India’s love for jugaad is destroying its cities

Desperate times, desperate measures.
Desperate times, desperate measures.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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Look closely in almost any direction across the urban vista and you will see something which is not supposed to be there. An istriwala doing the neighbourhood’s ironing at a makeshift stand, often on the footpath, a rogue tea stand, or a pavement barber lathering the whiskery chin of a customer perched on a pavement high chair facing a mirror nailed to a brick wall.

They are examples of what Kamal Nath, the veteran Congress leader and former minister for Urban Development, calls “urban jugaad”—encroachment, the illegal construction or extension of homes, shops, residential colonies, and jhuggi clusters on someone else’s land.

Eighty per cent of Delhi’s houses are believed to be illegally constructed without consent or in breach of building regulations, with occasionally catastrophic consequences. In June 2014, ten people were killed, including five children, when a house collapsed in East Delhi’s Inderlok area. Investigators said illegal construction on either side of the building had been the cause.

As I wrote this, the steady, maddening thud of Kamal Nath’s “urban jugaad” was shaking my own house. In the narrow passage on our right flank two labourers were pile-driving into the foundations of the empty flat next door. My young designer neighbour Rakesh appeared on his roof to explain that they were inserting a reinforced steel beam to save the wall which supports his illegal duplex above the ground floor flat from collapsing.

It is a timely reminder of both the scale and peril of encroachment in the capital, an eternal stealth war fought by people to expand their footprint inch by inch.

I first noticed Rakesh’s territorial ambitions a few years earlier when I heard a similar thumping noise. Labourers in flip-flops were smashing the top corner of a beautiful stone arch which linked our two buildings above the alley between.

Later, a blacksmith arrived and welded a steel staircase from the path up to the top of the arch to make a shortcut to the tenement’s first floor balcony and the door to Rakesh’s apartment. From the top of the new stairs, passers-by could peer into our then teenage daughter’s bathroom.

No father would tolerate such an intrusion, and neither could I, or at least I didn’t think I could.

I complained but my neighbour had invested too much in his campaign to care about my concerns. So I called the police and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, and the illegal staircase was soon dismantled and abandoned on the path.

A week later, I heard the clang of sandal on metal and looked out to see the staircase had been wedged back into place, unwelded and precariously propped against Rakesh’s first floor balcony. Stooped old ladies were clambering down it and every time they did, it looked like the staircase might collapse.

Their injuries would have been on my conscience so I gave up and put a heavy curtain over my daughter’s window instead.

A few months later, two reinforced rolled steel joists (RSJ) appeared, poking out a few metres from Rakesh’s flat towards our wall, serving notice that the shoogly stair was just one step on his social ladder. I couldn’t tell exactly what he had in mind, but clearly it was a further expansion of his policies.

They had emerged a few days before we were about to head home to Scotland for our summer holiday and I forgot about them in the bustle of getting ready to go. When I returned a few weeks later, I noticed a bright light shining into our bedroom window overlooking the passage. The wall of Rakesh’s flat, which had been a good three metres away, was now in touching distance. Its new coat of white paint was reflecting the bright street lamp into our room.

The RSJs had been an opening gambit, the first stage of a mid-air extension which had added a precious few extra feet to his living space. Another staircase connected his new first floor landing to the flat directly above, which I later learned he also owned.

New waste pipes had been fitted which now poured dirty water directly onto the path in front of my alley office—on bad days I would have to wade to work. When I asked him why he had not consulted me, he said: “Because you would have complained!”

He had waged a patient campaign, adding to his property inch by inch until he had transformed it from a two-room symbol of lower-middle class hardship into a funky duplex with its own gated stair to the street below. Our young neighbourhood ironing man later told us Rakesh was hoping to get married and his new two-storey apartment was the key to marrying the girl of his dreams.

Now he’s a catch, but only for as long as his ground-floor neighbour’s wall bears the weight of his ambition. Today, his men are reinforcing the supporting wall to make sure it does.

I admired his fierce determination to improve his lot—especially if it was a love story, too—and was grateful for the practical lesson in the mechanics of encroachment.

