ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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What the Eye Does Not See

The Yamuna in the Imagination of Delhi

This article traces the shifting visibility of the river Yamuna in the social and ecological imagination of Delhi. It delineates how the riverbed has changed from being a neglected "non-place" to prized real estate for private and public corporations. It argues that the transformation of an urban commons into a commodity is not only embedded in processes of political economy, but is also driven by aesthetic sensibilities that shape how ecological landscapes are valued. However, the commodification of the riverbed must confront the fact that the Yamuna is an ecological entity with dynamics that can defy attempts at domestication.

This article was originally presented at a conference on “Urban Ecologies in Asia” organised by the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Yale University. I am grateful to K Sivaramakrishnan and Anne Rademacher, the organisers, for their encouragement and support. Special thanks to Vinay Gidwani for his critical and insightful comments.

In early September 2010, the citizens of Delhi were witness to an unprecedented sight in the centre of the city. Erased from view was the unremarkable green-brown plain dotted with fields, trees and huts where the river Yamuna usually flows in a small and sluggish stream. Instead, a shimmering sheet of water stretched out wide, obliterating the land, and lapping at the bottom of the old iron railway bridge. The 100-year-old reticulated bridge, a sturdy yet graceful monument to colonial engineering, suddenly appeared vulnerable as strong currents swept water dangerously close, causing trains and road traffic across the bridge to be cancelled.

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