How far has Delhi come in 15 years of being
under Sheila Dikshit? Our writer considers
the effect of her jugaad and shiny surfaces
on the city and its varied inhabitants.
By Sopan Joshi | Grist Media
We moved back to Delhi in 1981 after three years in Chandigarh, that dream of urban modernity planned and executed by experts. I loved the open spaces of Chandigarh, the parks, the clean streets, the order. We had friends from multiple cultures, we walked/cycled to school, the government schools were very good. There was a sense of security, of promise.
Then, on the evening of December 30, 1980, my grandfather died in a road accident. After his death, Chandigarh became unbearable, and we moved back to Delhi. It was my first lesson that people made cities, and no architect of renown could remodel, reengineer people. I wonder if we would have been similarly disenchanted by Delhi if the accident had happened here instead.
Back in Delhi, we moved to a posh south Delhi ‘colony’; my enduring memory of that house is excreta splayed all over the bathroom ceiling after the toilet line had backed up. Our public school (private schools are called public schools in our make-believe urbanity) in central Delhi was too far, as was my father’s office. A family friend suggested we consider some of the newer colonies coming up in the east, across the river.
We found a nice house in a colony called Nirman Vihar (now a Metro station on the Blue Line). The rent was unbelievably low for a well-constructed independent house – a kothi in Delhi lingo. There was a large, dusty park in front, with a tandoor in one corner, in the manner of Punjabi villages which acquired the custom of a community oven from Persia. The best part, though, was that it was only four km from ITO (named after the Income Tax Office in central Delhi), where my father had his office, and only seven km from our school. This rapidly developing area was connected to Delhi by a trunk road called, well, Vikas Marg.
This became my beat, a path I’ve been beating since 1981. It goes through Laxmi Nagar, a settlement that came up on the land of village Khureji Khaas after independence. An “unplanned” locality, migrants settled here for cheap housing through the ’70s, even if it meant an annual monsoon battle with the seepage from the Yamuna’s floodplains.
Laxmi Nagar was one the many recourses for people who had no hope of their portion of the Nehruvian project to modernise India. For even if they were willing to buy a part of “planned” Delhi, it was a dream beyond fulfilment. Urbanisation was nationalised in the capital in 1959 and made a monopoly of the Delhi Development Authority. But DDA failed miserably to keep up with the demand for housing, given the levels of migration to Delhi, first due to Partition in 1947 and thereafter for economic opportunities.
“The only way left for a majority of people to live in Delhi was to squat. So people squatted,” explains Ravi Sundaram of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a social sciences thinktank. “We have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that 70 percent of structures in Delhi are unauthorised, and that more than half the city’s population lives in slums,” says Kavas Kapadia, retired professor and head of the Department of Urban Planning at the School of Planning and Architecture.
Laxmi Nagar was not settled according to plan, unlike our DDA-approved colony just a couple of kilometres beyond it. For a child who had acquired consciousness in Chandigarh, it was a sensory assault. Walking or cycling through its cluttered, congested lanes was an animation of how blood struggles along arteries choked with the plaque of cholesterol. While our colony had separate sections allocated for houses, parks and shops, Laxmi Nagar was a mishmash. A shop here, a house there, a small manufacturing unit around the corner. And yet I learned to like it.
The street food was tasty, the markets offered more variety than our colony shops. The addresses were seldom displayed in front of the houses, but people seemed to know their locality. I left my colony almost every day and came to Laxmi Nagar for something or the other, either on foot or cycle. With expensive plots in DDA-approved colonies, a construction and real estate boom had taken over in the early ’80s. One afternoon from my school bus, I counted 17 property dealers on Vikas Marg.
Today, a Metro line runs though Laxmi Nagar. It is even more cluttered. For it is very likely India’s biggest hub for coaching classes and hostels for aspirants to chartered accountancy. For the same reason that we moved in this area: it is the closest affordable locality from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, at ITO.
One coaching center that runs even online classes has a monthly turnover of Rs 2.5 crore. The place is bustling with young people, overwhelmed with life and a lack of infrastructure to support it well. Consequently, most of the shops on the main road have turned into makeshift restaurants or mobile phone vendors. A computer market has come up a short distance away in the adjacent locality of Shakarpur, an old village earlier known for a foodgrain market. On its lanes, Laxmi Nagar retains the old markets for utensils and groceries.
