The more things change, the more they remain the same. Alphonse Karr's observation has already been quoted to cliché. But nothing sums up the state of affairs in the National Capital Region better.
Five years since I wrote on the NCR woes in this space, things have changed. Delhi Metro has reached even Ghaziabad, radio taxis have started plying across the borders, and the Delhi stretch of NH-24 has turned eight-lane.
But to get to the Metro, one still has to depend on rickety eight-seaters, unmetered autos and cycle rickshaws. Radio taxis have been a godsend but the service is plagued by limited availability of the cabs. Thanks to Commonwealth Games infrastructure boom, the drive from the Nizamuddin Bridge to the UP border is smooth before cars pile up at the chicken neck on the other side of the UP Gate.
Despite its problems, the NCR is growing. In the last 10 years, when Delhi's population grew by 21%, NCR towns registered a growth of 55%. For the new migrants and the old residents who got priced out of Delhi, the NCR's "affordable" housing is tempting. But outside these gated communities, public facilities resemble that of a mufassil town. Bus service is non-existent. Except for 200-odd autos run by private companies in Gurgaon, autos in the NCR do not have fare meters. Shortage of power and water is acute. Barring Noida, absence of a garbage disposal system frequently leads to clogged sewage and stinky, flooded roads.
The NCR dream could have come good with some uniformity in the physical and social infrastructure - transport, housing, law and order, water, power, telecom, etc.
Delhi and all its satellite towns need a common development authority and a system that allows the police overlapping jurisdiction. To be fair, the Centre started planning well in time with the formation of a National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) in 1985 for inter-state coordination, approval and execution of projects. But poor funding mechanism and no enforcement powers have crippled the board. No member state pays heed to its plans and recommendations.
As a result, proposals remain on paper even as the new ones are announced. Planners talk about high-speed train networks to ferry people from Meerut to Delhi under an hour but they have not yet ensured a simple three-wheeler ride across the NCR without passengers having to change autos and walk across every state border.
One half of the peripheral expressway, a ring road outside Delhi, is ready. The other half waits buried in the files for five years because the road ministry cannot decide what toll rates to charge. Cost escalation apart, the number of heavy vehicles that could have used the road to bypass Delhi, and hence decongest Capital's roads and connecting highways, has gone up from 80,000 to two lakh. Another project — the 18-km-long Northern Peripheral Expressway connecting NH-8 to Dwarka, bypassing the Gurgaon Expressway — is well past its deadline.
Centre-state and inter-state quibbling have meant that the NCR has too many barriers. Coordination still remains a casualty in spite of the fact that three of the four NCR states —Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan — have Congress governments, and two are ruled by women chief ministers who should not have found it difficult to agree on certain civic and safety issues. Unless NCRPB is strengthened, possibly with better representation from the states, as a decision making, rather than mere planning, authority within the limits of India's federal structure, the NCR will remain a sum of disparate parts, dysfunctional, without a soul.