Nehru Place: A New Media Market; Tripta Chandola
Nehru Place, at the first sight, seems like a huge jigsaw puzzle, which failed to amuse the child at play after a while. The child at play, precocious and impatient, seems to have indulged in the dark fantasies shrouding the innocent sleep. The blocks breaking the monotony of the barren lands, the dark alleys and isolated roof tops. Buildings incestuously woven into each other never knowing where to start and what to end. And as if on a sadistic impulse, the pattern is given a jolt by concrete corridors only to feel the surreptitious breathe down the neck. Somebody's nausea is someone else's breath. The blocks break down to buildings, buildings into floors and floors into rooms, individual marked out spaces for private consumption. Or is the other way round? This seems to have perplexed the creator also. Or the interest was lost, midway. Or the eye for the details was missing.
The blocks in themselves stand as complete units. At least they seem. The layers, which make the block, the floors, are confused but constant. It is the rooms, the carved out private spaces, which are stuck together in precarious permanence. The rooms are lined up in suffocated semblance. The rooms seem like old, dirty, haggard, drunken men who have to, once in a while, stretch their nervous hands to feel the frozen fingertips of someone, anyone to know they are there. That they exist. Otherwise they seem to be suspended in their own perceptions, in their own realities. A Reality difficult to comprehend, otherwise.
This is the first impression which Nehru Place, as a structural mammoth, had on my sensibilities. Nehru Place stands in full exposure of the contradictions it represents between the make it is, the markets it has and memories that constructs it.
Markings on the space: the make of Nehru Place
Nehru Place was to be the biggest of all the 15 District Centres proposed in the 1962 master plan. The 1962 master plan of Delhi was the first step towards `modern planning in India' and Nehru Place with its imagination was to define the new urban space and the new urban community consuming the space.
The structures in the layout are marked out as units which would allow for `commercial, social and cultural currents and cross currents to meet, merge and coalesce. `The new complex will not merely be a centre of economic activity, where business and trade will be carried out or where a few offices goers and shoppers will meet. It will really be a focal point of cultural synthesis and crucible of intellectual ferment from which will radiate new ideas and new thoughts. On piazzas, Tamilians and Kashmiris, Punjabis and Gujratis, Biharis and Bengalis, will rub shoulders with one another, exchange glances, and make friends; in its coffee houses and restaurants, poets and writers will gather from all parts of India, bubbling with passion and poetry, and engaging in animated discussions; and on its theaters and community halls will appear musicians and artists from all States and regions, presenting different facets of our life and society. The new centre will truly be a confluence of our diversities, a cross-roads of our country, harbinger of cultural synthesis and national integration for which Pt. Nehru worked all his life'. (Jagmohan, Report on Nehru Place, 1972).
It was with these understandings that the conceptualization and implementation of the plan that `Nehru Place' was put into practice. And within this rhetoric the structural layout, its brazen boisterousness, makes sense. However, in parts. Because the make is marred by the markets it has, the corners and conversations, the intersections and the interactions.
Nehru Place on days there is power cut, which is very rampant in the center, seems like the fog horn in distress. Calling out in the oblivion. The illegal generator sets clog the corridors and make the conversations impossible. On other days, within the steady flow of the crowds and the conversations, it seems like rumbling in pain and grief.
During one of the conversations, a girl who sells peanuts on the corridors, commented, `for a very long time I did not understand the logic of air conditioners. I was told they make the room really cool. Cold. But when I used to stand in front of them from the outside, it just splashed very hot air on my face, I used to wonder, why pay so much extra for some more hot air? Now I know'.
It is the logic of this place which works in complete defiance to its existence.
Mr. Anil Sehgal, the President of the Nehru Place Welfare and Improvement Association, tried to explain these, `Jagmohan was a bureaucrat and not a politician when he thought about Nehru Place. Had he been one he would have imagined or atleast implemented the center differently. From the district center for the elite, the place has been turned into a business slum and because it does not fall into the constituency of any of the politicians, as there is no vote bank…no one is interested in working for its improvement. This place needs to be cleaned up thoroughly to become what it was imagined to be'.