Laxmi Nagar and Shakarpur have embraced the changing times. These unplanned localities are open, accepting, malleable – there are people from every class imaginable. Where this unplanned locality ends begins my old colony. But it is not very easy to enter it, either on foot or in a vehicle. It has a high fence along the perimeter. Several entrances have been closed, and the remaining have iron gates with guards.
The large dusty park where we played cricket has been landscaped and beautified, and children can’t play too many sports there any more. It’s mostly occupied by old people, fighting their daily battle with cholesterol and blood sugar and the pressure in their blood vessels – even if the polluted air above portends more harm than good. Several of them are members of the Residents’ Welfare Association. The children of many of them – some of whom were my playmates – have moved out to other cities, other countries.
All around the park, single-storeyed houses are giving way to “builder flats”. With property rates searing, house owners are increasingly selling their plots to builders who put up four floors (which the Delhi Masterplan now allows). Each floor is sold individually. The DDA-planned carrying capacity of this colony was breached a long time ago. Water and sewage pipes meant to serve one family now cater to four families and their servants.
Most families now have cars. The lanes are cluttered with parked vehicles. People fiercely guard their parking slots, municipal land for which they pay no rent. There is an argument every now and then. The new builder flats have parking on the ground floor, but families that move here can easily afford two or more cars. On the colony’s streets, I can sense panic as newly acquired cars screech around with the glass rolled down and a heavy base line thumping from the stereo.
Nirman Vihar is fast becoming a middle class version of Laxmi Nagar. But it does not have the street food, the internet cafés, the markets and the openness of Laxmi Nagar. And this is not my experience alone. Well-known architect and town planner Gautam Bhatia has a similiar story to tell. The author of a book titled Punjabi Baroque, Bhatia firmly occupies the space of a public intellectual in the world of architecture.
I met him at his house-cum-office in Gulmohar Park, a tony south Delhi locality. The back lanes of his colony have turned into a disused space, good only for parking vehicles. Bhatia says he approached his RWA a few years ago to redesign the back alleys as walkways and public areas. After marinating for a few years, his plan was turned down. There was a suspicion that Bhatia wanted to make money through contractors. Bhatia says RWA elections have become bitter contests, for the office offers several opportunities such as discreet offerings from tent houses that need RWA cooperation to do their business.
I find it surprising. After meeting Gautam Bhatia – especially in his carefully designed office that shows a fine art sensibility and a quiet determination to deploy aesthetics and order and usability in every inch of space – I wondered who could mistake this soft-spoken man’s motives. Why didn’t the RWA of his elite colony, occupied by the wealthy and the educated, seize upon his plan? And if a man such as he is not taken seriously, what hope does this city have? “The city has been politicised into the State,” Bhatia says.
If you consider the media coverage of the upcoming Assembly elections, the biggest issue is amenities: bijli, sadak, paani. Is this all there is to a city? Bhatia has spent his life studying urbanity, urban design and the makings of the city. “A city is not formed by utilities, but that’s where our discourse on urbanism is stuck. The vision of urban life is lost to services. For a vision of urban life, you need a leader with personality.”
He gives the example of New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg, the 13th wealthiest man in the world who has been mayor for an unprecedented three terms. Bloomberg started as a Democrat, became a Republican, and has remained independent since 2007. He took several political risks to steward the city out of financial troubles and became a champion of gun control. Bhatia blames Bloomberg for driving the poor out of New York and points out the many flaws in his legacy, but “at least the man is a character, has a personality and a vision.” Bhatia says there is no politician with an urban vision in Delhi.
What about Sheila Dikshit, also about to complete her third term as chief minister of Delhi? Bhatia says the best of her accomplishments have come in response to problems, not due to her vision. When I consider his observation, Dikshit seems more like a survivor and a crisis manager than a leader; an urbane, sophisticated political version of that great Indian art of jugaad. She has offered the rhetoric of a changing world, all the while continuing the legacy of appeasement and protection that projected the likes of HKL Bhagat and Madan Lal Khurana in the past.
While the former leaders built their politics on regularising the “unauthorised” constructions by immigrants from Punjab during the partition and areas surrounding Delhi, Dikshit is the champion of later settlers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But her claims to have improved public transport don’t hold. Conversion of public transport vehicles to those running on compressed natural gas (CNG) and low-floor buses were forced through by the Supreme Court’s activism, and the Delhi Metro is the success story of a technocrat, E Sreedharan, a man with loads of character.
Sreedharan’s reputation was built on completing repairs on a bridge in 46 days, for which the Railways had allocated six months and his boss five months. He became a natural choice for tricky projects like the Kolkata Metro and Konkan Railways. But it was not Dikshit who drew Sreedharan into Delhi Metro. The credit for that goes to the former chief minister, Sahib Singh Verma of the BJP.
