Delhi Reinvents Itself Again — But Just Can’t Clean Up its Act

By Jawahar Malhotra
NEW DELHI, India: A few days ago, on March 12, a huge Indian tricolor on a 207 foot tall pole was raised in the heart of Delhi’s commercial district by the Flag Foundation of India, with hopes that it would send a message of pride, national identity and raise the spirits of people. The flagpole is located at Connaught Place, the center of Sir Edwin Lutyens’ master planned city, just outside the Gate 7 entrance to the Delhi Metro at the junction of Baba Karak Singh Marg, the road that leads to the Hanuman Mandir, all the State Emporiums and the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara.

The 60×90 foot flag is the largest in India and the flagpole is the highest in Delhi, claims Flag Foundation of India President and Member of Parliament Naveen Jindal who was instrumental in getting it installed. Placed within a grassy patch surrounded by flowers; by night, the fluttering flag is illuminated by floodlights mounted at the top of the pole, and ripples run through it as the breeze catches the polyester fabric. The group has installed 12 similar flagpoles, and 33 one hundred foot-tall ones, in 15 states.

Day and night, the flag rises above most of the buildings, the jumble of billboards and the chaotic traffic that goes around Connaught Place. It provides a focal point of undulating color against a blue sky that is hard to miss from all the twelve radial roads that emanate from the central plaza, once the home of Palika Bazar, but now better known as Rajiv Chowk, the central underground crossing point for the Blue and the Yellow Lines of the Metro system, mostly elevated except in the central areas.

The Indian flag hoisted on the new flagpole in Connaught Place
A huge Indian flag hoisted on the new 207 foot flagpole in Connaught Place

“Delhi is known as the City of Seven Cities”, explained tour guide Atul Pandey of Delhi Tourism as he led a group in a small tour bus out towards Agra for a day-long visit to the Taj and other monuments there, and then explained the seven times these plains had been invaded, ransacked and the city center rebuilt over the past 2,600 years, culminating in the New Delhi of today, the core of the 1,484 sq. km. (614 sq. m) National Capital Territory. Driving through the wide, tree-lined boulevards that line the single-story flat-roofed bungalows given to the Ministers, military brass and government elite; past the high-visibility parcels in Chanakyapuri dedicated to the Embassies of other countries; past the monuments, Parliament, Ministries, Presidential Estate and the five-star hotels (of which there are over a score), it is easy to get the impression that this is a clean, opulent, organized, functioning city that would be charming to visit and live in.

But further afield, past the 2,800 hectare area where Lutyen, in the 1920s and 30s, had designed traffic circles connected to each other with spokes of roads; on all sides, the city starts to fall apart with all the decades of neglect in plain sight. Closer to and past the Ring Road – to the south by Dhaula Kuan, the east by the banks of the heavily polluted and sometime barely a trickle Yamuna River, to the north by the Old City of Shah Jahan and the west by Rama Krishna Ashram and New Delhi Railway City, the city of my birth is anything but “New” in the sense of modern. Beyond this circumference, Delhi is a city that is choking on itself from a burgeoning population of people and cars and a total indifference by the city government.

Years ago, as a young boy, I remember being fascinated and fearful by the broken down persistent beggars, the crumbling and uneven sidewalks, bulgingly crowded public double decker buses, mold stained plaster, antiquated construction and road cleaning methods, rustic cottages for Government employees, still called Government Servants, and the tropical, flat roofed private homes in distant suburbs. Other than the cottages and homes becoming three and four stories and taller apartment buildings dotting the suburban horizon, that picture has not changed much. New Delhi has morphed into a larger, more spread out version of its chaotic self, much like the inflation that has eroded purchasing power and made the paisa obsolete and the once sky blue rupee note with Mahatma Gandhi’s picture on it into a forgettable one inch round steel plated coin.

I have visited and come to appreciate this city many times as an adult, and through long sojourns every year for the past ten years and save for a time when preparations were being made for the Commonwealth Games, the city has continued to surround itself with mounds of trash, uneven roads and sidewalks that are a tripping hazard, unsafe and open electrical transformers and wiring, open, smelly sewers and water supply that still stops at any time of the day. There are still cluttered roads that serve four times their capacity, non-existent traffic lanes, disregard for traffic signals, horrendous traffic jams, no detours or safety barricades for road construction and a quaint notion that a series of “flyovers” or overpasses can eventually lead to a freeway in the city.

The dirty streets on west Delhi from a rickshaw
The dirty streets in Dabri Mor in west Delhi from a scooter rickshaw

One morning, by the muddy, chuck-hole infested, dirt filled construction of the flyover that has taken four years to remain unbuilt at the Dabri Mor on the westside, it was like a battle for conquest of the Khyber Pass as an phalanx of scooters, auto rickshaws, battery rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, buses, cars, motorbikes, trucks and pedestrians jostled for every inch, including the non-existent sidewalk where hawkers ply their wares; against another equally determined phalanx of vehicles from the right and they did the Dance of the Wheel to get to the still to not built U-turn; with not a traffic sign, construction barricade, detour, signal light or cop in sight.

The scene was repeated at Mahipalpur near the Indira Gandhi Airport as traffic moved by fits and starts, the motorized phalanx sounding their horns like buzzing angry bees looking to sting as it took four lights to get through an intersection and the four blocks to the Vasant Intercontinnental Hotel. On the way to the Qutab Minar, the entire stretch of road through Malviya Nagar was gridlocked in both directions. By Greater Kailash and towards the Lotus Temple through Nehru Place, traffic refused to move as the jostling continued to unfold.

