When the Behals shifted to Greater Kailash-1 in 1966, they only had to worry about wolves and jackals prowling in the wilderness at night. Now, Usha Behal dreads stepping out in the daytime because of the incessant traffic. “We used to walk down to the market from our house because it was mostly barren ground. But today, I can’t think of doing it. There is so much traffic and haphazardly parked cars leave no space to walk.”
In half a century, GK-1 has transformed from an affordable, planned colony to prime real estate. The Behals, who were among the first few families to make it their home, remember lush, open lawns and a peaceful neighborhood. The terrace of their house in M-block opened onto a dense jungle on one side and acres of agricultural land on the other.
S K Behal, 89, worked as a fuel superintendent with Burmah Shell at Safdarjung Airport. His double-storey house stood out at a time when most people were building just ground-floor units. And it cost him all of Rs 1.31 lakh: Rs 8,000 for the 500 sq metre plot and Rs 1.23 lakh for construction. Today, he wouldn’t be able to rent the house for a month with that money.
“When we came to Delhi from Lahore after Partition, my mother told me to focus on buying a house. We had to take loans from different banks,” says Behal. “It was money well spent,” adds Usha proudly. Theirs is one of the rare houses in GK-1 to have retained its original character. “Many families sold their houses and moved out. Houses originally meant for one family turned into builder flats with a family on each floor,” says Usha.
DLF plotted and developed GK-1 in the 1950s and ’60s after Delhi government allowed private construction companies to build colonies. Most of the plots were quite large by today’s standards – the norm was 500 square yards while the smaller plots measured 350 square yards. Although land was relatively cheap, the large plots were out of the reach of most locals and were bought up by families displaced in the Partition. The colony developed so quickly that GK-II had to be created in the 1970s.
After the war with China in 1962, many Americans were based in Delhi to train Indian forces. They settled down in GK-1 with their families and the area came to be known as American Colony . Almost every third house, especially in B-block, housed an American family, says M K Gupta, resident of R-block. “They brought a new culture to the area. Their Sunday garage sales were very popular. Whenever a family left, it sold its belongings.”
Flashes of the old GK-1 can still be found on Hansraj Gupta Marg, an arterial road.Old bungalows untouched by the new commercial aesthetic; plain, single-storey houses, and touches of colonial architecture. But many of the spacious bungalows have given way to multi-storey apartments, guesthouses and other commercial establishments.
“The colony’s markets draw shoppers from across the city and footpaths have been lost to parked cars. Property rates are high because GK-I is an upscale locality but life here is not as pleasant as it was till some years ago,” says Manish Gupta, a resident of N-block.
Surrounded by other highprofile and moneyed neighbourhoods, the market was bound to become a commercial hotspot.When the Behals settled in GK1, the now-famous M-block market had just a drycleaner’s and a milk booth. But within two decades it became a magnet for big brands, bars and restaurants.Delhi’s first discotheques outside a five-star hotel–Asylum and Les Caves du Roy–opened here. “But we couldn’t afford going to them,” says Rajiv Kakria, president of E-block RWA. Residents cheered at first as commercialization pushed up realty rates but now the area’s transformation into a buzzing commercial centre has started to hurt. People complain the colony is turning into an “upmarket version of Paharganj” with guesthouses spread all over. There are about two dozen guesthouses along Hansraj Gupta Marg, besides nursing homes and other commercial establishments. The guesthouse business took off after Municipal Corporation of Delhi relaxed its health trade licence policy in August 2008 to increase accommodation before the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Increased pressure on resources from commercial establishments has affected the quality of life. “Parking and traffic congestion are the biggest problems. There should be a cap on the number of guesthouses in the area,” says Kakria. Tejinder Singh, president of M-block RWA, says, “Until a few years ago, we never needed pumps to fill our overhead tanks.” As GK-1 battles an identity crisis, people like “Sharmaji” keep it anchored in the past. Many in GK-1 have grown up – or old – eating Ashwini Sharma’s chhole-kulche. In the 1970s, he started cycling down from Kotla near South Extension to satisfy the neighbourhood’s predominantly Punjabi palate. “My regular customers used to wait for me every afternoon as I went around the block. Sometimes I got catering orders from them. But many of them have moved out.” His son has taken over the mantle of “Sharmaji” now, and sells chhole-kulche in the market for three hours every afternoon.