Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Khadar as a slum. It it technically defined as a JJ resettlement colony.
NEW DELHI — Samosas and jalebis are typical Indian snacks, but for residents of a resettlement colony in the southeastern region of Delhi, they are also useful terms for getting around the neighborhood.
“Samosa Chowk and Jalebi Chowk are important landmarks of my colony,” said Meera, 50, who does not have a legal last name. “And the Shani bazaar [Saturday market] is a no miss. But you have to be alert as it gets dark.” Markers like these, in lieu of typical directions, are how Meera gets around her neighborhood.
Welcome to the JJ Colony of Madanpur Khadar, one of many underdeveloped, low-income resettlement colonies in New Delhi. Meera is a domestic worker and resident here.
Khadar, which is home to about 50,000 residents, is not necessarily a well-known locality in Delhi. If you searched for it on the Internet before 2020, the neighborhood existed only in the form of news articles that largely focused on crime and poverty in the region.
But thanks to young women living in Khadar and a few researchers, it is now one of the rare low-income slum resettlements in the city to have a Wikipedia entry.
Padmini Ray Murray, an investigator for the research network Gendering the Smart City (GSC), which aims to disrupt dominant narratives of how neighborhoods are defined on the Internet, said the impact of mapping this neighborhood on a site like Wikipedia increases visibility for Khadar — and gives its women residents a unique opportunity.
About 45 percent of the articles about geographical locations on Wikipedia are written by people from five locations — the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and France.
In the digital age, when the Internet is often used as the first source of information to learn about certain places, Murray said it’s important to ask: “Who writes the Internet and whose knowledge counts to define the places?”
Since 2018, about 15 women from Khadar, ranging in age from 17 to 32, worked with local nonprofits to help map the city, with GSC helming the project.
“The bigger project was named ‘Aana Jaana,’ ” or “Coming and Going,” said Ayona Datta, principal investigator at GSC. “It was to understand how these women from a marginalized community accessed public spaces in the digital age. It represented women’s experiences of navigating the city through their mobile phones.”
The women were encouraged to record in a private WhatsApp group what their daily experiences of living, commuting and interacting with their community were like.
“We gathered data from the surroundings and also navigated the locality in terms of physical and social infrastructure,” said Ritu Singh, 26, who moved to Khadar as a teenager and now works with a local nonprofit.
The women documented verbal directions, street names and landmarks (such as Samosa Chowk and Jalebi Chowk, which are squares in the city). These might be considered insignificant on mapping websites but can be extremely helpful for getting one’s bearings in informal settlements. They also recorded accessibility to and from the neighborhood, as well as the absence of public services.
The researchers at GSC curated and compiled the information from the Khadar women and helped them to publish resources about their neighborhood on Wikipedia not only in English, but also in their local language — Hindi.
Khadar, like many other similar resettlement colonies, has open sanitary drains, congested housing, narrow streets and poor infrastructure. Most residents know each other and work low-wage jobs.
“Madanpur Khadar is approached by the main road which is lined by scrap dealers on both sides,” reads the Wikipedia page entry. “The transformation of JJ Colony in Khadar is underscored by several challenges ranging from the provision of basic amenities, mobility, and the condition of women’s safety.”
This was the first such GSC project to record a neighborhood from a bottom-up approach, in which such places are described by women who live there and mapped according to how they understand their surroundings. (Murray said GSC planned to run a similar project in Bangalore, India, but it was disrupted by the pandemic and ended up largely dependent on interviews.)
Indeed, gender plays a role in Khadar’s public spaces, including in parks, where men play cards or drink alcohol, according to the women who were part of the project. They said men also hang out on intersections and street corners, where harassment can occur — making movement sometimes inconvenient or unsafe for women.
“With India’s aspirational digital and smart city projects, it is important to understand how the architectural transformation affects the marginalized in the society and how their living experiences are defined,” Murray said.
“Our use of the Internet was reserved to Facebook and Google; we could not have imagined writing a page about our colony on the Internet,” said Meera Bhilwara, 32, a Khadar resident and contributor to the page.
As part of the research, the women “also wrote and performed a hip-hop song, ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan,’ ” or “Girls of Khadar,” said Sarita Rao, 24, who grew up in the neighborhood and now runs a local tailoring business. In the song’s YouTube video, the girls rap about the stigma and difficulties of living in a slum resettlement, and report the dark and unsafe corners of the locality.
Apart from mapping the locality in the form of a Wikipedia page, the women also defined how safe the neighborhood is using a mobile app called Safetipin. “Based on certain parameters, walking around the resettlement colony, the women scored spots in terms of safety and accessibility on the digital app,” said Rwitee Mandal, a senior program manager at Safetipin who partnered with GSC.
The free app allows women to audit public spaces on the basis of safety and help others make informed travel choices. On the app, Khadar a safety score of 2.8 out of five.
“The way these women are understanding the city means that that is giving rise to a certain form of knowledge,” Murray said. “Sharing such local knowledge to a larger audience … has no substitute.”