Using an OSAE to Learn about Life in Two New Delhi Hutments

Using an OSAE to Learn about Life in Two New Delhi Hutments

Weller, Kay E


This manuscript is a description of personal observations of two hutments in New Delhi, India. Data was gathered from my hotel window using the OSAE method of landscape observation. The OSAE is the method I use to understand processes that can be seen when studying a landscape. It is the most useful tool I have ever used when teaching geography. This manuscript includes components of an OSAE, observations of a specific New Delhi hutment, and a suggestion about how to use this information in the social studies classroom.


Scholars and researchers write volumes about poverty at all scales; local, regional, national, and international. Statistics are cited supporting theories and offering solutions to serious social and health-related issues associated with poverty. However, scholarly work provides a sterile environment for the reader isolating him or her from the sights of abject poverty. It was not until the author spent a few days in a New Delhi hotel in India, that she thoroughly “observed” the reality, or day to day activities, of living in poverty. Being able to clearly view the neighboring hutments provided a visual experience unparalleled here in the United States where poverty is often hidden. This manuscript provides a description of the geography of two New Delhi hutments.

The following manuscript includes a description of the author’s observations, speculations about the hutments and data gathered from an interview and lecture while in New Delhi. Hutment is the word used to define India’s slum areas (O’Hare 1999). These slums often lack appropriate and healthful necessities such as safe drinking water and proper waste disposal.

This author has successfully used the OSAE method of observing the landscape in classes from fourth grade to graduate level during her teaching experience. It is the method the author uses most often when traveling, when walking, or just observing from a window or looking at a photo. The author decided to use the time in the Nikko hotel in New Delhi to do a window OSAE of two hutments within view and directly behind the hotel. This method includes observations, speculation about the observation analysis of information and data acquired, and an evaluation of the hutments observed.

Hutments and poverty in India

According to a lecture by Dr. Tewari (Tewari 2003), the poverty line in India is considered US $60 per month per household. He stated that approximately 30-40% of India’s population are classified as living below this poverty line. These people lack jobs, hygiene, shelter, education, and generally have large families. The result of rural poverty is often migration to India’s urban areas.

Migration is the movement of people in search of a better place to live. The decision to migrate is based on push pull factors at an origin and at a destination. The decision also must take into account the intervening obstacles people may encounter in the process of migrating (Lee 1966). In the model below there are positive, negative, and neutral factors associated with both the origin and destination. It is when there are more negative factors associated with the place of origin and more positive factors associated with the destination that people migrate. In the case of India and its hutments, it is often the lure of possible jobs in a city and drought and crop failure in rural areas that cause people to migrate.

When destitute immigrants arrive in India’s major cities they have no income source and often live on illegally occupied land. They are sometimes coerced into letting the local Mafia help them acquire illegal services, for a price, such as water and electricity. Most are unaware that there is a Slum Improvement Board that will help them secure legally those needed services (Tewari 2003).

According to O’Hare, Abbott, and Barke (O’Hare 1999) over half of the population in Mumbai live in abject poverty crowded into slums and hutments located in unhealthy environments. Reasons for this situation include strong population in-migration and growth. People continue to arrive from rural areas that had suffered a drought for about two years prior to the author’s arrival. Another factor contributing to this influx into Mumbai was an emphasis on capital-intensive industries and the need for a low-wage informal sector. Yet another reason for this phenomena in Mumbai is a lack of public investment and restrictions in the land and rental housing market. In addition, in Mumbai subsidized transport systems allow impoverished people access to live and work within the city. The failure of city government to cope the urban poor is attributed to inadequate city housing policies. These policies include slum clearance, construction of high-rise apartment blocks to a range of self-help strategies and current privatized market-led schemes. Although this information relates specifically to Mumbai it is likely that most of those factors contributing to hutment growth there apply in other cities, including New Delhi.

The author when traveling hutments observed throughout the country. They varied little other than in location. Some were on the outskirts of cities. Many were located directly adjacent to the railroad tracks. It was apparent that the largest numbers of impoverished people living in hutments were on the outskirts of cities. For example, on the outskirts of Mumbai hutments line the railroad tracks for several miles prior to arriving within the city limits. In other places there were hutments located along roadways and near rivers.

