October 17, 2022 Sujeev Shakya

Delhi musings


Driving through the heart of town, you cannot but admire the trees on both sides of the road.

Thirty years ago, two issues were talked about when I spent a few months in New Delhi to sit for my final Chartered Accountancy exams. First, security, as there were roadblocks and shootings because of the Khalistan separatist movement; and second, pollution. The first issue is gone, but the second one remains as discussions around air pollution, noise pollution and pollution of the River Yamuna keep coming back. There are these topics to talk about, but there are also changes that the city has gone through. Spending the Dashain break here, I could reflect on a few.

The city is greener than it was 30 years ago. Especially driving through the heart of town, you cannot but admire the trees on both sides of the road and on the dividers that separate the lanes. Many of these were planted three decades ago when an aggressive Clean Green Delhi was launched. A similar campaign was launched in Kathmandu by Kathmandu Metropolitan City at the same time, but we can see what these two campaigns have achieved. In Delhi, thousands of trees were felled for building the metro rail and highways, but it seems there has been a reasonable effort to replant trees and plant more than they felled. Any city requires lungs to breathe, and green patches are the only way to keep the expansion of cities sustainable. There has to be space for people to walk, children to play, or that small open space to assemble when natural or human-induced disasters strike.

Young women omnipresent

Three decades ago, when you saw young women working at stores as associates or in restaurants, it was a rare sight, and they would have come from the Eastern Himalaya and north-eastern states. Delhi has a notorious reputation and perception regarding women, but things have changed. What has been overwhelming is how young women now are omnipresent in establishments that provide services—restaurants, retail stores of all sizes and fuel stations—working without the fear of being ostracised. We see more single women sipping coffee at cafes or enjoying a meal at a restaurant. Ride-hailing cabs and women-only compartments on the Metro trains have changed how they travel, and a general sense of safety through the perception of requiring extra precaution as a woman remains.

Maybe it was the festive season, but the streets seemed to have an overdose of posters, flex and banners with pictures of politicians and their sycophants. Perhaps, in Nepal, we tend to see this also after former prime minister Oli and his team emphasised splashing photographs everywhere. In Delhi, a store owner would have a poster of himself with the leaders wishing him happy festivities. It could be the culture of association with the privileged that South Asian societies like to see, or it is just pure sycophancy. The print media is splashed with pictures of leaders in advertorials and paid advertisements, so one cannot blame the media for being pro-establishment, whether federal or state, as more than 70 percent of their revenues can be attributed to spending by the establishment. When one talks about pollution, air pollution is a crucial issue that Delhi continues to fight; but visual and noise pollution is an irritant. You need meditative quality to survive the honking despite measures taken to curb the habit in Kathmandu. 

Capital of the future

One cannot but keep comparing cities. Keeping infrastructure growing and maintaining them is a big challenge. Some cities have done very well, be it Dubai or Singapore. So, keep wondering whether Delhi will have sidewalks for people to walk on and pedestrian crossings so they will not have to wade in the water when it rains. These are fundamental questions that people are asking everywhere in the world as cities are moving from being car-centric to becoming people-centric. The old grandeur of Connaught Place is returning. It is a great place for shopping and hanging out as the area is well connected by the Metro and public transport. Many activists complain that the city has been built for the rich and privileged. The people who make the buildings, roads and Metro, and those who work as domestic help, drivers and other service providers are seen as outsiders, and the squalor they live in is an eyesore. Perhaps this is the challenge this city, as the capital of the world’s second largest economy-to-be in a few decades, will have to manage. 

Will this come only from government rules and regulations, or has it got to do with citizen discipline? In a city where many people feel entitled to have chauffeurs open the door for them, and expect someone to carry their small notebook or bag when moving around, or still need that guard to salute and acknowledge their arrival and open the door for them, it is tough. Having a poor sense of accommodating others and a high sense of privilege when one is behind the wheel of expensive cars is a complex human trait to handle. Perhaps, the younger generations may shun this way of equating wealth and social status with privilege, and not feel necessary to get to the optics that have a lot to do with a colonial hangover. Yes, interacting with some young people, they share the change that is taking place and the hopes for the changes they expect to see. Let us live on this hope for this city with history, heritage and opportunities to explore excellent cuisine and conversations.

Read the full article on The Kathmandu Post: https://tkpo.st/3s7OyFT