The first operational building in the complex was the Paras Cinema hall. Owing to its strategic positioning, the hall acted like a functional billboard for the complex attracting visitors, voyeurs and potential investors into the space. In its initial phase, most of the buildings were taken by corporate houses, government bodies and the public sector units. The character of the complex was not consolidated as a shopping complex, it was still an office complex. Abdul Majeed, addressed by me as Khanchachaji, was an employee of NHPL for 12 years before he was left without a job when the unit was closing down reminisces about the period, `in those days the corridors and the courtyards were washed everyday. Everyday without fail. That time you did not see the filth, all these people just walking around like this…at that time, it was the office goers, the babus, who used to come to this place'.
In the present, Khanchachaji, sets up a stall selling spare hardware parts under a stairways. He took a permit for the place after he lost his job as security personnel from the NHPL. He makes confident claims to the `imagination' and the `nostalgia' of what Nehru Place was, still striving to acquire a legitimate status within the space. He is still fighting his case against NHPL for remunerations. `I do not need to sit here. I have two shops and one of my sons is in South Africa but if I leave this place, I will leave something of mine behindt'.
Ironically, the downfall of the complex in the past and the glory of the market in the present is associated with the setting up of the `second hand hardware' market in the area. The hardware shops first made their presence felt in the early 80's when the corporate bodies and the government units were computerizing their processes. At that time, they acted more like service providers than vendors as these services were very specialized.
The closure of major Public sector units, the shift of the corporate houses to the developing suburbs of Gurgaon and Noida at much lower real estate prices, the shutting down of the untis at the Okhala Industrial area and Parking are constantly listed as the main reason for the change in character of Nehru Place. Most of the buildings three floors upwards lay abandoned. The accumulating debris of its own making, the precariously swaying electric wires and eerie isolation narrates a tale of negligence and abuse. But interestingly, despite all these mentioned factors the real estate prices at Nehru Place have not and do not show any signs of decline. The real estate rates are still one of the highest in the city. `Everyone is convinced that the one day this will become the Nehru Place of the yesteryear, the most happening district center of the city', remarked one gentleman working as an assistant chartered accountant in a firm.
The notion(s) of the imagination(s) of Nehru Place constantly circulate and re-circulate in the popular narratives and memory consolidating the collective constructed identities of the space. Within these, claims, collective and individual, are made about associations, affiliations and betrayals. `These people who come now, what do they know about Nehru Place? I have seen Nehru Place grow from the times when it was infested with dense forestation to this. The buildings, most of them, were constructed in front of me', khanchachaji angrily retorted while commenting on present state of Nehru Place legitimizing his illegal status on the experiential knowledge of the space.
H.P. Singh who owns one of the largest garment warehouses and shops in the complex displays a deep sense of betrayal by the space. He is a self taught man and was one of the earliest garment exporters to shift to Nehru Place. `When I saw the plans of Nehru Place, I was promised the boulevards of London and Paris, the pulsating district centres of Europe. Little did I know that this is the shape it will take? I wanted to imbibe the city way of life and left behind the chaos of chandani chowk. But now I am in gulfed in the same. I wanted to have a showroom in a place where my foreign clients will not have a problem, would not be bothered about the dirt or the beggars'.
Nehru Place was to be the `pulsating metropolis' where `...the tourists alighting from the Jumbo Jet, driving along the Outer Ring Road straight to Nehru Place living in its modern hotels strolling on the piazzas and shopping malls, and then getting on to the nearby historical places around which woodlands and parks have been recently been laid by us'. (Jagmohan, Report on Nehru Place, 1972)
Khanchachaji continuing on the depilated state of Nehru Place commented, `here where you see, next to sona sweets, the clock tower; was to be the idol of Nehru. They started with the project left it midway and leaving behind this clock. Nobody even notices it'. The statue is supposed to be erected in the centre of the complex in Jagmohan's report.
From `centre of Nehru Place' in Jagmohan's report the statue is located `next to Sona Sweets'; indicates the shifting nature of the centre and the fluidity in the structural marking of the space, both literally and metaphorically.
