Let’s get the basics right

New Delhi needs more than just grand edifices to join the list of the most liveable cities. Namita Bhandare writes.

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I am dumbstruck by the sheer size and scale of Delhi’s new airport Terminal 3. The capital’s latest edifice heralds “a new India, committed to join the ranks of modern, industrialised nations,” says Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Press reports have bordered on gush: a world class hub, the capital’s pride, an ultra-modern edifice to a country’s aspirations.

I don’t want to rain on this party, yet, I can’t help feeling: great about the airport, too bad about the city.

New Delhi, host to the Commonwealth Games, dreams of becoming a world-class city, a chimera of steel and glass buildings and a network of flyovers that intersect over eight-lane highways where zippy new cars and smart green buses carry people to homes with names like Malibu Towne and Wisteria.

But a city has to be more than the sum total of its monuments. A great city must go beyond physical structures to answer fundamental questions: can we really live here, and if we live here then what is the quality of our life? Can we walk on the streets? Do we breathe clean air? Are we safe in our homes and outside them? Can we access affordable public health? Do we breed tolerance for our neighbours? Most important, is there equity for all citizens?

“There is zero vision for this city,” says Pradeep Sachdev, an architect who specialises in the design of public spaces like Dilli Haat. “You’re lucky if you can manage to cross the street safely.”

New New Delhi is a composite of privately-run nation states, an island city of tightly closed enclaves where the wealthy employ guards at their gates, install generators and hire water tankers for their landscaped gardens. Those who can’t afford to do so, well, take to the streets raging against a system that doesn’t work. Less than a week after the inauguration of T3, there were water riots at Kondli in East Delhi where residents had had no water for the past ten days. Windscreens were smashed and a lathi-charge followed.

If T3 is the capital’s new showcase, then how does Kondli fit into the map? Or are we to believe that we live in a schizoid city — one that’s all broad boulevard and gleaming facade and the other that is chronic deprivation: of water, power, security, open spaces and mobility.

Every year The Economist makes a list of the world’s most liveable cities. The parameters are based on common sense: safety, hygiene, clean environment, the availability of recreational facilities, health care, public transportation and cultural activities. Cities that top include Vienna, Zurich, Geneva, Vancouver, Auckland, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich, Bern, and Sydney. Mumbai and Delhi can be found towards the bottom at 117 and 113 respectively.

Part of Delhi’s problem (and Mumbai’s too) is a population boom. An estimated 380 million live in our cities, up from 290 million in 2001. A McKinsey Global Institute report published in April warns that if our cities continue to grow at this rate, we will be staring at an endemic water shortage, mountains of untreated sewage and daily urban gridlock.

Delhi’s problems — air quality, sanitation, sewage disposal, public transport, traffic — are big, but not insurmountable. Air quality, in fact, has improved vastly after the introduction of CNG buses. Delhi’s Metro continues to function efficiently and increasingly active resident welfare associations are ensuring more citizen participation.

Ironically, Delhi has the potential to make the cut to that coveted list of most liveable cities. We have history, beautiful monuments, open spaces, seasons, a vibrant cultural life, great street food, the exuberance of our citizens (yes, I know, south of the Vindhyas they think we’re a bunch of uncouth bullies who jump queues and shout, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’).

But more than grand buildings, T3 included, this city needs to just get the basics right: water, not waterfalls; power, not glitzy neon; pavements, not freeways.

The fact that we can build a Metro, that we can build a world-class airport terminal is proof that we can do it. The point is: will we?

*Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

Namita Bhandare’s Another Day and Pratik Kanjilal’s Speakeasy will appear every alternate week

(The views expressed by the author are personal)