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Delhi — India’s Belligerent Metro

Omkar Goswami


On the Ides of March, as I was preparing for another day at office, my mind was a total blank about what I should write for this column. There was enough on the budget; I didn’t want to write on the economy; and despite the shenanigans of Mr. Syed Sibte Razi, I just couldn’t find a topical ‘hook’ to write on. The theme came in a trice as I manoeuvred the car out of the parking lot and into my lane.


Barring possibly Golf Links and Sundar Nagar, every South Delhi colony is now prey to builder-developers. Many of today’s widows and pensioners belonging to the softer Delhi of the 1970s, who built wonderful houses with gardens are now forced to sell them for cash. The builders offer them some money and one flat, and then proceed to break all zoning laws to construct three-or-four-storied multi-apartment monsters that cover every square yard of the plot. As if that were not all, they build huge basements which eventually house outsourced call centre operators or direct sales agents.


The immediate upshot of such wanton growth in construction is the clogging up of South Delhi’s lanes. A house that originally had two cars now becomes a multi-storied block that has to accommodate eight to ten. Parking spaces that were traditionally reserved for each house soon become the battleground for irate drivers. And while such monsters are being constructed, the lane gets choked by stone chips, bricks, sand, marble and never ending rods of Tor steel. The sound of construction becomes all pervasive — even at 7.30 in the morning of a Sunday, when the only thing you want is to drink your tea, read the papers and perhaps listen to music.


I faced one such builder that day. Between the bricks, steel rods and a water tanker, there was hardly any place for my car to squeeze through. When I asked him to make the space, he looked at me as if I was an alien creature making absurd demands. After several minutes of an unpleasant argument, he reluctantly instructed his contractor to move the steel rods just enough for the car to barely pass — but did so with the belligerence that epitomises the new Delhi. As far as he was concerned, the building site was his; therefore the road in front was also his; and who was I to ask him to be more civic minded?


Soon after, I started thinking about Delhi’s increasingly fierce assertiveness, and could think of two explanations. First, there has been a phenomenal growth in the income and wealth of Delhi and its environs over the last two decades, coupled with an unparalleled influx of people. And second, with this increase in incomes, the wonderful North Indian entrepreneurial attitude of “Everything is attainable” has rapidly morphed to “Anything is possible”. A positive entrepreneurial force has been substituted by the negative force of power — best described by an idiom, “Jiski lathi uski bhains” (“He who wields the stick will capture the buffalo”).


Therefore, every infringement and law-breaking is par for course since everything can be fixed; why TV cameras catching sales tax employees wantonly taking bribes makes no difference to corruption; why contracts between individuals can be reneged and payments refused if one is more powerful than the other; why builders demand over 60 per cent of the value of a flat in cash, knowing full well that it is there to be given; why stealing water by drilling extra-deep illegal bore wells is considered clever; why no queue is worth standing in; why car, buses, trucks, two- and three-wheelers jump red lights, as if the colour meant nothing; why rigging taxi and auto rickshaw meters is acceptable; why under-age kids are encouraged to race their fathers’ cars with boom boxes at full blast; why women still have to tolerate lewd remarks and gestures of sundry men; why the city’s language has the highest rate of verbal abuse for every sentence uttered; and why every wrong action is buttressed by extreme, often violent, aggression.


No other metropolis in India is as constantly confrontational as Delhi. Is it the money? Or the people? Or the North Indian ethos? Or all three?


Published: Business world, March 2005


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