Book Review: The Ground Beneath Delhi’s Feet

The Ridge is a valuable resource of the capital city but has been exploited and mined over the centuries.

Fractured Forest, Quartzite City: A History of Delhi and its Ridge by Thomas Crowley is the first book about Delhi that in its very title summons our attention to the land beneath our feet. Too often in our urban bubbles we ignore the things around us upon which we depend and that by their presence enrich our lives. Delhi is a quartzite city because of the rocks much of it stands on. Mining has plundered them for thousands of years. Others are submerged under construction or under green parks and gardens, and still others are just submerged.

Crowley reminds us of a major bridge project across the River Yamuna that was delayed because of a rock formation unexpectedly discovered beneath the river bed, part of a system that continues underground as far as Haridwar. He also includes among the outcrops we can’t see, the one on which Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid stands.

Fractured Forest, Quartzite City: A history of Delhi and its Ridge
Thomas Crowley
Yoda Press-Sage-Select, 2020

These are all part of the Aravalli mountain chain, formed hundreds of millions of years before the land mass we now know as India broke away from an ancient supercontinent and began its northward drift towards Asia. The Aravallis contain some of the oldest rocks on Earth and by the time that India collided with Asia, creating the Himalayas, its peaks were already long eroding. These are the rocks which stand beneath the capital of India. Grey with warm tints of brown and pink, they are very visible in the monuments of Delhi, like the tombs of Lodhi Gardens. Crowley reminds us that these warm tints indicate the presence of iron. And every time we walk on a park path laid with the deep orange-red sandy material known as ‘badarpur’, we walk on the crumbly iron-rich skin of the mountains.

The Aravallis in Delhi are known as the Ridge. For the government, that means designated areas of reserved forest but, in the wider sense, the term covers all the city’s rocky places, extending into Gurgaon in the neighbouring state of Haryana. Crowley’s account is of the Ridge in both its definitions. He demonstrates that it is by no means the pristine environment many Ridge romantics have presented it to be. Like the landscape around it, it is shaped by human hand. It has not only been mined, its forests have been harvested over many hundreds of years by kings, sultans, emperors, imperialists and independent Indians.

But, Crowley argues, it doesn’t need to be pristine to be of great value to us.  What’s important is that we understand it and the economic and political causes of its ecological destruction.  The scope of his study is immense – from the rising up of the Aravallis to the development of the polluted, congested NCR we know today. To achieve this he has mined not rocks, but histories, archives and government records. He has forensically dissected environmental assessment reports, tramped all over the Ridge and sought out communities whose lives have been inextricably linked with the rocks around them.

Also read: Delhi’s Khirki Masjid – Once a Shared Space of Everyday Life, Now a Contested Site

The earliest of these, Stone Age hunter-gatherers, set up camp on the Ridge well over 100,000 years ago. We know this from the tools they made, the most recent dating to around 5,000 BC. A 1987 report documented 47 Stone Age sites, including a major Stone Age workshop at Anantpur. The tiny, sharp microliths manufactured here in bulk, Crowley speculates, could have been some of humankind’s first commodities.  The earliest toolmakers to use Delhi’s quartzite were not even homo sapiens but most probably homo erectus, a species related to our own. Therefore the Ridge is significant not only for India, but for the broader history of humankind. Yet even the Ridge’s known prehistoric sites are unprotected and Crowley compares their unnoticed neglect and destruction with the international headlines in response to the destruction of Iraq’s archeological heritage.

His tone here is more in sorrow than in anger, but by the end of the book, apart from the Ridge’s former mining communities, Gujjar pastoralists, the urban poor and a few birdwatchers, academics and Vasant Vihar gentry, most people and institutions have a fair amount of calumny heaped on their heads.

Thomas Crowley. Photo: Rutgers University website

From the British to the DDA , real estate developers, Maruti Suzuki (accused of terrorising its employees) and environmental lawyers wielding PILs, he spares no one. Occasionally he also slips in a wild generalisation. This adversarial style is popular nowadays but I wouldn’t surprised if in future he is judged as he judges one of the British officials he quotes – ‘enthusiastic… but biased by the prejudices of his time’.

Sometimes you wish Crowley had economised on the epithets and stitched together his arguments a bit more tightly. In a fascinating section on the rise from the 1940s of property developer DLF, he says that Jawaharlal Nehru viewed DLF with ‘great suspicion and he pushed for a body like the DDA largely to curb the power of DLF and their covert allies in the bureaucracy’. Yet the quotation from Nehru he gives shows the prime minister appalled by the land profiteering of the government official who was Chairman of the Delhi Improvement Trust, but it does not mention DLF. Crowley repeatedly excoriates the DDA for failing to provide affordable housing, but does not examine the issue in detail. He dismisses the Delhi Master Plan, but does not suggest an alternative. Even so, much of his criticism appears deserved and his style undoubtedly demands his readers sit up and think.

Crowley writes fluently and changes his focus with ease from the Gurjar-Pratihara dynasty,  the Sultans of Delhi to the Mughals, but is still at his strongest in more recent times. The Delhi Archives have provided him with insights into wrangling over mining during the construction of New Delhi. It’s worth remembering that Paharganj – whose name indicates it was a hill – was one of the areas deeply mined for construction material.

He champions the villagers of Delhi, some of whom are still fighting for more compensation for the land they gave up for a new capital, and especially its Gujjar community. He traces how common lands have been parcelled up or handed over to the Forest Department, and the injustices villagers have faced. He visits the Ridge’s only surviving sacred grove at Manger Bani and examines the machinations of government and real estate interests over time. He writes with special empathy of the members of the Od community who came as migrant labour to the southern Ridge’s Bhatti mines post-independence. They were thoroughly exploited but the ban on mining that was meant to be for their safety left them unemployed and with their homes in danger of demolition. They are now using the Forest Rights Act to try to save them.

Also read: How New Delhi Became What It Is Today

The transformation of New Delhi into a metropolis from a small city dominated by government babus and surrounded by a vast rural hinterland happened in living memory. The means by which the city and its Ridge transformed was largely opaque even to Delhi’s residents who lived through the transformation and Crowley’s book does well to expose these processes. Neither is there any disputing his contention that we should understand the economic and political causes of the threats to Ridge and the lives of disadvantaged communities. He warns that if we do not address them the green ‘islands of conservation’ that remain will be swept away by the megacity. If we do, Crowley hopes for a new incarnation of the Ridge – spiritual,  green and more socially just.

In these COVID times, the green areas of the Ridge have again proved their importance. Walking through the Ridge forests gives very many people a chance to retain their physical and mental well-being. On the wide paths of Sanjay Van, laid with red badarpur are joggers, the elderly, dog-walkers, commuters from the Mehrauli cycling to work, and villagers grazing their buffaloes or collecting firewood. Occasionally a nilgai wanders across. Young mongoose play wrestling games in the undergrowth. Up a hill still stands the ramparts of Lal Kot fort, and dargahs and small temples dot the landscape. Crowley’s attention to the Ridge is not misplaced and yes, we need our Fractured Forest and our quartzite hills and we need to ensure that we keep them for future generations.

Gillian Wright is a translator and writer based in New Delhi.