Even if Dikshit’s government gets the credit for actually following through on some counts, the chief minister did not take the difficult decisions; she did not stick her neck out for what she believed a city ought to be. When she did take a stand on an issue, it went nowhere. Her pet project of building several Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors lies in limbo.
This is one issue on which Dikshit could have made her mark, left a legacy. On city roads dominated by cars used by a minority, she decided to dedicate one lane on the road to buses, used by the majority of citizens. She supported the BRT when car owners were savaging her through certain media houses that made a campaign out of discrediting bus corridors. Through all this, she had the courage to say that she had won the constituencies around the BRT, pointing out that electoral success in a democracy could actually go hand in hand with good environmental sense.
I was one of the beneficiaries for a while; both my rented house and office were within range of this corridor. I started taking the bus to office, and even cycling the 10-km stretch that now had a cycle track. But soon, motorcycles took over the cycle track and cars invaded the bus lane after an NGO filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court. The court has since reinstated the bus corridor, but its sanctity was breached; people often drive their cars into the bus lane, and Dikshit was not able to counter the car lobby effectively.
Dikshit promised 14 more bus corridors in the city, but has not even managed to rescue the first one. The security of a third term could not give her the wherewithal to push through this car-restricting measure. Several cities in Europe are actively discourging car use by restricting road width, at the same time promoting public transport, walking and cycling. Delhi, meanwhile, continues to be an automobile heaven, with hundreds of new vehicles registered each day.
The audacity of car drivers knows no bounds in Indian cities, and Delhi is the capital. Cyclists and pedestrians get killed by speeding vehicles quite often, even if the news of such accidents seldom goes beyond the city briefs. Hit by a big red car, environmentalist Sunita Narain became a recent victim of auto-immunity in Delhi, and finally some attention went to this grave injustice on Delhi’s roads. And yet during Dikshit’s reign, flyovers and road-widening happened faster. There is no sign of additional bus corridors materialising.
From traffic jams to a river that does not flow – perhaps an even more vivid indicator of Sheila Dikshit’s reign, an indicator I’ve gauged each day of my commuting life. My grandmother was a devout woman from the banks of the Narmada. Once, she was in Delhi with us for Diwali in the early ’80s. She took my sister and I for a dip in the Yamuna on the occasion of bhai-dooj. This festival, occurring on the second day after Diwali, is also called Yamdootia. Yamuna is the mythological sister of the god of death, Yamraj. My grandmother had taken us there so my sister could ask Yamuna to ask her brother to keep his eyes away from me. Sister to sister. Some 30 years on, if the Yamuna and my sister claim credit for my being alive, I have no reason to deny them this.
There was water there, and although it was not the cleanest river I’d seen, bathing in it did not require me to summon the full powers of Hindu transcendental imagination that can wash sins even in polluted waters. Since then, Delhi has taken all water out of the Yamuna and discharged untreated sewage into it. The river simply dies in the 22-km stretch of Delhi; it turns into a swamp of putrid sewage water. It seems Yamraj has claimed his sister.
Dikshit did not inherit a clean river. But things have gotten progressively worse under her watch. Consider water supply. The solution to Delhi’s ever-growing water demand is to grab it from elsewhere. Delhi already draws from distant rivers like the Ganga and the Sutlej (via the Bhakhra dam). It wants to augment its water supply through dam projects in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
And what happens to the rainfall in the city? With no thought spared to drainage, the city is getting paved over, causing monsoonal waterlogging. The rest of the year, there is water shortage. So a chunk of Delhi’s supply comes from unregulated groundwater withdrawal. Which is relatively cheap because Delhi has a great electricity quota through central electricity regulators, even if neighbouring Uttar Pradesh is denied the kind of share its population requires. Denied the recharge from rainwater, the aquifers are drying up.
Dikshit’s performance in the social sectors (which sectors are asocial?) is none too flattering. Health and education have been abandoned to the private sector that is poorly regulated. Private schools and hospitals (technically run by trusts, but functioning with commercial values) have thrived on land obtained as subsidy. And yet the poor, in whose interests the govenment has given the land, are denied healthcare and education in the privileged corridors.
The state of Delhi’s government schools is all too evident in the annual school admission circus. Parents and three-year-olds have to undergo months of trauma to secure a seat in one of the prestigious private schools. The state of govenment schools is so poor that only the desperate go there. A domestic help who worked for me wanted a raise and additional work so that she could send her young son to a private school. She told me continuing in the govenment school was the greatest deterrant to an education, and her son was very likely to hang around goons.
