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Between the expressway and the Yamuna

By Sreedeep and Kamalini Mukherjee

20 April 2012

Glimpses of Okhla, a hidden suburb on the banks of the Yamuna in South Delhi.
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Okhla, a suburb in South Delhi, knows how to hide the ugly: a riverbank settlement that lies ignored on its fringes. A two-kilometre stretch along the banks of the dying Yamuna River hosts a compact, impoverished quarter for the immigrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. Every monsoon, this temporary settlement is submerged under several feet of filthy water: filth that has become synonymous with life and livelihood here.

Merely fifteen minutes away from the consumerist hub that is this city, the stench of reality is unavoidable. Instead of South Delhi’s customary symbols of urban pomp, the riverbank here is punctuated by afternoon gilli danda games, where local boys wager two or three pieces of roti.

Life here usually involves aspirations of joining the seemingly inaccessible city outside the settlement’s invisible walls. It is a space kept well hidden. The Delhi-Noida-Direct Flyway on one side provides only a vague view of this unwanted neighbourhood. The Batla House colony on the other keeps outsiders a good distance away. So does the neighbouring Okhla industrial area, blowing disinterested smoke out of its chimneys.

The dhobi-ghaat covers most of the bank, providing some semblance of a stable livelihood for the locals. The children go to a free school in the morning, play by the river in the afternoon, and watch TV with their families in the evening before falling asleep under patchy, provisional roofs. Some of the houses have windows too, with one of two views: the putrid river on one side, or the skyward ambition of illegal real estate on the other.

The magnificence of this place lies in the nostalgia for a lost river and the trades that plied on its banks. Now Okhla grows ceaselessly, silently, ignoring the river growing heavier with the load of sin the city dumps in it. Today, the river barely drags on, hauling with it bits of carrion of a forgotten lifeline. But the people, whose lives depend on it, keep dreaming of the day when they won’t have to.

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