Open Space. Located immediately behind the hotel was a rather large open space. Open space is the term used in this manuscript to identify a large area immediately behind the hotel that did not have a business or residential building on it. This open space was equivalent to the space occupied by the hotel and its surrounding grounds (see Map 1). If a space this size is available adjacent to a luxury hotel in the United States it is likely it will be used for a parking ramp or other commercial business. The author’s initial speculation was that it must be used at some time during the year for crops of some kind. However, this was the monsoon season and there was no evidence of crops of any kind dispelling that notion. Vegetation consisted only of weeds and small shrubs. Because it was the monsoon season every low spot located in the open space held pooled rain. This led to speculation that those water pools are the home to malaria carrying mosquitoes creating a serious health problem for hutment occupants.

Directly behind the hotel wall were heaps of rubbish. Dr. Tewari (Tewari 2003) from the Urban Planning Institute said in his lecture that New Delhi has a waste management program. Based on the piles of rubbish visible from the hotel window it would be difficult to believe that this program adequately serves these two hutments.

Early one morning the author observed a woman searching through the rubbish. One can speculate that hutment dwellers hope to find items they may need in rubbish heaps.

Another time a rat was observed crawling along the hotel wall. That was not an unexpected sight.

One day three men brought a hand pushed cart of garbage and dumped it into the rubbish pile in the corner by the hotel wall (see Map 1). It was impossible to determine the source of the garbage and why it was brought there if there are city waste management sites. One thing that surprised the author was the number of people walking barefoot through the open space, including the trash heaps. That was not a safe thing to be doing and could be the source of injury and/or illness.

Hutments. Looking to the left of the open space was a large hutment. It consisted of at least 100 small tents and other very small huts. Looking to the right was a bank. Huddled against the back wall of the bank were two tents and one hut (See Map 1). This small hutment was only about 50 feet from the hotel back wall. The close location was such that the author had numerous opportunities to observe life as it is for many of India’s impoverished people.

Later it was learned that the large open space was at one time a gigantic hutment. The residents had been relocated to the outskirts of the city at the request of the hotel prior to purchase. However, the cycle continues and people return to re-settle in hutments in the neighborhood or new poverty stricken immigrants come to the cities from rural areas resettling in established hutments (Baloni 2003; Tewari 2003).

Tent construction consists of blue tarps with wood or cardboard sides for rigidity. Sometimes there are large sheets of clear plastic over the tops of the tents. This seemed ironic in a place where is an export burlap that the demise of the jute industry has resulted in a substitute of synthetic materials for a local product. The tents appeared very small to the author. They seemed to be no larger than what are called four-person tents in the United States. Based on observations they ofter provide shelter for more than four persons. Some hutment shelters appeared to be made of small mud bricks. These bricks must be cured/baked in some way or they would disintegrate during the monsoon. That did not seem to be happening. Some of the shelters seemed to have old pieces of tin helping keep out the rain. In other words, the hutments were constructed of materials easily accessible to even impoverished people. Perhaps the tents were intended to be a short term solution to shelter for those using them. Appearances, however, indicate that they were actually used for long periods of time, perhaps several months or years.

Near the large hutment (see map 1) there was a building that appeared to be a public latrine. Early in the morning and again in the evening there were long lines of women waiting to use the facility. Only occasionally did the author see men going in and out of the building. It was impossible to determine whether or not there were showers in the facility or simply a few toilets.

No where could the author see a public water source, from the window. However, there were two water towers near the hotel so within walking distance perhaps a public hydrant was located nearby. The author did observe the people in living behind the bank kept what appeared to. be liquid, likely water, in plastic jugs. Each day one of the women took her jugs and returned approximately five to fifteen minutes later. The water was sometimes emptied into a bucket that was used for washing and other activities. The women seemed to work cooperatively. One tended children while one of them went for water and other necessities. According to Tewari (Tewari 2003) water is available for only one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. This explains why the women left early carrying plastic jugs. Residents and businesses store their water in tanks located atop the buildings so that it is available throughout the day. However families in the hutments have only the amount of water they can carry between a water source and their hut.

