I was a big fan of the Republic Day parade all through my growing years. The military bands, the mighty tanks and the colourful tableaux were a breathtaking extravaganza no other Indian city offered. The Beating Retreat at the end of the three-day celebrations was magical with "Abide with me" playing from the belfry of the North Block and camels perched atop the terraces so still that you would doubt if they were real.
These days, of course, the entire area turns into a garrison town, ruling out popular participation. Obsessive security and traffic restrictions in the city centre have turned Republic Day into what my colleague calls the No-Public Day.
The ordeal starts the week before the R-Day when India Gate is sealed off for full rehearsals. For those who take the C-hexagon to get to office, this means no work any time before noon. For the Beating Retreat, key roads are barricaded off during the evening rush hours. And just when you think it is over, it gets worse. On January 30, I spent approximately 90 minutes in a jam that ran up till the Ghaziabad border as roads in Central Delhi were closed so that VIPs could get to Rajghat to pay tribute to the Mahatma on his death anniversary.
But it is not just a few days in January when VIP movement turns the city's traffic into nightmare. Each time the President or the Prime Minister's motorcade passes through the city, traffic lights are switched off and commuters are made to wait anywhere between five minutes and half an hour. Straying onto the "VIP route" can lead to gory consequences as Martin Massey found out when he was beaten up brutally for one such violation in 1995. In 2010, East Delhi resident Anil Jain died on way to hospital because the ambulance carrying him was caught in a jam caused by the PM's movement.
It gets worse when the city hosts international dignitaries. The ASEAN summit last year saw Sardar Patel Marg, the city's main arterial road connecting New Delhi to the airport and Gurgaon, blocked over a day. More than 400 traffic cops worked round-the-clock to give a free passage to 11 heads of states when the rest of the city had come to a grinding halt.
In a stinging letter to the police commissioner last year, Supreme Court lawyer Harish Salve said that preventing people from commuting violated the right to liberty and the right to free movement and, therefore, violated Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution. A parliamentary panel asked Delhi Police to streamline traffic, recommending predetermined routes for VIP movements and use of FM radio and electronic display boards to warn people about possible congestions.
But can police alone be held responsible when all they do is follow the Blue Book listing regulations for the movement VIPs? The onus lies with the government. In October last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that they would work from home and take helicopter for intra-city travel in Moscow. Britain's David Cameron has done away with police motorbike outriders that escorted his motorcade.
For Delhi that has seen political assassinations and an attack on Parliament, concerns about VIP security are not unwarranted. For a start, Indian government should consider creation of helipads wherever possible to reduce road travel by VIPs. International summits could simply shift outside the city.
Maybe, we need to put our foot down like the Moscow residents did when they launched the Blue Bucket movement. They stuck buckets to the roof of their cars to imitate the blue beacon lights on VIP vehicles. It worked.