Brain-dead beauty

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October 11th, 2010 Rrishi Raote

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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9 Responses to “Brain-dead beauty”

  1. Rrishi Says:

    Sandy: Thanks. Most of all I like your idea of reducing road deaths. An admirable goal. And, if it had worked, a great advertisement for the city, since India is world-famous for lethal traffic. A while ago in these blogs I wrote about the need, and some ideas, for tougher and cleaner traffic law enforcement.

  2. sandy Says:

    You are not going to like my answer, but I think some more of the “more of the same” is a step in the right direction. All the roads and sidewalks in the city that were not cleaned up, widened, and re-laid should be tackled urgently now. Proper drainage systems need to be worked out and the existing system completely overhauled since it has clearly failed. Since basic road discipline improved over those 15 days, we need stringent punishments including fines and imprisonment for anyone who drives like a moron (the Delhi police will soon become very rich if they implement this). It will prevent road deaths, which in my opinion is worth more than anything else in the world. More monuments should be conserved, and chandni chowk should the next in the list of neighbourhoods that should be renovated on a priority basis. Anyone who has been there would agree that it is the humane thing to do. There is no dignity in living in poverty and squalor. I would like to see the Yamuna properly embanked so it doesn’t flood haphazardly, and the banks greened as promised by the LG. Above all I would really like to see a more responsible media - one which thinks, and investigates and researches issues thoroughly, instead of one and thinks that hysteria and lazy assumptions are a substitute for rigour and discipline.

  3. Rrishi Says:

    Sandy: Thanks. Fortunately I don’t answer for my entire profession. And certainly not in a blog. I’d be happy to hear your own remedial suggestions for this city. (Or indeed for your own American city of residence.)

  4. sandy Says:

    Rrishi, thanks for your detailed reply to my post. Several things: first with regard to the Yamuna, I don’t think anyone will disagree with you that the Yamuna needs a big time clean up job (neither does Kiva). However do remember that thousands of crores have already gone down the drain in this whole clean yamuna project (and another several thousand crores on the clean ganga project). Kiva is right when he says that the scale of the cleaning operation of the yamuna is major and needs a lot more time. I will also add that it needs a lot more commitment from the authorities. But this is where good investigative journalism could be useful (you could have tracked down all the industries that are causing problems to the river, the administrative setup of the department that is supposed to be handling the clean up, their tardy progress, possible corruption etc. etc.). But this is something you guys don’t seem to want to do. Instead you write these short meaningless paragraphs which serve no purpose and only make it appear as though you only want find fault and be armchair critics. Also, on the topic of the yamuna, I remember reading that the LG of Delhi is planning a massive effort on greening the banks of the river. I have never heard anything on this after that news item all those months ago. The media, which should have been following up on this, never did their job. What is the status of this project? Why don’t you report on that? Surely that would go a long way in creating the “greenbelts” that you were talking about?

    As for urban farming, again, I see Kiva’s point completely. Most Indian cities today don’t seem to have enough water to drink, so where is the water for cultivation? And rain water harvesting is still new, hasn’t been adopted across the board, and the reasons for why its adoption still lags is again something good journalism could tell us about.

    BTW I am very familiar with US cities because I live here. So I can say this - it is easy to talk of vegetable patches in cities like SF and its suburbs, but have you considered the size of the property most American home-owners have, and have you compared it with the size of the property Delhiites, and Indians in general have? It has been my experience that even with the very limited space Delhiites do try to grow vegetable plants (in gamlas on roof tops), but they can never come close to the American and British gardening enthusiasts simply because they don’t have that kind of land! You are being illogical. Try comparing cities in India with Tokyo or even New York, where population size and population density is high.

    With regard to the games village - I am afraid, what you consider luxury, all developed countries around the world consider basic facilities. I have seen photos of the games village, and while it doesn’t look like a dilapidated DDA colony, it meets the basic requirements of homes in developed countries. A kitchen with a refrigerator, gas oven, microwave, dishwasher, and garbage disposal are all standard amenities in American apartments, as is a laundry room with a washer and dryer. And most apartment communities in the US have swimming pools and gyms. Yes, the swimming pool for the village was remarkably well designed but that is a good thing. What you guys should be arguing for is homes with similar amenities for all Indians, not whining about the so-called luxury for the athletes. You are sounding like Lalit Bhanot when you make this remark. BTW, there is no way you can get around building an apartment community (aka the village) for multi-event sports. Keeping all these elite athletes in one place makes excellent sense from the logistics and security point of view. Having thousands of athletes scattered about in Delhi’s hotels would have been a logistical and security nightmare.

    I think the basic point of your article (which is not very clear) is that you want to see citizens involved in the urban renewal program - which is probably why you talk of “more of the same” with regard to current initiatives (and which phrase I don’t agree with), but I am afraid your ideas aren’t in the right direction. Doing what suits London and SF may not suit Delhi. You need to keep that in mind. I am all for urban renewal, and India needs it desperately, but your article doesn’t really address that. As I said before, it comes across as a rant than as an investigative piece or as one that offers solutions. But since you seem to be passionate about this topic, I hope you will use the power of the media and your skills as a journalist to dig deeper into the issues, identify what is wrong, and provide viable solutions.

  5. Rrishi Says:

    Sandy: Au contraire, check the transcript of the Dikshit interview online. For example, she said after being asked about beggars (not hoardings): “Don’t you have the right to light up your house on Diwali or whatever festival you may celebrate and are you trying to hide your poverty at that point of time?” Besides, I’m not being unfair to the CM: I called her wily. And she is. Good for her.

    What’s more, please allow that the other commenters are at least ill-informed — besides ill-mannered, I mean.