Daily activities. Activities took place in the hutments from dawn to dusk. There were seldom lights in the hutments at night. This led the author to wonder whether people sit and visit in the evening or if they simply sleep so that they are able to be up and around early in the morning. That question was never answered because this author was unable to interview hutment residents.

Activities were many and varied in the open space. Hogs roamed the area eating anything they could find. Each evening they retreated around the corner of the bank. They apparently knew where they were to go at night. Never once did the author observe anyone caring for them in any way or coming to get them in the evening hours. Street dogs rested among the weeds and in dryer spots. The surprise was that at no time were there cattle in this open space. With the number of cattle roaming the streets the author expected roaming cattle would find the vegetation and come to graze there. There is one explanation to this, however. Cattle are wealth and hutment residents are desperately poor. Baloni (Baloni 2003) said that cattle roaming the streets know where they belong and return to their owners at night. Because hutment residents did appear to own livestock perhaps owners would not be taking them to this open space to graze. The above are examples of the type of questions observers ask when using the OSAE Method.

People from the hutments, as well as passersby, used the area as a latrine. Lack of public toilets seemed to contribute to this situation. Public toilets are a scarcity in New Delhi. Children play in these same places. This lack of sanitary facilities no doubt contributes to local health problems.

The author observed two bicycles in the larger hutment and one in the hutment behind the bank. In India bicycles are a mode of transportation, not a leisure activity for children and adults. Access to bicycle transportation was likely very important to these impoverished people.

One thing that remains a mystery to the author is the work of a trio of men. They had a piece of very old machinery that appeared to be some sort of tiller. They made what appeared to be one small furrow and then seemed to be planting something. After that the men spent the time working on the machinery. However, a day or so later the machinery was in an upright position and looked much different. Eventually, four men returned to work on the machine. Apparently they did not accomplish their goal because eventually it disappeared without being used.

Hutment children have few opportunities to be children, at least by Western standards. For example, children from the hutments did not seem to attend school. School children were easily spotted walking through the area because in India each school has a unique uniform. The children from the hutment did not have uniforms. A few boys were observed playing some sort of games from time to time. They threw rocks into the small water pools, used what appeared to be a cricket bat or stick, and some were flying kites. The kite seemed to be the only real toy the children had for amusement. The kites these children were flying were not as colorfully decorated as some offered for sale in nearby shops. All children observed were boys. This left the author speculating about what the girls were doing while the boys were playing? Were they begging? Were they working in nearby flats? It left much room for speculation as to their whereabouts. The author was saddened by seeing children have so few opportunities to play or be educated. This conclusion about the life of impoverished children is an example of evaluations that can be reached while using the OSAE to observe a landscape.

Many Indian children regularly risk injury begging in the streets and going from auto to auto hoping for a small coin. According to Denish Baloni (Baloni 2003), the Indian government does not want people, although well meaning, to support begging activities. Sometimes people do anyway resulting in a perpetuation of the practice. It is likely that children living in the hutments were begging on the streets during part of the day.

It surprised the author how many working people regularly use the area in the corner of the open space and two openings in the walls as a pathway from the street to somewhere else (See Map 1). They were easily identified as working middle class people because men wore dark slacks and light colored long sleeved shirts and women were dressed in colorful saris. The author kept wondering how the women walking on that muddy path kept their saris so clean with all the rain and mud during the monsoon season.

Only once did the author see the people living behind the bank eating. There seemed to be no fires for preparing food in the evening in the larger hutment either, however, the distance was such that actually observing that kind of activity was not possible. However, Baloni (Baloni 2003) told me that the Sikh Temple, located within walking distance of the hutments, feeds about 6000 people twice per week. He believes that many of the people living in the hutments go there on a regular basis. The author also believes that is likely the case because of the impoverished condition of the hutment dwellers observed.

Normal daily activities for the women in the hutment behind the bank included sweeping the area around their tents. They seemed proud of their meager accommodations by keeping them as clean as possible. This is perhaps a cultural value common among women of many cultures. The author noticed the same thing while observing women in Nigeria and Mexico, regardless of their economic circumstances.

