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Creaky infrastructure, crime key issues

Delhi heads to the polls next Monday with most voters confident the economy is moving in the right direction, but rampant crime and a creaky infrastructure still wear out Delhi residents.

india Updated: Nov 24, 2003 19:11 IST

Delhi heads to the polls next Monday with most voters confident the economy is moving in the right direction, but rampant crime and a creaky infrastructure still wear out the Indian capital's 14 million people.

While the metropolis remains plagued by notorious traffic jams, pollution and armies of beggars, its politically crucial middle class sees the mushrooming shopping malls and high-end restaurants as signs of an increasingly prosperous Delhi.

The election is only to the local assembly, but control over India's capital is a matter of political prestige with less than a year to go before national polls.

Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping for a comeback in Delhi, which the main opposition Congress wrested from the BJP at the last state election in 1998.

A recent poll by The Times of India found that most Delhi residents believe the economy has improved in the five years of Congress rule but felt the police were inept at tackling crime, particularly against women.

The capital has seen at least 350 sexual assaults this year, including an attack on a Swiss diplomat as she entered her car after watching a film and the alleged gang-rape of a teenaged girl by off-duty presidential guards.

"Molestation, rape and crimes against women have become a regular and grim feature of life in Delhi," said lawyer Sonia Purkayashta. "The truth is most victims are unaware of their legal rights and very often the law fails them."

For the middle class, a more cosmopolitan image of their city translates into greater demands of the government both for safety and smoother services.

A poll by The Week magazine of voters in Delhi and the three other states voting December 1 -- Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -- found that infrastructure was the top issue among voters.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee tapped into simmering discontent with a broadside against the opposition Congress over the transport woes of Delhi, which with four million cars has more traffic than India's three other largest cities put together.

"We have a vision to make India a developed nation by 2020. Do we want Delhi to lag behind?" Vajpayee asked an election rally.

"Normally a city with a population of two million people needs a metro rail transport system. Delhi has several times that population. We need to show the way to the rest of the country in modernising public transport."

The first stretch of New Delhi's metro carries 50,000 commuters a day. Half of the two billion-dollar construction cost was lent by Japan.

The BJP and Congress rushed to claim credit for the still-limited metro when it opened in December 2002, with Vajpayee and Delhi's Congress leader, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, both climbing on board inaugural trains.

The capital plans to have a 62-kilometre (37-mile) loop running by 2005 with capacity for two million passengers, doing away with the need for 2,600 buses.

"We should not take an alarmist view of things as the Delhi Metro will ease a lot of the traffic burdens that you see now," Dikshit said.

But at current rates of growth, the capital will have a population of 23 million by 2021 -- with devastating consequences on commuter traffic and hence air quality.

Critics say the government has not braced for a population boom fed by rural labourers lured to work in the big city.

"At least 400 migrants pour into Delhi every day. But the city has just not kept pace with the demands on its infrastructure," said Marie Drouin, a French woman who works for a non-governmental organisation here.

"There is no urban planning. Slums sit cheek-by-jowl with new shopping malls. Where is the social infrastructure to deal with poverty?" she asked.

"I can understand a tented shelter being used as a school in Afghanistan but why is this the case in Delhi, especially as it projects itself as an international city?"

First Published: Nov 24, 2003 19:06 IST