Marking of the space: the markets in Nehru Place
The markets in Nehru Place articulate the global connections in local languages. It hosts Asia's largest second hand computer market, India's; probably Asia's as well, largest Garment export center and the world's most unique pirated software market. Mapping the networks, inflows and outflows, of these markets presents a complicated array of intersections and interjections connecting the local with the global.
The majority of the goods for the Second Hand hardware Market come from the South East Asian countries which is then assembled and re-assembled to suit the local needs. Here, in this market, the essence of the system disintegrates piece by piece, bit by byte. This trend reflects on the culture of the consumption of `computers' as commodities. Sachin, a hardware seller commented, `In most countries abroad the life of a computer is considered to be anything between year and a year and half. Up gradation is the key to technology there. Over here people do not sell their computers, they hook on it like their TV's. Passing it on to others when they are through with it'.
Another interesting aspect of the market, relating to the second hand hardware market and the piracy network (though in different connotations) is the lack of warehouses within the complex. The market operates through the informal dispersed and distributed networks of appropriating resources from where available. Like the peer-to-peer exchange network on the Internet. Most of these shops are connected through the intercom, the set up of which is illegal, referred to as the choti line, the small line. When particular goods of a kind are needed calls are made to the fellow-tradesmen who would have it. Transactions are preferred in cash, for which the vendors comply with a cost cutting as well, as this assures liquidity in the market.
The fact that Microsoft's headquarters stand in the middle of the main courtyard overlooking the corridors where the pirated software is sold just brings forth the irony of the situation. Is it a deliberation of design? The space where the Microsoft building stands was marked out for another cinema hall, retreat of cinematic indulgence, in the original markings. This digression from the original design raises the negotiations between the various agencies within the shifting power hierarchies. Piracy, is in its every day articulation, fails to arouse any sense of `illegality'. The abstract notions of The state, police force being represented by the local constable `thulla' on duty. The labour practices within these networks are tactile innovations to sustain the trade. Most of the stalls are manned by young boys within the age group of 12-15 as in case of a raid and arrest, these boys are tried under the juvenile court. It also much easier to bail or bribe them out.
Placement agencies assuring and offering all kinds of jobs also throng this place. There are pamphlets, posters and people posted in the corridors attracting possible candidates. The proliferated abundance of these, the placement agencies, indicates towards the space which this complex offers to `voyeurs' to indulge and imagine.
Each of these markets with its own makings leaves a distinct mark. `We are involved in decent trade practice. We have educated, mostly foreigners, clients. Our service is to a very dignified clientele. While the computers are used by everyone, anyone who can afford, and so attracts all sorts of people and problems,' Mr. HP Singh explained on why computer markets get the prominence compared to the garments trade as well as elaborating on the `present' state of Nehru Place. Though acknowledging the importance of the `computer market' to the being of Nehru Place, he condemns it for the chaos and commotion it creates.
Structurally also this distinction is apparent with the markets intersecting but not infringing into each other's space. Taking Paras cinema as the centre of reference, on the left lies the Paharpur Buisness Area and on the right, the blocks with the concentration of the Garment export traders. Both these areas mentioned are characteristically different from the central courtyard which the melting pot of the market. Here computer hardware, spare parts, cartridge refilling, pirated software, second hand books stalls, accessories to technological gadgets, nicknacks, cobblers, eateries, placement agencies, digital conversions, books, toys and other hardware-software peripherals are available. This is also the stage where most of the spectacles unfold; eviction of the hawkers for `illegal' encroachment of space, arrest of vendors selling pirated software, display of grotesque generators (the Paharpurbusiness area and the garment blocks have their power back up systems on the roof) and encounters with the crowds. This is also the space where the `emptiness' is most felt in the after affects of evictions and raids. Within the legitimacy which is ordained to Nehru Place, it is in this space that the `illicit', `illegal' networks and nexus unfold, of pirated software and people.
In the recent past, networks flourishing on flesh trade have come up in and within the space. Isolated and abandoned buildings, especially one adjacent to Paras Cinema which has dhabha, eating stalls, were pointed out as one of the site. Mr. Anil Sehgal commented that, `as there are no residential units within the complex it is practically empty after seven in the evening and converts into this space for crime thrillers. Drug addicts, prostitutes and other anti-social elements throng this place'. Within these networks, the placement agencies, are also identified as an important node. These agencies cater to the needs and demands of large corporate house and international clients by luring women with the promise of job at local and international levels.
