Brain-dead beauty

October 11th, 2010

On the day of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony, chief minister Sheila Dikshit gave a TV interview in which she managed to appear at once smug and humble. She tut-tutted gently about the mess in the run-up to the Games, when preparations were not directly in her hands, and, because she was far wilier than the interviewer, was allowed to dwell upon what she described as her government’s success at cleaning things up at the last minute. Then she neatly turned the tables on the interviewer by tut-tutting sorrowfully about how self-indulgent and childish the media had been in focusing only on Games disasters while there was such sterling evidence of success: the Yamuna flood relief measures that had been organised at such short notice and on such a large scale. And so on. Plainly you have to get up early to catch this CM on the wrong foot.

One of the more interesting, though perhaps predictable things Dikshit said was in response to a question or two on the apparent banishment of beggars from the streets of central Delhi. Is that democratic and fair, she was asked. No such thing happened, the CM replied, adding contradictorily that anyway several homeless shelters had been put up, and after all, she said sweetly, “If you have guests coming over then wouldn’t you want your home to look beautiful?” (I don’t remember her exact words, but this was roughly it.)

I found this interesting for all sorts of reasons. First, clearly it is true. Yes, with guests on their way, I would like my home to do me credit. Second, it is brazen. It amounts to saying that beggars and urban blight amount to the same thing and are unlovely and for that reason it is OK to hide them away when someone calls. Third, these clearly aren’t your neighbourhood friends visiting. You are not on equal terms with these guests; you hope they will go away impressed.

This is still somewhat OK. One is used to this. The thing is that, beggars (and that’s a catch-all term for all sorts of “undesirables”) aside, the beautification of Delhi has been a curiously brain-dead procedure. In the last several months pavements have been redone in smooth stone not concrete slabs, nicely turned bollards planted to keep automobiles off pavements, kerbs brightly repainted and re-repainted, roads relaid and widened, new streetlamps installed on new poles, walls given fresh coats, new street signage set up, new grass laid down…

So it isn’t a new Delhi that’s come out of all this. (I’m not counting the Metro and airport, because they are not just for the Games.) It’s just a neater version of the old Delhi. And, in the nature of Indian things, it is extremely unlikely to last.

This seems like a great loss, because how often does our government show itself willing and energetic enough to revamp a whole megacity? Could we not have done something a little more interesting than apply spit and polish? Delhiites are not noted for their civic behaviour, so no meaningful change would have been easy to accomplish. But this was a good opportunity to try.

Here are a few things I can think of that we might have tried. Restrain your disbelief as you look through them. Eventually they will have to be done, or else our city will become unlivable, unviable.

1. Greenbelts. We could have revived the Ridge by freezing any further encroachment and turfing out the greedy armed forces. We could have planted belts of sturdy trees around the city, especially toward the west and southwest, to help keep out the desert sand and dust.

2. We could have done more to clean up the Yamuna. We didn’t, and yet the Games Village sits on the Yamuna bed, looking out at ugly road bridges and power plants. That’s ingratitude.

3. Only the top few most-visited historical monuments have got the loving treatment. How about the dozens of important ones, and the hundreds of minor but beautiful ones? Instead another huge chunk of Siri has been scraped clean of trees and sports facilities built on top. This is appallingly stupid and short-term behaviour.

4. Urban farming. Instead of buying ill-treated vegetables from the Yamuna bed and nearby districts, at least some urban demand could be met by urban farming. You might not think it, but Delhi does have plenty of spare land in state and private hands. Tell us how, give incentives, make neighbourhood sales and supply possible.

5. Instead of an isolated luxury “village” for delegates which will later belong to affluent Delhi investors, how about something along the lines of DDA projects for middle-class housing? Here was a chance to get DDA to build to high standards and innovate once again for a better balance between private and communal living (private developers have lost the plot on that).

6. Making Delhi more walkable. It’s not just pavements that are needed. That too, but also something to give them life. A mix of streetside activities, places to sit. Most important, perhaps, covered walks to keep the sun off walkers — ancient Roman and even some Indian cities did this with long, shady, useful arcades along streets. It could be done in many parts of Delhi.

7. Showcasing slums instead of banishing them. The world knows about India’s urban slums, yet, foolishly and pointlessly, we keep trying to hide them. That’s a lost opportunity. Of course, being comfortable with our slums would involve actually allowing them to exist. The middle and upper classes have always needed a pool of servants near at hand. So, try whatever works: providing water and sewerage, legal electricity, small loans, applying basic building standards, ID cards, local council…

8. Really doing something about parking. This argument about less parking = less cars on the road = more people in public transport is not in tune with Indian reality. Have better, ample, paid parking. Change the rate regime, for sure, but give people space to put their cars. Eventually we might all use electric cars, but personal transport is here to stay.

There are lots more. The irony is that such a programme of renewal, and the colossal publicity it would have gathered, might actually have brought us the tide of tourists the Commonwealth Games have not. And we would have been more confident, possibly happier, and probably better off — immediately as well as in the long term.

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