to improve their built environments.

~Natalie Glynn


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