A lonely life in Narela
Life is a daily struggle for the residents of Narela, which has earned the sobriquet of ‘ghost town’
Pratap Chauhan calls his home a ‘lonely loft’ in the middle of nowhere. And not without reason. Locked doors on every floor greet you as you take the stairs to his fifth-floor flat in Sector G-2 in Narela. “This entire building belongs to me; I mean we have been living here alone in this block for the past three years,” Chauhan jokingly says, sitting on a bed in the cramped living room of his one-bedroom apartment.
It is afternoon and a sense of desolation pervades the place. Stand on his balcony and look around, and you don’t see a soul or hear a sound, except for the barking of dogs and the soft soughing of the wind. “This place has the suffocating silence of a graveyard,” says Chauhan, his mood switching from jovial to melancholy quickly. “Forget men, even monkeys do not come here.”
Chauhan, a driver with DTC who shifted to his new home in Narela in 2015 and lives with his wife and two children, says he has not had any visitors —neither friends nor relatives — in the last three years. “The first and last time we had visitors was at the house-warming party. Our life is about learning to cope with our isolated existence. It is next to impossible to get a milkman, newspaper vendor or a vegetable vendor here,” says Rekha Rani, his wife.
Pocket 2 of Sector G-2 is a sprawling complex of 2,156 flats spread over an area of 4.71 hectares in which only about 80 families live. Most allottees had returned the flats in this pocket because of their small size. Like Chauhan, there are a number of families who lead an isolated life in Narela, where occupancy rates in DDA apartment blocks are abysmally low.
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) terms Narela as a mega ‘sub-city’, an urban extension project on the lines of Dwarka and Rohini. It has already built over 10,000 flats here and by March, 2019, another 15,000 will be ready for allotment. But the problem is no one wants to live in Narela. The occupancy rate varies from 10 to 40 percent in various sectors — in the 15 year period during which most of these flats were built.
No wonder then that Narela, which was once known for its red chilly crops, big orchards and ponds, has now earned the sobriquet of a ‘ghost town’. The ‘sub-city’ looks pretty well-planned on the face of it — broad roads, green open spaces, and parks. But people who chose to move here will tell you that life in Narela is a daily struggle.
Bordering Haryana in north-west Delhi — around 42km from Connaught Place — Narela, for its residents, continues to be a ‘distant town’, far removed from Delhi psychologically and physically. “It takes my daughter-in-law around two-and-a-half hours to reach her coaching class in Karol Bagh, after changing buses and Metro trains,” says Santosh, another resident. The nearest Metro station in Narela is Samaypur Badli, about 15km away, and DTC service in the area is inadequate and erratic. There are sectors where one has to cover a distance of two to three kilometres to reach a DTC bus stand.
The awful transportation is not Santosh’s only problem; her bigger concern is the safety of her family.
“A young man was stabbed to death a few hundred meters away the day I shifted to this house in Narela a year ago. That is how Narela welcomed us,” says Santosh, who shifted to the sub-city from Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh. She lives in an 11- storey DDA apartment complex in sector A9 with her husband, two sons and a daughter-in-law. Only two families live in her apartment block, which has about 100 flats. In all, the complex has about over 350 middle income group (MIG) flats, most of which are empty.
A creepy silence permeates the premises. One can see a couple of flats with laundry hanging out on the balcony grille. “There are barely 10 families in the entire complex and we hardly ever get to see them,” says Santosh. “Even the walk from the main gate to our flat is unsafe. You never know who is lurking in the empty lobbies and parking lots. We make sure that we pick up our daughter-in-law from the main gate every day,” she adds.
Sobha Solanki, another resident of D- block, says: “If you want to know what a life without neighbour means, ask us. I live in fear; every day I keep hearing news of snatching, stabbing and other crimes,” says Solanki , a faraway look in her eyes.
Solanki, who lives with her husband, a small-time contractor, regrets having shifted to Narela, which she says does not have basic social infrastructure to make the place livable.
Not many residents, however, know there is everything in DDA’s development plan for Narela: district centers, community centers, an international exhibition center, trade conference center, a hi-tech park, social-cultural centers, a court complex, a government office site, among others. But all that remains only on paper after all these years. “I go to Rohini for shopping. There is no mall, no cinema hall, no good shopping centre here,” says Solanki.
“People have to travel 2-3 km to buy basic things like milk and vegetables. And this is almost two decades after the first flats were built in Narela,” says Madan Lal Sharma , president of the Soubhagya Apartments RWA in Sector B2, which has less than 50 percent occupancy more than a decade after they were allotted. “Not just markets, it does not have decent schools or colleges,” adds Sharma , who works as a manager in a factory in the nearby Kundli industrial area. For Israfil, another resident of Soubhagya Apartments, crime is a bigger concern, “There was a theft in our house the day we shifted here. And my father is a policeman.”
Most people living in Narela are either supervisors working in factories in its industrial area and the nearby Kundli industrial area, or government employees, Delhi police personnel, or teachers in government schools who came looking for affordable housing. The rents in Narela are quite cheap compared to the rest of the city: a two-bedroom MIG flat can be rented for Rs 7,000 and bought for Rs 35 lakh. A similar flat will cost about Rs 85 to 90 lakh in a place like Rohini.
But then Narela is not Delhi for local residents. “ If people here go to Chandni Chowk, they say they are going to Delhi. For them Delhi is another city; in fact, they relate more to Sonepat in Haryana than Delhi ,” says JK Joon, who has been a property dealer in Narela since 2002. “Most people who work in Delhi take local trains in the morning from Narela station. Ironically, while Narela is a sub- city; all government offices are in Alipur, which is 10km away,” adds Joon. Delhi’s government’s Satyawadi Raja Harish Chandra Hospital — the only government hospital in the sub-city — the locals say, does not have good in-patient facilities, and most people have to travel to Shalimar Bagh and Rohini for treatment. “Besides, there are no community centres; most family functions and marriages take place on the roads. How can DDA expect people to live in a place like this?” asks Joon.
Tarun Kapoor, vice- chairman, DDA, says Narela’s problem is lack of economic activity and connectivity. “We are trying to make sure that our Integrated Freight Complex (IFC) becomes a hub of trade and business. We are developing warehouses and other facilities there,” says Kapoor. “Besides, DDA will soon be running buses from various apartments complexes to the nearest DTC bus stands in Narela. Things will change a lot once the Metro arrives.”
But why has the basic social infrastructure, such as community centers, not been developed in the past so many years? “ A new urban extension like Narela takes time to develop. We will soon be having all of this,” says Kapoor.
Back at sector G2, Chauhan is on the terrace with his wife, where he goes every day to overcome the claustrophobia of his cramped flat. But the view--- rows and rows of apartments in the middle of empty fields without a soul in sight -- does not comfort him. It only makes him feel more lonely. “It also reminds me how my dream house has become a nightmare. But my biggest problem is I cannot explain to my 15-year-old daughter why I bought a house in a place like this. I wish I too had returned it to DDA like most other allottees, ” he says as he looks at the setting sun.