The adult males in the tents behind the bank seemed to be unemployed, other than jobs by the day. They did not regularly leave and return as if going to a steady job. Additionally, one day two men came and spoke at length with the hutment adult males. Looking at the bags of materials stacked behind the bank by the mud hut leading to speculation the men were discussing the bags. They were well dressed so they were obviously not hutment residents. Later the men living behind the bank were observed putting the large bags inside the hut. Perhaps the men living behind the bank do maintenance of some sort for the business on an “as needed” basis. It is not uncommon for squatters to be working at day jobs located near their settlement. Both men and women may work as domestics in nearby middle class homes and apartments or even for the bank where they are located (Baloni 2003).

Hutment demographics

The author estimates that between 3 GO500 people are living in these two hutments. Observations led to the conclusion that nine people were living in the two tents behind the bank. There were three children in one tent and two in the other. All occupants are rather young based on the size of the children. Each family has a young child that appears to be less than one year old because neither was observed walking. There was also a toddler in each family and one family had another rather young child who looked to be no more than five years old. The interaction between the adults in this hutment led me to speculate and believe that the families may have been related or at least acquainted prior to arrival in New Delhi.

The author was unable to observe the squatters in the large hutment as easily to determine their demographics. However, observations led the author to conclude that there were children of various ages living there. This was based on the observations of children flying kites and later returning to the large hutment, small children with what were probably their mothers waiting at the latrine, and mothers carrying infants. The author’s conclusion was that the large hutment had a wider age range of residents than the two tents behind the bank.

Nearby services

Baloni (Baloni 2003) says that even those who live in tents and on the streets can go to government hospitals for care. If they take in their children the children receive inoculations. Immediately to the left of the hotel there was a health clinic of some kind. It was difficult to determine exactly what kind of health services were available but believe that this is likely one government run urban health center in New Delhi where hutment dwellers can come for medical assistance. This conclusion was based on observations made when walking by the clinic.

One afternoon the author took a walk going left out of the hotel. There were many kinds of shops available within a five-minute walk of the hutment dwellers where they can get goods and services, if they have the money. For example, there was a shop stocking such things as chips and crackers. Also available were several places to purchase clothes, which looked used because they were not very clean. Of course that could be due to pollution. There was one shop where men were sewing clothing as well. Other services included a furniture shop, a chemist, and a vocational school advertising a typing course. City buses provide transportation in the area for those who can afford it.

An auto-rickshaw driver (small two passenger transportation) guided me to a cottage industries emporium. It housed a variety of good quality hand Grafted items. There were signs in the emporium stating their carpets were made without child labor. The author was skeptical of the signs, especially when the author observed what appeared to be teenagers making carpets in Jaiper and that the issue of child labor and carpets in India has been a topic of news stories in the past. However, critics must remember that when the child does not earn money it may not eat. The choices people living in poverty must make are not easily understood and appreciated by those of us living elsewhere. This emporium would not have been a resource for the residents in the hutments, but rather by other shop owners or middle class people looking for quality hand made products as well as hotel tourists.

The author found yet another hutment immediately across the street from the emporium and only ten minutes from the hotel (See Figure 4). This led the author to speculate about the spatial distribution and number of hutments within walking distance of the hotel. The author was unable to pursue this issue.

Dilemmas associated with administering hutments

Dr. Tewari stated, in his lecture, that population is the largest problem urban India faces. He said that cities cannot keep up with their growth in such areas as streets, education, and housing for the poor (Tewari 2003). It is obvious that this is the case. Providing adequate education, even rudimentary, for such large numbers of young children seems to be an impossible task. The children were in school while the author was doing the OSAE. All school children wear uniforms. None of the children coming and going from the hutments behind the hotel was wearing a school uniform. That indicates that hutment children were not attending school only exacerbating the problems of urban India.

Evaluation based on the window OSAE

After spending considerable time observing the two hutments behind this author’s hotel and thoughtfully considering the information/data gathered from Dr. Tewari (Tewari 2003) and Mr. Baloni (Baloni 2003) the author evaluated the situation and concluded the following about life in India’s hutments.