This was the refrain that my dear father would sing every time he found an audience, either through print media (he used to write for Indo American News) or in person, for the last 25 years of his life while he lived in this city after retirement from the Indian foreign service. “Indians have no sense of discipline”, I can almost hear him saying, “no civic pride and they’ll throw garbage out on the road, as long as it’s not on their property or in their view”. During his lifetime, Delhi only seemed to get from bad to worse, and my father never ceased to admonish people to clean up their act. This year the slide has continued and Delhi seems to have completely thrown in the towel on cleaning up its act. In the 65 years since Independence, sanitary and infrastructure decay has gone on shamefully while other developing cities, like Kuala Lumpur and Manila have conquered these basic necessities.

Nothing has changed since then, it seems, and some neighborhoods have continued to endure the same unsanitary conditions unabated. An open sewer channel on the west side was simply closed in with culvert construction with periodic vents in the median for sewer gases to escape and smell up the surrounding area where a urban village of tiny two story brick homes has evolved from the slums that were there before. There is a stretch of road in Rajouri Garden on the west side that has continued to be unpaved, potholed and uncleaned for the past twenty years. Whole segments near Pitampura and Shalimar Bagh on the northside, near the TV Tower are mounds of garbage. Segments of Gurgaon and Noida are still the unkempt, overpopulated, rural village it once was, even in the shadow of the sleek 28-story skyscrapers. There is a whole four acre lot near my apartment complex in Dwarka on the southwest side that has continued to fill with refuse for the past four years and there is a mound of dirt in the same location for six years.

A trash collection area in Rajouri Garden in west Delhi
An open trash collection area in Rajouri Garden in west Delhi, typical across the city

The Delhi NCT is part of the National Capital Region which includes the neighboring cities of Meerut, Alwar, Baghpat, Gurgaon, Sonepat, Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida and holds over 110 million people. With over 23.5 million, the Delhi NCT is one of the world’s most populous cities at 39,000 people per sq mi. By contrast, Mumbai has one-third the area and about half the population in the city but a density of 60,000 people per sq mi and about the same population for the Metropolitan region while Houston, Texas has a land mass of about 600 sq mi and a population of 2.1 million in the city, with a density of 3,500 people per sq mi, and 6 million for the Metroplex.

But there is another equally impressive yet disruptive statistic that has changed the lives of every Delhiite, the cityscape and society as a whole. Since 1990, the number of vehicles on the roads has grown almost 9 fold from 1.8 million to an estimated 16 million, or 68 vehicles for every 100 persons in the NCT, all vying for the ever shrinking road space. And since everyone is in such a rush, and in many places roads are tiny and parking spaces not available, the whole traffic problem is beyond the control of the local city government. The response was to build over the past 10 years a mostly elevated rail Metro system which now encompasses six lines for a total of 190 km (118 mi) and carries an estimated 2.5 million people every day. The Metro is the twenty-first century pride and crowning achievement of Delhi, and has been quickly copied by other cities in the nation. Most times, it is twice as fast to travel by Metro as by surface transport.

The road on the westside that has been unrepaired for the past 20 years
After a rainfall, a potholed road on the westside that has been unrepaired for the past 20 years

Only four years ago, New Delhi was rushing to complete all the venues and train links for the XIX Commonwealth Games held over 12 days in October, and the mood was jubilant. The economic liberalization and free-market policies of the previous decade had gradually turned the country around from an insular, fortress marketplace to one in which consumerism and materialism rose steadily as more and better products became freely available, resulting in rising incomes for the middle class and creating enormous wealth for those at the top. There was a feeling among the populace that India had come of age and could achieve anything it set its mind to.

Delhi was caught in the forefront of that euphoria and vast projects were announced to coincide with the Commonwealth Games, the smooth operation – visibly plagued by graft and ineptness – of which was to be considered modern India’s shining moment. Fresh coats of paint were applied everywhere, some areas cleaned, new metro buses were put on the roads, and newly designed bus shelters, new projects built, including sporting event venues, a new international airport and the finest airport Spanish subway that industrialist Anil Ambani could acquire in the rush of Public Private Partnerships that flourished then.

Since then, the airport subway does not operate at the envisioned speeds and its rates have gone up 300 percent, reducing its usage to a trickle; the Metro is showing signs of extreme wear and tear, the bus shelters are rundown as are the buses and the city continues to deteriorate even as the elected city Gov. Kejriwal resigned two months after winning, to run for a higher seat in the upcoming general elections. It seems that the city runs on inertia. Over the past six decades, a multitude of local governments have been unable to clean up this city, mostly through a lack of administrative and organizational skills, though they may lament a lack of money.

Creative as Indians are in financing, the excuse of a shortage of money is simply a ruse to avoid their responsibilities to the city that frames most visitors’ first impression of the India they will experience. I took a visiting overseas friend on a scooter rickshaw ride the other day and as she was overcome with the decay, dirt, din and noise of the cultural phenomenon that is Delhi, she covered her nose and mouth with her shawl. I wondered if she liked Delhi, but she just shook her head saying, “It’s not what I expected … it’s just way too much”.