The state of healthcare is worse. “The last government hospital to open in Delhi was the Maharishi Valmiki Hospital in Rohini, 25 years ago. It was set up to settle Rohini,” says Dunu Roy, social scientist and activist who has been a keen reader of urban and industrial changes. “But Dwarka was settled much later, and does not have any government hospital.”
It’s unreasonable, however, to hold Dikshit up to a higher standard. She did uproot the protection-based politics of leaders like Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, and their BJP counterparts such as Sahib Singh Verma. The Aam Aadmi Party that promises nothing short of Camelot is following a middle class rhetoric that is media-savvy, but does not address the most serious questions of life in the city. The same bijli-pani-sadak rhetoric.
It is not just the politicians, either. There is a great reluctance in Delhi’s elite to invent. “Builders worth hundreds of crores do not have the inclination to risk new ideas that address current urban challenges,” says architect Bhatia. “People building their second or third homes do not want to risk mud brick houses that are cheaper and environmentally better. There is just no ability to take risks. Our educated people lack self-belief.”
A young architect who has Delhi’s richest and most powerful among his clients points out how the wealthy approach designing their dream houses: “Typically, it is the wives who approach us with pretty pictures of houses they have seen on their vacations abroad. They want their patch of foreign right here. And they get terribly upset when we tell them the physical conditions in Delhi are not appropriate for such designs.” He mentions clients who want gold-plated tiles for a swimming pool in a farmhouse. “There is no imagination. They may have fancy ideas, several properties and all the wealth for making anything they want, but they will not risk radical designs.”
Which is hardly surprising, given that a similar exercise of looking abroad gave Delhi in 1962 a Masterplan, that covenant for the ideal city. To understand this story, I met Sundaram, an eclectic social scientist with a way of showing something unfamiliar in what one assumes to be familiar. His book Pirate Modernity has a chapter called ‘A city of order: The Masterplan’; it examines in detail the Masterplan’s character and its creation. It shows how an outbreak of jaundice led to concerns about the state of the city and the need for a planned city to replace the squalor of Delhi in 1955. The Ford Foundation came to play a big hand in devising the Masterplan.
A big influence was American planner Albert Mayer, a leading light of the regionalist planning movement that segregated residential areas from industrial and commercial areas, and popularised green belts. Regionalist planning was a reaction to the inhumanity of densely populated 19th-century industrial cities. Mayer was known to Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister; in fact, Nehru had got Mayer to make the first plan for Chandigarh before it was given to Le Corbusier.
Mayer was also the only member of the masterplan consultant team who had some experience in India. “It was largely made up of people whose knowledge of India, let alone Delhi, was minimal if not non-existent,” writes Sundaram. Douglas Ensminger, Indian head of the Ford Foundation, agreed that the team could not have been more ill-prepared, as “there simply was not any one who had Asian planning experience that remotely resembled Delhi’s problem.”
The Delhi Masterplan was also the first effort to control the city. “While Indian cities had patronage of the rulers applied to some parts, most of the urban design was left to people,” says Kapadia. He gives the example of Delhi’s Shahjahanabad, in which the Red Fort, the Juma Masjid and Chandni Chowk were designed by the State, but the rest of the city left for the residents to design and manage.
The British rulers found Shahjahanabad too intractable after the Revolt of 1857. This is when a municipality was created, and management of the city handed over to the experts. Kapadia points out that the British had a clinical, political objective in making New Delhi between 1911 and 1930: “Raisina Hill was chosen to look down upon the rest of the city. It was a statement, an image-building exercise, like the renovation of Paris (in 1853-70 under Baron Haussmann, at the cost of 2.5 billion Francs). It was a different value system.”
The renovation of Paris provided a model that influenced generations of modern urban designers. The regionalist consultant team hired to make the Delhi Masterplan had American urban designers with similar values. The greatest criticism of this outsourcing of urban design to experts came from American-Canadian journalist and author Jane Jacobs.
In 1961 Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, now a classic. Sundaram calls it “probably the most popular text on urban life ever written in the twentieth century.” She wrote as a citizen, not as a professional urban planner. She made some telling observations against outsourcing of urban design to ‘experts’. “The economic rationale of current city rebuilding is a hoax…The means to planned city rebuilding are as deplorable as the ends.”