    Kiva says something silly about armed forces taking up more green land elsewhere if they are turfed out of the Ridge. Is that even an intelligent argument?

    Kiva says the Yamuna cleanup takes too much time. Yes, so what? It has to be done. In the industrial area of Pimpri-Chinchwad near Pune, one wise incoming bureaucrat dealt with the problem of water pollution cleverly: he laid down that water intake pipes should be downstream of waste outlet pipes. That simple regulation forced factory-owners to clean up their waste. Surely we can think laterally to do _something_ about the poor Yamuna? Time? We had seven years to prep for CWG.

    Kiva says athletes expect luxury. No, they don’t. Not all Games hosts build such lavish housing.

    Kiva says urban farming means fertilisers and water shortages. Please, go find out about what many UK towns do — they have lots of rentable citizen vegetable plots — and see what San Francisco has done for urban farming. Who says chemical fertilisers have to be used? Who says enough water is not available if water harvesting is done?

    Sanman says at least that some suggestions were “partially relevant”. The rest, of course, are inane. How about some reasoned counterargument? Or how about, even better, some counter-suggestions?

    Sandy: You’re right that some work has been done on historical monuments. (Righter than I was.) Yes, OK, wider roads. Yes, new buses. But all this, to restate a point I made in the original blog, is essentially more of the same for Delhi. It doesn’t change our paradigm. The fact is, to make our city more genuinely future-ready we have to think beyond new roads and airports and Metro. What makes a city work? What makes it liveable? What makes it economically more sound at a citizen level?

    If we had taken even a few, relatively cheap steps to tackle those long-term issues, we would have gotten a great deal of worldwide attention and admiration. And we would probably have seen more visitors around the CWG. And I, at least, would have been prouder.

  6. sandy Says:

    I agree completely with both Kiva and Sanman, Rishi. This blog is just another pointless rant. While you have spoken about sidewalk beautification and new signages and streetlamps, you have conveniently ignored all the new flyovers, underpasses, and highways that have been constructed (and how kind of you to mention the metro and the airport!). You have similarly forgotten to mention the brand new fleet of modern buses that have begun hitting the roads. At least acknowledge that the buses greatly help the aam admi. There were also new power plants commissioned as a part of these games. None of these are going to disappear in a hurry. BTW all these infra projects, in addition to the metro and the airport took the maximum chunk of the CWG budget.

    A whole bunch of neglected monuments (and not just a handful) were conserved and their surrounds landscaped (how many people even knew about the mutiny memorial?), plus I at least am all for the renovation of CP - which again you haven’t mentioned. Of course a lot more needs to be done in many sectors before Delhi can become a top league city, but please give that some time. And unless you were expecting Delhi to be transformed into New York or Paris overnight, this has been a great start.

    BTW, the ASI has shortlisted more monuments to work on post CWG - I read this in the news some days back, and we hopefully can expect the renovation of Chandni Chowk too sometime. Like Kiva says, I could go on. But I do want to mention one last thing: you are being unfair to Shiela Dkishit. She didn’t mention the right to beautify the city as a part of the discussion on banishing beggars. She said that about the colourful CWG banners that have come up across the city. You need to re-watch the interview.

  7. Rrishi Says:

    Kiva: Sorry, too rude.

    Sanman: Also rude and overfamiliar. But thanks nevertheless for your comments.

    So now, you please do some work: what would _you_ rather had been done with the time and money expended on the CWG preparations? Or are you wholly happy with the sarkar’s choices?

  8. sanman Says:

    Yippee … I have a blog n’ I will write whatever I feel like … sincere request … “Stop being a cynic” … its very easy to find fault in every thing …
    Kindly appreciate all that is good & do something to improve things rather than jus’ throwing suggestions (some partialy relevant & others very inane) while sitting in ivory towers…
    Btw I like most of the stuff you write but this one has gone little overboard … Anyways keep writing …

  9. Kiva Says:

    Yet another pompous clown preaching Delhiites what is good for them..why is it that all such jokers end up in media? Possibly, beacuse they couldnt make it to somewhere better…
    I digress, so let me start from the beginning:

    If the armed forces were to be moved away from the ridge or wherever they are, they would require a lot more land, possibly a lot of green land and then we would again have assorted clowns like the author here claiming green murder. By the way, Delhi cantonment is amongst the greenest parts of Delhi thanks to the armed forces.
    The second point regards the oft repeated claims of pseudo environmentalists out to make a quick statement- clean up the Yamuna. Doesnt work that way, especially if the time period is just a couple of years/months around a single event. The Yamuna clean-up, though a very commendable initiative requires cleanup of all upstream industries and tributaries flowing into the Yamuna. So, its something that will take protracted effort, not a one time junket as the author seems to suggest.
    Games Village: Athletes and foreign delegates expect a certain level of comfort; not being able to provide them on the plea that it is expensive, is a specious idea at best and a spurious idea at worst! If the author is half smart, he could have suggested establishment of accomodation by hotel chains so that the Govt. didnt have to pay for those and the new hotels would have alleviated the room shortage in the NCR. But obviously something as evolved as that would not strike the author!
    Urban farming: Ah yes..take the kitchen garden and turn it into an urban farming plot. I am sure unimportant aspects like minimum farm size, use of pesticides and fertilizers in a high denity milieu, high intensity use of water in colonies that have perennial water shortage are just too complicated for the author’s fertile, but innocent brain!!

    One could, with patience, eviscerate most of the silly points put forward by the author. That said, while one cannot deny ’share of voice’ to every character in India, it would help us all if the sound to noise ratio is significantly improved in such articles.

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