Clearly there are large numbers of impoverished people living in hutments not only in New Delhi but throughout India. It seems to this author that there is little that can and will be done to alleviate the hutment problem and the abject poverty associated with them. The scale of the population at over one billion is so large that government at all levels are overwhelmed in coping with the large numbers of rural to urban migrants. The programs discussed by Dr. Tewari, though helpful, are simply inadequate to meet the needs of millions of India’s hutment dwellers.

There is growing industrialization taking place in India, which tends to pull migrants to cities. When India experiences drought, as they have recently, it exacerbates urban problems by attracting even more migrants to India’s urban centers.

It is unlikely that much will change. As the population continues to grow, due to population momentum, even more urban dwellers are likely to live in hutments. The author is concerned that at some point there will be some major health disaster that will spread very quickly among these urban dwellers resulting in large numbers of deaths of impoverished people. The result of a widespread illness will be catastrophic for these people.

It would be nice to say that by using the OSAE and spending considerable time observing people in poverty going about their daily routines that the author now understands their situation. Unfortunately that is not the case. It is incomprehensible to people living in places with adequate shelter, food, and clean water to understand the impoverishment of India’s hutment dwellers.

Using the OSAE in the classroom

The author’s favorite way of teaching the geography of landscape reading is to use an OSAE (Salter 1994). The OSAE is a useful teaching strategy for all ages of geography students. The author has used it in classrooms from grade four through doctoral students. It is essential for students learning geography to be able to understand the landscape. The OSAE methodology provides the framework for doing that. The acronym OSAE is explained as follows: 1) O refers to observation of the landscape and associated phenomena; 2) S refers to speculation about what is seen during the observation; 3) A refers to analysis of the observation and speculation by gathering data; and 4) E refers to the evaluation of what is observed on the landscape based on the speculation and analysis.

The OSAE strategy can be used not only during a field experience, but by observing the landscape from a window or even by looking at photos/pictures and slides in the classroom. Often teachers would like to take students to inaccessible places so using this strategy works nicely with photos illustrating the location under study.

When using the OSAE for a field experience I prefer to divide older students into small groups with a leader for each group. Frequently I send four groups out in four directions from a central point. One person makes a sketch map of the area traversed, others asks questions of people about a building, business, road, or other phenomena they find, and one member records what they are learning on a matrix provided, similar to the one provided. At a prearranged time the groups reconvene at a designated place for a debriefing. During the debriefing the class discusses what each group saw and what they learned during the analysis. It is at that time students make evaluations about the area. Questions teachers may want answered can include the following: Is the area viable for commercial development? Is transportation adequate and safe for the area? Is the area safe from crime? What is the environmental impact of some phenomena in the area? Are services convenient for meeting the needs of residents in the area? The list depends upon what is being observed and what the objectives of the course or class may be.

Should anyone reading this like to do a photo OSAE of India in your classroom it is suggested that one access the Geographic Alliance of Iowa It can be accessed at You can download the photos and use them in the following manner. Project the photos on a screen. Have students complete a matrix similar to the one below which is based on Map 1 and Figures 1 through 4:

After students complete the matrix the author uses a written assessment as part of the class evaluation.

Teaching students to “read” a landscape and analyze what they see is one of the most important steps to creating critical thinkers. The OSAE has been the most effective way this author has ever used. Try using a local landscape and perhaps expanding the technique through photographs such as the example of this manuscript.


Baloni, D. (2003). K. Weller. New Delhi, India.

Lee, E. S. (1966). “A Theory of Migration.” Demography 3: 47-57.

O’Hare, G., Abbott, D., & Barke, M. (1999). “A’ review of slum housing policies in Mumbai.” Cities 15(4): 269-283.

Salter, C. (1994). Cultural Geography as Discovery. Rereading Cultural Geography. K. Foote, University of Texas Press: 429-436.

Tewari, V. (2003). Issues in India’s Urban Planning K. Weller. New Delhi, India.

Kay E. Weller, University of Northern Iowa

Previous Student of Dr. Ben A. Smith

Copyright University of Northern Iowa Fall 2005

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