We are living in an extraordinary city in extraordinary times. Delhi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, considered to be of the same vintage as Benares. It has seen many glorious periods, having been the capital of many empires. Today, it is a city of 15 million people — the capital of a vibrant country on the threshold of another glorious era. A city that, I hope, will have all the goodness of new without giving up its goodness of old.
I have lived here since 1981 and have witnessed tremendous change. When I came to Delhi, it was a somewhat sleepy town. It was very fashionable for Bombaywallahs to refer to Delhi as a village and a city of bureaucrats. Delhi’s population then mustn’t have been more than 50 lakh. Maruti hadn’t yet hit the roads, which were pretty empty. Having spent the earlier decade in smaller towns — Pune, Mussoorie, Roorkee — I found Delhi very big.
Slowly, its charms began to fascinate me — the buildings left as a legacy by various rulers, its gardens and forests. My favourite is the Sunder Nursery. Though technically not a garden as much as a CPWD nursery, it is a rare delight. It boasts of numerous unique trees that perhaps exist only here in the country.
The other thing I discovered in Delhi was the warmth of the people. Over the last two decades, Delhi has become a melting pot of people from all over India. I met many wonderful people and a lot of them became good friends. They continue to sustain me emotionally.
Today, Delhi is in the throes of change. The last decade has seen overwhelming growth and the city seems to be groaning under the pressure. Now, Commonwealth Games 2010 are giving the city a chance to make meaningful changes, just as the 1982 Asian Games did — building infrastructure and creating facilities for all people.
I hope the administrators and we, the people, grasp this moment and put in place a structure that will ensure an equitable existence for all.
First on my list would be a rethink of how we approach roads and streets. Streets cover about a third of the city, and we need to think of them as public places, not just corridors for the movement of cars.
The current policy towards streets is heavily loaded in favour of cars — a minority in terms of actual numbers of users. Street design neglects the needs of public transport, pedestrians and cyclists. It ignores roadside hawkers and vendors, that are so characteristic of our culture. There is no uniform policy for the positioning of bus shelters, public amenities, garbage bins etc.
We need to reduce the number of cars on the streets and move on to a mass transit system. The Metro has made a great beginning, and I am hopeful that the high-capacity bus corridor — under construction and to be completed soon — will make a real difference.
I would love to see more walkable stretches in the city. Lutyens’ Delhi has broad footpaths, but too few people use them.
Talking of Lutyens’ Delhi, I wish its heritage aspect is defined sensibly, not merely romantically. Prime areas in the centre of town are under-utilised. These could be built as hubs of cultural activity, instead of being occupied by creaking bungalows (with illegal additions) and outsized lawns, wasting scarce resources and manpower.
I would rather have more attention paid to preserving the heritage in the older parts of Delhi, like Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk, Mehrauli and Qutub. These areas have defined Delhi’s culture for centuries and need careful attention before it’s too late.
Another wish I have is to see the Yamuna flow again, with water. Many great cities in the world are located by a river. None treat their rivers as badly as we Indians do. Let’s stop polluting the Yamuna with sewage. That’ll be a start.
Delhi 2020 need not be just a vision. With sensible polices, sincerely applied, we can make it happen.