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Delhi Ridge: How it went from a colonial forest to murder scene to morning-walk garden

After Partition, refugees were resettled in Delhi by clearing the Central and Southern part of the Ridge. The Southern Ridge was further eaten into to establish JNU.

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Delhi’s two major natural features—the river Yamuna and the hilly Ridge—went virtually ignored until the 1970s, even though they together defined the catchment that watered the wells and ponds crucial for the city’s existence. The idea that these landscapes are valuable and worthy of special attention emerged only when Delhi’s expansion had decimated them or severely damaged their ecological integrity. Ironically, as is often the case, the champions of these beleaguered urban ecologies emerged from the very middle classes that were the beneficiaries of urban growth.

That is, the changing Ridge and the burgeoning middle classes evolved together, each giving shape to the other. ‘The Ridge’ is the colonial term for the area locally known as pahaadi (hilly land), a series of undulations that begin close to the river in north Delhi and stretch to the south-west, increasingly distant from the river.

Images from the 19th century depict the Ridge as an open, unpopulated wilderness, with barely a tree in sight. Perhaps this was a matter of perspective: British and Indian eyes would have passed over the thorny scrub forest as a wasteland because it lacked useful or imposing trees. The Ridge may also have been laid bare over the years as trees were cut to provide city-dwellers with fuel, the land grazed by livestock. However, its barren contours were to turn green in the next century (Mann and Sehrawat 2009).

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When New Delhi, the imperial capital was being built (1911–31) at the foot of what is now known as the Central Ridge, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, initiated plans for extensive afforestation, imagining a dense evergreen curtain behind a ‘splendid … Government House’ placed at the top of Raisina hill, ‘commanding the most lovely views over the city of Delhi and over the whole plain, … dominating the whole of the country round, while the slope down to the plain would be covered with terraces and fountains like a miniature Versailles.’

To create this arboreal backdrop for the principal seat of imperial government, Hardinge drew upon the expertise of P.H. Clutterbuck, a forester from the United Provinces, who suggested several indigenous trees from the drier parts of the Himalayan foothills. His advice was endorsed by W.M. Hailey who inspected the early experimental plantings in 1916: ‘I would not extend the plantation of exotics. They should only come after we have established indigenous trees.’

Planting proceeded slowly and on a small scale, limited by wartime budget constraints. The results were not satisfactory. Trees died off as soon as watering was stopped; few species could withstand the rigours of the Ridge, its thin soils and exposure to extreme summer and winter temperatures. Over the next 20 years, the government struggled with this uphill task. Though some native trees such as ronjh, palash and siris managed to survive, it was vilayati keekar (Prosopis juliflora) that proved to be the most tenacious. As the Annual Report for Government Gardens 1935–36 noted, ‘Prosopis juliflora, one of the hardiest of drought resisting trees, forms the main base of useful, evergreen vegetation; and trees raised from seed a few years ago are now well developed and gradually extending in to fresh ground.’

Although the Ridge was designated as Reserve Forest by the colonial government in 1933, its legal status did not offer watertight protection. When land was needed for other purposes, portions of the wooded Ridge were made available. As the Delhi Improvement Trust expanded the city to the west to accommodate the ‘Depressed Castes’ from the congested Walled City and those displaced by the construction of New Delhi (Hosagrahar 2005; Legg 2007), the central section of the Ridge around Jhandewalan was cleared and levelled, widening the gap between the Northern and Southern parts.

Independence and the Partition of India in 1947 brought half a million Hindu and Sikh refugees to the city and many of them were resettled by clearing the Central and Southern part of the Ridge. The Southern Ridge was further eaten into to establish the sprawling campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other institutional and residential areas in the 1950s. At around the same time, a section of the wooded parts along the hilly spine of the Central Ridge was transferred to the army which later illegally expanded its territory; another chunk was grabbed in the 1980s by the ashram of Asaram Bapu, a popular sant (holy man).

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Numerous other encroachments over the last three decades have nibbled away at the Ridge until its death by a thousand cuts seems imminent. Not only did the forested area of the Ridge shrink because of land diversion and encroachment, from the 1980s the character of the forest also began to change. Until then, the wooded Ridge was regarded as a wilderness and duly ignored. It was not trespassed upon except by poor women and men who collected wood from the area for cooking and heating, cajoling or bribing the occasional chaukidar to look the other way.