Nehru Place as a space seems to have a schizophrenic identity split at angles visible only with tilted heads.
The distinction between the formal and informal, official and unofficial agencies is highly blurred as apparent from the negotiations at Nehru Place. The limits of action, legislation and jurisdiction bringing forth the anxieties. Along with the Nehru Place Imrpovement and Welfare Association, there are independent bodies which have assumed the role of the governing agencies in their area of concern. One of them is the Paharpur Buisness Centre and software technology incubator park. PBC signed a Memorandum of understanding with the MCD to take on the responsibility of maintaining the five-acre park. The news report states, `PBC, which offers integrated business services to foreign companies entering the markets, launched its outdoor environment drive Nehru Place Greens as the environs are not most hospitable for the visitors'. PBC and the Nehru Place Greens split Nehru place into two presenting two completely impressions, one is orderly and clean with no parking problems; the other constantly negotiating for space, chaotic and contested. However, since DDA took over as the maintaining agency the claims made over the five-acre land by PBC are constantly challenged causing a tensed situation. `This would create the impression that the Government cares only for the builders'. The associations with authorities and agents of authorities, the daily negotiations with the same, the notions of legal and illegal, the cultural symbolics that evolve around them take place at a complicated multi layered level. At what level the negotiations are carried within the various governing agencies is an issue unresolved. Who were the bargaining agencies? What were the negotiating deals? Who were the players? How are/were the changes accommodated within the larger conceptual framework?
The make and the markings: the consumption of the space
One of news report on Nehru Place, `Welcome to Nehru Place, where toilets make way for offices', raises the problems faced within the space with Mr. Anil Sehgal as the eloquent mouth piece. The Lack of public conveniences, for one, amongst others. Following the case of one particular toilet in the complex it states, `Public conveniences, of course do not exist. So much so that one of the public toilets has been converted into an MCD godown'.
The trajectory of the `life' of the particular toilet in question, indicating towards more prevalent trend, is symptomatic of the structural changes undertaken reflecting on the negotiations between the informal and formal agencies at Nehru Place. The `missing toilet' reveals the conceptual space permitted for its functionality in the structural design, spatial practice and patterns. The transformation, displacement and delegation of a space assigned to a function, essentially private, in nature into a space meant for public consumption raises a lot of questions about the function and the factors permitting it. As also the notions of distinction between `private' and `public' in public spaces. Though an indirect inferences of sorts, this `missing toilet' also refers to the `gendered' space Nehru Place is. In its structural composition, the nature of the trade practices, definitive brazen character it is alienating and intimidating.
Nehru Place, as a case in study, raises questions about the conception and consumption of public spaces? What is the notion of `public spaces'? What are the terms of access and availability implied in this conception? Is this concept, urban and western, alien to our sensibility?
Nehru Place resonates with a profound presence of the definitive absences. The make and the masses fuse together to create a labyrinth of dust and decay. The masses, in the first impression, take over the make. It is the number of people walking that is enchanting with every step defining the space, being defined by the space. Continuing chaos and commotion by the loud calls made out to the imaginary audience marks the place. Everything and everyone seems to be calling out to someone. In its depilated state, the make and the masses, desperately seek out for attention, sometimes employing explicit tactics or otherwise resigning to the fate of anonymity, calling out to the anonymous.
The movement of the masses stands in stark contrast with the state in which most of the buildings stand. It is easier to imagine the buildings in, solitary abandonment. The disuse and decay most buildings are in mar the landscape. But it is only after a deliberate contemplation that the attention is diverted to the vertical high rises. The sprawling pandemonium of the pavements completely engrosses one's movements, motions, actions and reactions.
Dust, decay and disuse plaguing Nehru Place constitute a narrative of its own being. The `disuse', the state in which Nehru Place has fallen, is constantly evaluated and validated by the digressions it presents from the plan, as it was planned. The plan is etched as the sacrosanct epithet of Nehru Place in the popular perception, narratives and experiences that emerge from the space, about the space.
The present in its making stands null and void.