Millennium Post

Delhi, long way still

An event at Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) required us panellists to spell out our understanding of a ‘World Class’ city. When it was my turn to speak, the audience seemed to take some time to fathom my preference for a ‘healthy city’ as a ‘world class’ city-actually, what I said was a ‘city sans hospitals’ is a world class city.

A ‘healthy city’ would possess healthy air, water and soil. Three things that would ensure that its residents get to breathe fresh air, drink wholesome water and eat healthy food. In case of a mega-city like Delhi, it would also require healthy and safe system of transportation to and from work, markets, schools, parks and homes.

Clearly, once a healthy city status has been achieved, then why would a city require hospitals of various sizes and sophistication, in all its nooks and corners?  Can Delhi (‘Dilli’ and ‘Dil-wali’ as it loves to call itself), desperate for a world class status, claim the honour on a healthy city scale? The answer is a big NO! Let me explain why.

When I first came to work and live in Delhi in the mid-1990s, the city was teary-eyed each morning from overbearing air pollution. That was when the group housing society that I then resided in had no more than four to five cars. It was the poison-spewing diesel run public transport buses and autorickshaws (three wheel taxis) that were primarily responsible for the irritating and discomforting air quality of the city.   Thanks to a sustained campaign by (late) Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain of Centre for Science and Environment and the apex court’s steadfast directions, by early 2000 the city of Delhi had considerably improved its ambient air quality through large-scale conversion of its public transport system from diesel to CNG.

But that was also the time when a feverish spree of private car acquisition abetted by easy bank loans began in the country so much so that today the city lungs are yet again on the verge of break-down. The large number of private vehicles (largely diesel) out on the roads have worsened the city’s ambient air quality in a throwback to the notorious mid-1990s.

Delhi is one of the over-supplied mega-cities in the world in terms of water. Delhi Jal Board (DJB) claims to provide 50 gallons per person per day to the city. Majority of this water is sourced from the river Yamuna (city’s life-line river) and from below ground. Some water comes from the Ganga and the Satluj via canals originating from the Tehri and Bhakra dams respectively.

But one only needs to visit the Yamuna river in Delhi to fathom the quality of city’s primary water provider. The sickness of the river in the city adequately mirrors the city’s overall health. This sickness has built gradually and stream by stream when the city allowed its storm water drains to be polluted and abused no end, realising little that the end destination of all solid and liquid waste carried in these drains is the river. The river is now gasping for breath, its life-sustaining water having been taken forcibly away from it some 200 km upstream of Delhi.  Delhi’s official website carries a list of 369 villages. Most of these villages had farmland that raised varied crops to feed the city dwellers.

An explosion, post Independence, in the size of the city and its human population has led to the city swallowing its villages and their farmland (not sparing even the life line river’s flood plains) for conversion into houses, offices, commercial and industrial spaces, roads and even landfills. Very little farmland is now available within Delhi to raise and provide it with supplies of  grains and fresh vegetables. The city is thus left with little option but to import food stuff from close and far off and to consume food items of uncertain origin, quality and at prices that shoot through the roof.  If only the city would value its remaining villages and farmland over the marauding forces of urbanisation!

With more than 7 million private vehicles, and 16 million people, Delhi has one private vehicle per 2.3 persons. Often called the city of fly overs, it is now overwhelmingly a city of cars, not withstanding the popular Delhi Metro rail or the recently acquired swanky CNG buses by the Delhi Transport Corporation or DTC.  If any proof was required that it is the private car owner that dictates terms on the roads in this city of more than 30,000 km of road length, then it is the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) fiasco. Under trial since 2008, and only a 5.7 km-long stretch from Ambedkar Nagar to Mool Chand, the BRT track and infrastructure is still in place but the requisite regulations and the discipline required for it appears to have been thrown to the winds.

Such massive numbers of private vehicles on the city roads have literally pushed the non-motorised transport (read cycle and cycle rickshaws etc) users to either the very margins or to the midst of notoriously dangerous road space in a city that otherwise prides itself on its wide roads and a large number of flyovers.  What happened to Sunita Narain, the cycle rider, on the fateful Sunday morning when a red car hit her and sped away unconcerned, has exposed fully the pretensions, if any, that Dilli might have carried of its world class status or being a Dil-waali (large-hearted). On hind sight, if only the storm water drains in the city had been developed as greenways and non-motorised transport corridors instead of being covered and converted into raods and parking spaces, then possibly Sunita would not today be lying with bruises and fractured limbs on a hospital bed in this proven ‘sick’ city.

Down to Earth

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