A city is a cocktail of its ecology, its populace and those who hope to control it. Who influences these factors, and how, determines how equitable and sustainable a city is.
A hundred is not old for any city. But since New Delhi is India's prima donna city, it's turning 100 this year is an opportunity to reflect on what it has to offer to other cities in a rapidly urbanising India.
Delhi's recent history offers four distinct ideas. First, don't poison your plate. Delhi is an ecological mess. The air is overwhelmed with toxic pollutants. The Yamuna, which provides water to Delhi, is also its sewage dump. Our trash, slated to double in the next decade, contaminates our water and soil and emits greenhouse gases. The pivotal green belt, the ridge, has been under assault for years. It's true that thousands of trees have been planted and the expanded public transportation system has been a relief. But this isn't enough. Other cities should plan climate adaptation in ways that include the poor and the rich. They must make public transportation efficient, affordable and safe, decentralise handling of trash and human waste, and incentivise optimum consumption of resources.
Second, people come to cities to live and belong. We must foster this aspiration. About 49% of Delhi lives in sub-standard housing. People have little access to any infrastructure, which is required to flourish, not just survive. The homeless experience a much harsher city. The Supreme Court has asked the government to ensure that no one dies in the cold this winter. Housing is critical, in terms of its location and quality, and for residents to have a tangible place to call home. Slum demolition is not an option, but in-situ up-gradation is. It must be designed for — and with — the users as per their needs.
Third, enable work, don't obstruct it. Work is a critical 'pull factor' in Delhi. Migrants run our city. At a hundred, Delhi is still not able to accommodate many of the varied skills available. Many service providers - vendors, flower sellers, cobblers - have to fight bribery and abuse. Small businesses are sealed for operating in residential areas, regardless of their utility. Industrial activities, even if it's recycling Delhi's trash, are shut down. Cities must be planned around decent livelihoods. Indian cities must know that violated masterplans aren't pristine creatures contaminated by ill-disciplined people. They simply don't go well with people's aspirations and needs.
Fourth, the commons are for everyone. Three challenges stare Delhi in the face. One, everyone can't access the commons. Taking dogs for walks and playing cricket are banned in parks and trash handling is handed over to private companies, which 'convert' wastepickers from 'informal' to 'illegal'. Second, it's getting difficult to use the commons as sites of rest. Sitting on a pavement is treated as a security threat by residents and the police. Third is the aesthetic judgement on what commons should look like. Many parks have concrete fountains and some markets are beautified with uniformly painted signboards. The truth is that no city is a 'logo city'. Policymakers should just ensure that the commons are clean, safe and available to everyone.
Indian cities are ambitious creatures. They will be happier and healthier if they incorporate these suggestion as New Delhi completes its centenary.
Bharati Chaturvedi is the editor of Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in the Megacity. She is also the director of the environmental advocacy group, Chintan. The views expressed by the author are personal.