Mohammed Abdul Sattar, 55, has been living in 'Delhi' for the past 20 years, but has never been to Connaught Place, which is hardly 8 km from his house. His 21-year-old daughter, Rukhsar Praveen, has been badgering him for the past few years to take him to shopping centre.
"I have heard it's a big shopping centre with many tall buildings, but my father says it's for the rich. But I want to it see it one day," says Parveen, sitting in her hut on the eastern banks of the Yamuna.
In fact, Sattar is not the only one, his neighbour, Tara Chand, 65, too has not ventured into the heart of the city, though Mayur Vihar Metro station is barely 700 metres from his hut. "I have taken a ride in Metro only once in the past eight years that I have been living here. Delhi is for the educated and the clever, not for a rural man like me," he says, sitting on his charpoy in front of his hut with his wife and granddaughter.
Both Sattar and Tara Chand are farmers who till their land on the eastern banks of Yamuna but have no physical or emotional connect with the Capital. Their limited foray into the city are trips to neighbouring colonies such as Mayur Vihar and Patparganj where they sell their agricultural produce.
Tara Chand, 65, with his wife and grandchildren in front of his hut on the banks of Yamuna. Seen in the background is the new metro line from Kukundpur to Yamuna Vihar under construction. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/ Hindustan Times)
Walk a kilometre into the greens of the Yamuna bank from Mayur Vihar-Noida link road, and you find a perfect rural idyll -- vast tracts of fertile agricultural fields, mud and thatch huts with floor polished with cowdung, the hum of diesel-fuelled water pumps and women milking buffaloes.
Most of these urban farmers have migrated from UP and Bihar and have taken riverside farmland on rent or on crop-sharing basis from the land owners who live in east Delhi villages. They grow wheat, rice, vegetables such as cauliflower, mustard, bitter gourd, okra, tomatoes, melons, watermelon, carrots, and radishes.
Life is a mix bag of difficulties and hope for these urban farmers. Apart from the fear of flood in the river destroying their crop, they also have to contend with the fear of their huts being demolished by the government. When the water level rises in the river during monsoon, they have to leave their huts and settle on the Mayur Vihar-Noida link road and NH-24.
Last year, hundreds of these farmers lost their crop to floods and had to live, for over a month, on the Mayur Vihar-Noida link road. "We lived on the edge of the road, and I was afraid for my one-year-old daughter that she might be run over by a speeding car. Life is quite difficult if you are a farmer in a big city like Delhi, where you have no identity and respect," said Parveen.
"The only benefit is that unlike in our villages, we have a ready market here to sell our produce. Though we also have easy access to government schools and hospitals but they are hardly any better than those in our villages."
These farmers also fear the government bulldozers, which they say, demolish their huts twice a year. "The authorities ask us to shift across the road in colonies such as Mayur Vihar and Patparganj, not realising that we are rural folks who like to live near our farmlands. Besides, we cannot afford the rents in the city. Where can we shift our buffaloes, tractors and tubewells," asked Ram Kishore, 20.
These farmers have no electricity, water or gas connections. Most of them use batteries to light a bulb in the night, and travel to Patparganj to get their batteries charged for R40. "The whole city is lit up around us in the night, but we live in complete darkness, even during festivals such as Diwali," said Om Shri, whose hut stands barely 200 metres from the Yamuna.
Om Shri, who earns her livlihood by selling buffalow milk in front of her hut in near Yamuna. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/ Hindustan Times)
Despite a mega city living almost oblivious to their existence around them, these farmers have been a subject of several global research projects on dynamics of urban agriculture in a fast growing city like Delhi.
"Development is a constant and largely unknown threat for these Yamuna farmers. There are cases where a farm family was just a few days or a week from harvesting a crop and construction notice came without notice. I think the most challenging aspect of farming in a development zone is not knowing when a development project would ruin your hardwork and take away your land," said Jessica Cook, a US-based Fulbright-Nehru Research fellow who recently conducted research on the farming community on the banks of Yamuna.
Most farmers here feel that the forces of development will eventually take them over in a decade. "Our future is uncertain. Come here after ten years and you might see housing colonies and flyovers, not our fields," said Sattar, staring blankly into space.