In 1978, however, the Central Ridge was the scene of a gruesome crime, filed in popular memory as the Billa-Ranga case. Geeta and Sanjay Chopra, the teenage daughter and son of a naval officer, were abducted when they hitched a ride on the Ridge Road. The car was driven into the woods; Geeta Chopra was raped; she and her brother were murdered. The incident shook middle-class newspaper-reading Delhi: Geeta and Sanjay could have been their children. As the hunt for the culprits began, the Ridge came into focus as a place of danger, the locus of criminal activities. Efforts to bring law and order to the Ridge took a physical form: from being an overlooked, overgrown space, the unruly Ridge was to be disciplined.

On the Northern Ridge, the domestication of wilderness took the form of clearing the dense under-storey of shrubs and creepers such as bansa, heens, gondni, jangli karaunda, bilangada and kankera and replacing it with grass. Ornamental plants and shrubs were planted in neat beds. Gravelled walking paths were cut through the forest. A small pond was spanned by a bridge, reeds planted along its banks, and benches placed so that visitors could enjoy the pretty scene. A badminton court was created in a depression near the Flagstaff Tower built by the British in 1828.

The ruins of Pir Ghaib, a 14th century Tughlaq hunting lodge, and Chauburja, a mausoleum from the same period, were spruced up. The Ridge was now accessible and inviting to middle-class citizens. Once manicured, sections of the Ridge were enthusiastically incorporated into the social geography of residents of well-to-do neighbourhoods in its vicinity. Morning walks—the quintessential quotidian practice of urban Indians with sedentary lifestyles—bring cars to the gates of the Ridge, from which middle-aged men (and some women) alight, all wearing the sports shoes that declare their commitment to their fitness regime.

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While the crowds of morning walkers attest to the success of the project of taming the Ridge and incorporating it into the ordered realm of urban rhythms, a different facet of this accessibility becomes apparent later in the day. By late morning, well after the fitness enthusiasts have departed, the rows of parked cars outside the gates are replaced by motorcycles. Walking up the now-deserted paths, one only encounters hopeful families of macaques looking for handouts. But on the lawns, under shady trees and behind sheltering shrubs, there is a discreet but nonetheless palpable buzz of activity. Each semi-concealed spot that offers some privacy harbours a pair of young lovers looking for solitude. In a city where young women are subject to family surveillance, and escaping the censorious public eye is difficult for romancing couples, the gardens of the Ridge offer refuge. As Radhika Chandiramani writes: ‘There’s safety in the park. The park sets limits.’ They hold hands, press palms together, play with each other’s fingers…. Privacy lurks in public spaces; pleasure lies in the palm of a hand’ (2001: 197–98).3

Paradoxically, the public park, where visibility is coupled with anonymity, allows a retreat from the public into a realm of privacy for partners of various sexual persuasions. Rendering the Ridge safer for citizens by converting the forest into a wooded park created a space that enables romantic and sexual practices that would otherwise have been stifled; it allows the youth to express themselves as lovers, desiring and desired subjects who can more fully participate in the increasingly influential discourse of romantic love and courtship. The domestication of the Ridge thus not only created new bourgeois forms of recreation and caring for the self, but also enabled romantic and sexual practices in public spaces, pushing against the limits of what is considered culturally tolerable and gradually widening them.

Making the Ridge safer for ordinary and elite citizens had another unintended effect. Some of those who came to the park for morning walks were drawn to the area that was still wilderness. Sanjeev Khanna remembers when his dog darted into the undergrowth, chasing a Grey Francolin or some exciting scent. ‘When I followed him, pushing through the bushes, I found myself alone. It was gorgeous. Really wild. Other people wouldn’t go into this part of the Ridge, but I loved it.’ Khanna was a teenager in the late 1970s when he literally stumbled into a fascination for the wilderness of the Ridge. Later, he met a few other school and college students who were interested in bird-watching and began to go on nature rambles with them, learning about the flora and fauna of the Ridge and coming to understand the ecological importance of the forest.

This excerpt from Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons in Delhi by Amit Baviskar has been published with permission from SAGE Yoda Press (Rs 1,195).

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  1. This further proves Nehru’s complicity in the genocide of Hindus and Sukhs in West and East Pakistan. He was busy suppresing his critics who called for saving Hindus and Sikhs and sided with Pakistan.

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