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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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I first explored Khirkee in 2008-09 for my Khoj-supported project City [In]visible through which I documented the relationship of these practices, as evident in Khirkee, to changes in the locality arising from socio-economic changes in the community. These changes were due to the influx of a range of working-class and artisan migrants from other parts of India, who found employment in small local workshops as well as in the large malls and private speciality hospital just down the road. Long-established Khirkee families began to rent living space to the migrants, the first outsiders to be assimilated into the area, and have since continued to profit from steadily increasing migrant presence. This presence also encouraged local micro-enterprises: eating places and shops supplying essential items from the migrants’ places of origin, as well as crucial labour-related services such as money transfer for migrants who send home part of their earnings.

Since that time, major change has taken place in Khirkee. A large number of local residents left the neighbourhood, old workshops were demolished and multi-storey buildings erected on those sites, and more groups of migrants of different ethnicities moved in. Khirkee now has a cosmopolitan and multicultural character, with inhabitants from north, east, north-eastern and south India, as well as families from Afghanistan and Iran.

Engaging with Khirkee once again today through Networks and Neighbourhood, my new project with Khoj, my experience of the locality is very different from five years ago. While the built environment looks essentially the same, the community has significantly diversified and expanded. I found people like construction workers, coolies, washermen, barbers, the street peddlars selling vegetables, road side fast food tea shop. The crowd is always around those peddlars and it seems that they meet after their day work. The small shops are lighted with low power bulbs with people buying or standing leisurely for chat. Among the crowd the narrow lanes are also witnessed African men and women going up and down, or an Afghan family walking down the Khirkee extension. This is bit different from the Khirkee I explored five years back.

These questions came to mind as I walked through the lanes of Khirkee and nearby Hauz Rani, observing that most of the women I could see going to and from were ‘foreigners’, mostly Africans and occasionally Afghans in burqas, faces averted, hurrying past; some women from the north-east returning to their rooms from their workplaces in the malls; and some women who worked from early morning to late evening as domestic help in neighbourhood houses. At no time of the day does one see women at the grocery shops, meat shops, mobile phone shops, tailor shops or any of the many and varied tiny establishments offering goods and services to local residents. Apart from the social conservatism and practices of gender segregation that restrict women’s mobility, it is also a fact that Delhi is notoriously unsafe for women. Sexual harassment and violence is a continual threat for women everywhere in the city’s public spaces, especially in localities such as Khirkee which have poor infrastructure, dark and confusing lanes, failing or non-existent street lights, and are everywhere overcrowded with men.

It has not been easy to meet women of the locality for my project. A Khoj staff member introduced me to two representatives of Haiyya, a Mumbai NGO working on violence against women in public space, based in Khirkee and in the nearby lower middle-class colony of Malviya Nagar. They have helped me to reach out to a group of women who live in DDA flats and also in the urban village of Panchsheel Vihar in the proximity of Khirkee. I am currently meeting them at their homes or workplaces each week, and documenting their experiences.