Ashish Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. In addition to writing for CityLab, he works as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle and The Times of London. He has previously held positions at Al Jazeera English and The Hindustan Times.
India’s capital city is full of private residential “colonies” protected by locked gates. But many claim the barriers don't stop crime and cause traffic chaos.
It’s past 3 a.m. and the party’s over. A group of late-night revelers walk to the main road outside a wealthy New Delhi neighborhood, known locally as a colony. They’re trying to get to the Uber they just booked, but they can’t. The gate blocking the road into the colony is now locked, and there’s nobody in sight to open it.
The group spots a small gap between the gate and the fence next to it. Fueled by some liquid courage, they squeeze between barbed wire and a row of menacing three-pronged iron spokes. It’s the only way out, and their Uber may cancel at any moment.
Such late-night work-arounds are not uncommon in the Indian capital. The city is full of gated residential neighborhoods whose entries are locked after dark. And it’s not just late-night visitors who are affected. Residents of such colonies sometimes find it challenging to get in or out, and unpredictable street closures can make life miserable for motorists and pedestrians alike.
“When I first moved here there were four or five gates where I lived, but only one was open after 11,” says Namratha Rao, a young professional from Mumbai who has lived in Delhi since 2016. “[The gate] wasn’t close to my house. It was accessible from the main road but you had to take a U-turn and go through a market before getting to my house.”
Ride-hailing drivers in the city are also regularly perplexed. Until last year, Uber driver Vivek Pal was a student in his hometown of Kanpur, about seven hours southeast of Delhi. He’d never operated a GPS before moving to the capital; now he spends his nights battling one while navigating the megalopolis’s labyrinth of gates. “All these closed gates are a nuisance,” he said. “How can the GPS know what to do? I get to a gate and instead of the 2 minutes it’s supposed to take to reach my location, it takes 20.”
But Delhi’s gates have a powerful network of supporters: the city’s Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), which look after the day-to-day affairs of its vast array of colonies. Many of these gated enclaves are located between main roads or are home to markets. RWAs say that the gates are needed to fend off non-resident drivers seeking shortcuts and parking spaces.
“The issue is your life. Your life here is not normal because the pressure on the road is too much for simple things in life like cycling, walking, just crossing the road,” says Poonam Bhasin, vice president of the RWA in a colony called Lajpat Nagar III. “Do they even get that the residents have their own lives? That there are children crossing the road?”
RWAs and the gates they put up exemplify a common trend in Delhi: Wealthier residents tend to come up with private solutions rather than wait for public authorities to meet their demands. “It’s an urban planning fault,” says Bhasin of the colony’s congestion issues. “You cannot have feeder roads in between a thriving colony … so you have to work around the system.”
But what Bhasin calls “working around the system,” others call illegal, saying private bodies don’t have the authority to close roads and block off public space. There have been several court cases on the issue. Yet the gates persist, largely unchecked, and have become deeply entrenched into the fabric of the city.
“The law has been diluted to such a level it’s lost its meaning,” says Sudhir Vohra, a Delhi-based architect and urban planner. “We’ve wrongly allowed RWAs to make up their minds about which gates to erect and shut. They’re making arbitrary decisions, and they’ve empowered themselves to make those decisions.“
Vohra points out that the idea of erecting private barriers to public spaces in the city extends beyond the gates. “We have now concertina wire around some public parks. How do you call it public space if you have razor wire all around?”
RWAs say that the barriers are needed for security as well as traffic calming: Many colonies hire guards to staff their gates. It’s just another example of the privatization of what would ordinarily be handled by the public sector. And several security guards in Delhi colonies told CityLab they’ve seen fewer burglaries since gates were erected.
But for residents like Rao, the gates can create more, not less anxiety: The closures can be unpredictable and guards often disappear overnight. And the absence of traffic and pedestrians inside a locked-up neighborhood don’t help. “I don’t think the gates are helping me feel more safe. I’d rather live in a crowded place with no gates than in a quiet place with gates,” she says. “Gates don’t help. It’s just a [false] perception of security.”
Some critics believe that Delhi’s mania for street barriers and gated enclaves reflects something deeper about the capital city. Delhi is known for sky-high levels of income inequality: It’s a megacity of around 29 million, but the wealth of its 10 richest people equals one-third of the entire city’s GDP. Vohra sees its gates as a manifestation of the city’s starkly drawn class lines. “Differences between people have traditionally been why walls are built anywhere in the world,” says Vohra. “There is class behavior when you build any wall. You wall yourself in and other people out. If you look at history, that’s what happened with walled cities throughout feudal times. [In Delhi,] we’re building multiple walled cities within a supposed open city. “
In cities such Chandigarh, Bhopal, and Lucknow the situation is quite different, says Vohra. “Their roads are open. So it’s not a function of the nation. It’s a function of how people think. It’s a reflection of what people want the city to become.”
Rao adds her hometown of Mumbai to the list of cities with more open roads. “They say the gates keep thieves out. But I think the gates are also there to keep the ‘riff-raff' out,” she says. “Gates just represent one more way in which Delhi is so classist. You cannot just cut off public property away from the public just because rich people live there.”
But a lot of her neighbors, she knows, feel differently.
“Gates are a blessing,” says Bhasin of Lajpat Nagar III. “My dream? Close the entire colony’s gates and don’t let any outsiders come.”