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Sunil Sethi: Delhi's Three-Year Itch


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Economists and urban planners who met in Mumbai recently at a conference to discuss the state of the most populous cities in the world described Delhi's problems as "rapid population growth and large unplanned urbanization". They deplored its stretched-out infrastructure, unaffordable housing and growing slums, traffic congestion and "significant ecological degradation". By 2020, they predicted, the city's population would touch 23.7 million, neck-and-neck with Mumbai, Mexico City, New York and Kolkata and Shanghai will be trailing behind. By 2025 the population is expected to touch 30 million. But Delhi's planners and policy-makers have only one target in mind: a fast and furious varnish job before hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010. It's called the three-year itch.
The city adds about 1,000 cars to its roads a day and a quarter of a million new migrants a year. But dry statistics cannot give the complete picture. Stepping out on the capital's streets is a hazard at any time of day; my short daily drive from home to office "" less than two kilometres as the crow flies "" sometimes seems like a close shave with death. I cross four sets of traffic lights and pass under one flyover. On bad days this brief journey can take upwards of 30 minutes. At peak traffic hours it can be longer.
Take one example of "unplanned urbanisation": at two intersections the roads have been dangerously hived off with low concrete dividers to create new corridors for high-speed buses. A string of flimsy-looking plastic guards, meant to indicate the divisions, are scarcely visible in the stream of traffic. Some have been knocked down. It was only when a couple of two-wheeler drivers died at the spot recently that planners got round to painting the concrete and station traffic marshals with batons to assist the traffic flow. Not that it has helped much. As there are almost no signs to indicate turn-offs, the snarls are horrendous and I am often in a sweat. One wrong turn and I will end up a few kilometres outside my route.
Elsewhere entire pavements have been ripped out to widen streets or lay pipes but the work seems interminable. At some corners, roots of old trees pulled out in the summer remain uncleared months later, a case of "ecological degradation" twice over. Pushed off the sidewalks, pedestrians edge their way perilously through the bumper-to-bumper crawl of vehicles. The Metro, as it spreads its tentacles through the city, has for the moment added to congestion on the streets and to litigation in court. Residents in several parts of the city have filed petitions, protesting that elevated train corridors will add to the noise pollution and wreck their quality of life. Metro officials argue that underground corridors will add Rs 750 crore in costs and cause delays in meeting the deadline for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. To which the High Court pointedly asked whether the Metro was meant for the Games or the people of Delhi?
A letter writer in the paper the other day put the question in another way. How foresighted was the investment in the city's development programmes? Could the outlay in planning flyovers, transport networks and other infrastructure meet the demand in 2020 or was it only a three-year itch? Despite the privatisation of the electricity boards the city reels from power shortage, despite judicial activism illegal construction and encroachments continue, and despite crores spent on attempts to clean the Yamuna, the river remains a cesspool of industrial and human waste.
The paradox is that Delhi is one of the richest parts of the country, with high per capita incomes and a greater visible display of wealth than the rest of urban India. It can afford to plan and execute with ambition for the next 25 years. Rewind to the Asian Games of 1982, when the first flush of building public amenities on a large scale took place. Yet how outdated and inadequate those flyovers and housing projects seem today!
How will Delhi cope with another 10-15 million people once its three-year itch is over?

First Published: Sat, December 15 2007. 00:00 IST