It was while reading this book five years ago that I realised why I had stopped liking Chandigarh after growing up. The design had begun to seem oppressive. The parks and open spaces that so attracted me in my childhood seemed like props installed to stave off activity. By now, I had seen New York City’s Central Park and how it is overrun with life. Central Park is so exciting because of the interesting people who populate it, not because of the landscaping. In Chandigarh’s parks, all serendipity seemed expunged, with life following a script written by some urban design god. Chandigarh’s parks (like the beautiful park of Nirman Vihar) have the monotony of authoritative old people, whose children have fled to greener pastures (like New York).
A friend ticked me off: he told me I was allowing an academic reading to influence my experience. Then I read that Chandigarh had the highest car density in India and that congestion and air pollution undermine the tag of a planned city. Chandigarh’s cars are washed with expensive water drawn from the Bhakra dam, not to mention groundwater. Water scarcity is worsening. In conversations, old residents complain there are too many people in the city now. When they say so, they count themselves out; and they hardly spare a thought for the people whose land is taken away to build cities. Their ideal city is gated; entrance must be by permission only.
Modern urban design ideologies like regionalism assume the presence of cars and water supply. (Again: Jacobs was among the first to ask whether our cities were being built for people or for cars. The regionalist planner Mayer of the Delhi Masterplan, on the other hand, believed that it was the motor car that freed the population from the city.) But India is not a vast, sparsely-populated land like America; each dam built to provide water for a city requires denying water to other villages and cities.
Besides, urban design in India has to account for the strongest monsoon in the world, which rains down 70-90 percent of the total rainfall in a three-four month spell. Old cities, Delhi included, were designed to tap this water and make it available throughout the year. But newer, ‘planned’ settlements completely ignore this. Indian cities routinely get waterlogged during the monsoon.
I learnt this lesson while reporting for a story in Ahmedabad in 2002. The old city never suffers floods and still has water tanks designed hundreds of years ago. The streets are designed to draft. When old cities were designed real estate was not the prime motive. People who lived on the subcontinent instead built their towns leaving enough land to both recharge ground water and prevent floods.
But townships designed by the graduates of the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, one of the country’s premier planning institutes, had waterlogging during the monsoon and summertime water scarcity.
No wonder the Delhi Masterplan needs periodic revision. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” wrote Jacobs. The more planned an urban settlement in India, the more it aims for exclusivity, culminating in the ideal of the gated community. As in the Delhi Masterplan, all this planning is in response to a dangerous four-letter word: slum.
There is nothing the middle classes hate more than slums. Freeing a city of slums is an urban planning imperative, an article of faith. Any effort to even talk about slums as real spaces in which real people live elicits allegations of romanticising poverty, of poverty tourism. And yet slums contribute over 7.5 percent of India’s GDP, not to mention the innumerable services and cheap labour they provide the middle classes.
Urban planner and activist Gita Dewan Verma, author of Slumming India, blames greed and moral bankruptcy, pointing out how the Delhi Masterplan 1990 had set aside 5,000 hectares for slums, hawkers and industries, but this land has still not been made available. Verma campaigned actively to prevent the eviction of 20,000 families from the Yamuna Pushta in 2003 in the name of beautification of the city for the Commonwealth Games and to clean up the Yamuna. The evictions happened as per a Delhi High Court order.
Yet room is always made for planned development. Seven of India’s top land developers were involved in setting up India’s largest shopping mall complex in Vasant Kunj on the ridge of a protected green space. This was a violation of the Delhi Masterplan, so an environmental organisation in 2003 approached the Supreme Court. DDA, the agency responsible for implementing the Masterplan, allowed the violation, calling it a planned project. The rich buy legitimacy, the poor are forced into the illegitimacy of slums.
Sociologist Ashis Nandy is among the few who have tried to understand slums from the inside, and over time. He says our attempts to free cities of slums are futile, and only help to make slums invisible. As long as there is large-scale deprivation, no amount of planning can eliminate slums, says Nandy. “Yet the urge to make slums invisible is there in almost every unthinking Indian,” because it is a reality the middle classes do not wish to confront.
A greater vision of Delhi will have to account for such perspectives and the facts they draw from. But the best we have is politically correct terminology that has come through international consultants. So we have terms like governance, urban renewal, empowerment, consultation, participatory approach, PPPs (public-private partnerships)… Even politicians use these terms now to lay down the agenda of what they consider a new politics, a dramatic turn towards a new future.