In fact, the more I looked, the more of it I noticed all around me. The makeshift covered stand, where our colony’s istriwalas pressed the neighbourhood’s clothes with charcoal-fired irons, is also an encroachment on the pavement. In the street opposite a barber has made a sidewalk salon with a stool, plastic mirror and rusty nail.

At the gate to the nearby Lodi Gardens park, a young man picks green coconuts from his battered hatchback and hacks them open on the pavement for thirsty walkers under the fierce gaze of a khaki-clad police officer. 

The cop watches his unlicenced trade to make sure he and his fellow officers receive the correct amount in kickbacks: a weekly hafta of Rs4,000 for the pitch. He must sell more than a hundred coconuts before he starts making any money for himself but if sales increase, the men in khaki will want more, the young man explained.

The pavement jalebiwalas, fast-food joints, alfresco barbers, neighbourhood ironing stands, fruit and vegetable stalls are all unlicenced and illegal but their encroachment is overlooked by those responsible for enforcing the law in exchange for a weekly “rent.”

And unless their encroachment impinges directly on someone else’s private property, few object. Their services are mostly wanted and the only space available for them is on government-owned public property for which Delhi Police has appointed itself commercial landlord. It is a jugaad solution to low police pay and the scarcity of land which has robbed the capital of much of its sidewalk space and even cut into the roads.


The reality of the Indian city is that there are too many people but not enough land. Few have the space they need or the money required to buy it, so they take what they can, bit by bit, until council officials or police officers notice and an arrangement can be made.


A few streets away from B K Dutt Colony, India’s senior civil servants and powerful politicians have built unauthorized extensions and made illegal changes to some of the country’s most coveted homes—the government-owned whitewashed bungalows which line New Delhi’s wide avenues.

According to Malvika Singh, publisher of Seminar magazine and a leading conservationist, government secretaries, members of parliament, and ministers are guilty of some of the capital’s worst encroachment offences.


The new capital of British India was conceived as a showcase for colonial planning with strong influences from the subcontinent’s own history.

It was a garden city, as was Shahjahanabad, Delhi’s old Walled City, which was built by the great Mughal emperor on a grid system with tree-lined avenues and cooling water channels. Like Jaipur, built by Maharaja Jai Singh in the eighteenth century, New Delhi’s boulevards and circuses had geometry.

Its whitewashed bungalows, set on wide green lawns, had high ceilings with fans to circulate cooling air, verandas for senior officials to relax in, fireplaces to heat the grand rooms in harsh Delhi winters, and bright terrazzo floors—chips of coloured marble set in emerald, dusty pink, or cobalt cement—which sparkle in the light.

They are as highly coveted today by political leaders, generals, judges, and senior civil servants as they were in the last days of the raj.

But according to Malvika Singh, their new custodians have destroyed much of the original charm with jugaad extensions and modifications. 

“We have a lot of people on the bench, government employees… they feel the laws made for me can be broken by them, it has destroyed this city,” she said, in Seminar’s Connaught Place salon office.

She said she could think of only three senior politicians who had restored their bungalows in accordance with their original plans. “Everyone else has added, enclosed verandas inside the building, bedrooms, ripped out the terrazzo floors because they think bathroom tiles are more pleasing…they have all done things like put rooms on the second floor, [used] hideous asbestos sheets, because the law says if there are no foundations it is not an encroachment. Cabinet ministers, they have all added portacabins saying they need extra space for PAs, or 90% have rented out their servants’ quarters to people who don’t serve them and are making illegal money from rent. Secretaries to the Government of India, many of them rent out servants’ quarters to tailors, carpenters and get their work for free, clothes stitched. They are exploiting the place, changing the windows, breaking down walls. The whole construct of the city as planned gets mutilated within the walls of the house,” she explained.

For her, the encroachment of pavements, construction of illegal, substandard buildings and the threat to the city’s unique architectural heritage are all of a piece.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from Jugaad Yatra by Dean Nelson. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com