Urban Studies Delhi
Anish Vanaik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0011


Delhi has a unique place among the three big metropolises of India. Compared to Mumbai and Kolkata, Delhi’s history is much older: stretching back to the 12th century. Its growth in size, however, is much more recent. From a population of a little over a million in 1951, Delhi and its satellites—the National Capital Region (NCR)—had a population of over eighteen million in the 2011 census. In fact, Delhi’s urban history can be divided neatly at independence. Before that time, Delhi’s urban form reflected its repeated (but not continuous) status as a setting of political power. For the period of explosive urban growth after independence, scholarship about planning initiatives and their discontents abounds. There are excellent accounts of the movement from high-modernist planning to the more recent invocations of making Delhi a world-class city. Inadequate housing and repeated displacements of the poor are keynotes in this scholarship. Social movements, particularly those of the urban poor, have been an important theme from the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. Alongside spatial conflicts over planning, there is a rich vein of empirical work, and some theorization, of the ways in which political mobilizations around religion have shaped the city. Scholars have also dwelt on the complicated structure of urban governance in Delhi—as national capital and burgeoning metropolis, as an urban region that spans four separate provinces, as a megacity engulfing rural pockets, and as an administrative and commercial center ringed by an industrial periphery. Urban interventions aimed at improving Delhi’s environment have also been a topic of scholarly study. Thus, the expulsion of so-called polluting industries in Delhi, on the one hand, has gone together with the emergence of industrial zones in the peripheries of the NCR. Broadly speaking, the scholarship on historical urbanisms in Delhi points to the ways in which shifting structures of power generated urban forms in the Delhi landscape. Unsurprisingly, one manifestation of this long history has been in the active presence of heritage discourses. There is a particularly rich literature on the ways in which the present and the past coexist in modern Delhi, and the multiple possibilities for place-making opened up thereby. The author would like to thank Deepasri Baul and the anonymous reviewer for their suggestions.

General Surveys and Reference Works

No single work has tried to cover the entire history of Delhi. More typical have been edited volumes such as Chakravarty and Negi 2016 and Dupont, et al. 2000, which aim to cover a large range of historical periods or themes across Delhi’s history. Both these volumes cover planning efforts, historical themes, and fine-grained studies of particular areas. Guerrieri and Menon 2017 is a collection of historical maps of Delhi. It depicts the transformations in the urban area from the 19th to the 21st centuries. The few general historical narratives about the city tend to cover large periods. Gupta 1981 is the key text for the colonial period from 1803 to the 1920s. Bhan 2016 is a useful account of postcolonial planning from the 1950s onward. Its main focus, though, is to theorize a modern cityscape that seems to have no legitimate place for the poor.

  • Bhan, Gautam. In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship, and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi. Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2016.

    Bhan highlights how the poor have been pushed to the margins of Delhi through a confluence of new economic thought, planning discourse, and its authoritarian enforcement. Post-independence planning was in effect built to fail. Regardless, Bhan argues for the salience of urban planning within the strategies of resistance by the poor. Drawing on postcolonial urban theory, Bhan’s work provides both a succinct overview of postcolonial planning and innovative theoretical insights.

  • Chakravarty, Surajit, and Rohit Negi, eds. Space, Planning and Everyday Contestations in Delhi: Exploring Urban Change in South Asia. New Delhi: Springer, 2016.

    Covers an impressive variety of topics, including planning, governance, the economy, and transportation. Other essays dwell on the experiences and modes of struggle of the urban poor. An excellent showcase of the diversity of urban studies approaches in modern Delhi.

  • Dupont, Véronique, Emma Tarlo, and Denis Vidal, eds. Delhi: Urban Space and Human Destinies. New Delhi: Manohar, 2000.

    Has a balance of specific studies and broad overviews. For those beginning to study Delhi this volume offers useful overviews of planning and demographic changes, its place in the broader urban system, and a chronology of important events. The collection also contains empirical studies focused on marginalized groups in squatter settlements, homeless people, and those from the peri-urban areas of Delhi.

  • Guerrieri, Pilar Maria, and A. G. Krishna Menon. Maps of Delhi. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2017.

    A thoughtful selection of maps of Delhi and the Delhi region from the early 19th century until the mid-1960s. Two maps—the zoning maps of the master plans created in 1990 and 2001 showing the subsequent expansion of Delhi are also included. A brief commentary, informative rather than analytical, accompanies each map. All the maps are from official archives and offer a cartographic view of Delhi’s expansion.

  • Gupta, Narayani. Delhi between Two Empires, 1803–1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981.

    Justly considered the magisterial history of Delhi from 1803 to the 1920s. Based on formidable primary research, it sketches a portrait of a city with a vibrant cultural life that was snuffed out in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857. While a narrative arc is provided by these events, Gupta also touches on municipal initiatives, economic transformations, and communal clashes. This is a political and social history engagingly written and rich in detail.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.