Chief Economist of the World Bank Kaushik Basu tweeted on October 24: “Talk of [public-private] partnerships is getting so boring anesthetists are considering lecturing on PPPs to help patients slip into unconsciousness.” New environmentalist terms get absorbed seamlessly into this grave new hypocrisy, be it the court-ordered relocation of industry from Delhi or the eviction of slums on the Yamuna Pushta, even as the Akshardham temple, the Commonwealth Games Village and the DTC Millennium Depot were built on the river’s floodplains.
Such rhetoric is used to shine a vision of a world-class city. From world class infrastructure and world class facilities to world class golf courses. This terminology is very useful to eliminate slums and to manipulate the land market. Recently, a report by the National Center for Applied Economic Research considered land pooling to bring in the private sector into DDA’s domain. The proposal immediately drew criticism; there are fears it may end up strengthening private land consolidators, instead of benefitting small land holders.
I’ve noticed the land theme in Delhi films, even when they are Bombay films set in Delhi. In Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963) Dev Anand played an architect trying to reconcile two hostile fathers contesting a prestigious plot of land. Amitabh Bachchan played the illegitimate son of a prominent builder in Trishul (1978), out to avenge his illegitimacy, personifying the angst of the Emergency. The ultimate Delhi film, Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) is all about a plot of land in need of rescue from land sharks.
Now, cars are invading the narrative. Car accidents feature prominently in Dev.D and Jolly LLB, reflecting a new site of prestige, conflict and assertion in Delhi. I can see it in Nirman Vihar. From a gas-guzzling yellow Hummer to Audis. Before finishing this piece, I went for a walk around Nirman Vihar to check out the latest. I saw a red Mercedes SLK 350 coupe, which proudly sported the AMG badge of automotive honour. It costs in the region of Rs 90 lakh.
It’s the same car I saw about a month ago at a busy traffic intersection in Laxmi Nagar. I was riding a motorcycle right behind, and noticed a cycle-rickshaw (estimated cost: Rs 9,000) almost scraping the paint off the bumper with its axle. All around Delhi, I notice moments of confrontation. But I don’t live in Delhi any more. The high rentals and property prices have driven me to a new, affordable suburban locality in UP’s Ghaziabad. My identity is now part of an acronym: NCR.
I still cross the river most days, going past the Akshardham temple and CWG village, tourist attractions now. Himalayan rivers like the Yamuna are not easily tamed, as the Char Dham yatris in Uttarakhand learned this monsoon. I wonder if the Yamuna will confront Delhi one day, and bring so much water and silt that the dams upstream will not be able to hold it. I wonder if she will bring her brother along. And whether her brother will be impressed by Sheila Dikshit’s polish.
In her 15 years in charge, Sheila Dikshit could have done a lot to undo several grave injustices in the city. She could have used environmentalism to create new jobs to replace polluting industry, instead of turning over more and more land to real estate development. She could have, at the very least, left the dream of a city designed for people, not for cars. She could have created a politics that went beyond the apolitical and venal RWAs, she could have gone beyond politically correct terms like Bhagidari. But her decade and a half in charge was an image-building exercise. Like the CWG Games, or Raisina Hill.
The ominous truth, though, is that she may be the best Delhi has to offer. The people at the helm of this apolitical city – it has power and ‘approach’, but little real politics – do not get better than Sheila Dikshit. And for a telling statement on this, it’s worth it to go back seven centuries, and into the realm of stories that lie somewhere between fiction and non-fiction.
Nizamuddin Auliya, an ascetic with a great following who shunned state power, had a political confrontation some time in the 1320s with the emperor Ghiasuddin Tughlaq, who had taken away all the masons to build his dream city of Tughlaqabad. The auliya could not find any masons to work on a stepwell he wanted to build. So he made an observation-Hunuz dilli doorast (Delhi is yet far) – and left a curse: Ya rahe gujar ya rahe usar (Your fort will turn into a wasteland, or herdsmen will camp there). The fort was abandoned, it is believed, for lack of water.
Delhi’s world class infrastructure is waiting for a confrontation with another ascetic who makes stepwells. Or the wrath of a river that washes down the mightiest mountains of the world. For the Yamuna drains the rain that falls according to the wishes of the King of Gods, Indra. Another name for Indra is Purandhar, meaning City Destroyer. Such names result from generations of observations. If the city doesn’t respect the world’s strongest monsoon, the rain god will not respect the city. So, when you see water flooding Delhi’s hyped T3 (not just an airport but a world-class terminal), bear in mind that the city asked for it. That a city obsessed with power has forgotten there are greater powers.