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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be collapsing

Last updated on: July 29, 2010 08:46 IST

Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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Sunil Sethi


Delhi, the national Capital, was always a double-faced place but in the run up to the Commonwealth Games, it is acquiring a schizophrenic persona.

Poised to scale new heights as a world-class metropolis, it also appears to be falling apart. Soaring stadia with lights ablaze, swank villages for 8,000 athletes with private ice cream parlours, a metro burrowing its way to far corners and the T3, touted as the eighth largest terminal in the world. Ok, we got the message.

Why is it then that every time I enter the city, leave the house, try to catch an appointment in the suburbs or accomplish a day's jobs, I am beset with nightmarish traffic jams, long painful power cuts, waterlogged roads, (and) dangerously incomplete pavements, literally strewn with stumbling blocks?

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Image: The Indian Defence Ministry and Home Ministry buildings are illuminated during the 'Beating the Retreat' ceremony in New Delhi.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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An accurate indicator of the city's brand-new but instantly collapsing infrastructure was in the newspapers this week -- the opening of the municipality's Rs 650-crore new headquarters (grandly called a civic centre) with leaking roofs, walls soaked from seepage and a basement car park swimming in ankle-high water.

Opposition councillors caused a ruckus, brought in the press and an inquiry has been ordered. If that's the state of the new HQ, it's no wonder that the vast municipality refuse dump at the end of my street is exactly as I have always known it -- a stinking mountain of garbage that takes days to clear.

The only new aspect to this putrefying mass is that it has now assumed the proportions of a minor Himalayan peak.

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Image: Heavy traffic on a New Delhi road.
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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Delhi is savvy, sexy and smart -- that's if you listen to adherents such as Commonwealth Games organisers, the city's well-insulated ruling elite and its motherly chief minister (who, every time I turn on the car radio, is exhorting children to study harder and parents to keep calm during stressful school exams or elaborating on some tree-planting drive in adverts).

Delhi is also progressive and rich -- highest per capita income amongst small states and well-above-average social and quality-of-life indicators. Day-to-day life here, however, is not what it's cracked up to be.

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Image: Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit (2nd R) and Union Minister of State for External Affairs Parneet Kaur.
Photographs: Munish Sharma/Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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Despite massive investment and higher levies (rates for power, water and property tax are all up) and the 70-day race to complete preparations for the Commonwealth Games, there is no evidence that Delhi's roads are less congested, electricity or water supply better managed or the Jamuna river less of a sewer than before.

Is it that Delhi can't cope with its embarrassment of riches? (Delhi Chief Minister) Sheila Dikshit has actually announced prizes -- by way of an extra month's salary -- for officials if building works are finished on time.

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Image: A security officer at the Nehru stadium in New Delhi.
Photographs: Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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The city's coffers may run deep but its management is stuck in a quagmire of mismanagement and sloth.

A burgeoning metro and a fleet of low-slung, air-conditioned buses have made no appreciable difference to its clogged arteries.

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Image: Delhi Metro Rail Corporation employees work at the construction of a flyover in New Delhi.
Photographs: Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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Long the motor vehicle Capital of India, the city continues to add 1,000 cars a day to its streets. Privatisation of power has not reduced shortages -- outages were long and frequent through the summer months with markets covered in a miasma of generator fumes. Prices of diesel on the black market rocketed as supplies ran out.

And come the first monsoon showers, sections of the city routinely grind to a halt as roads begin to resemble rivers in spate.

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Image: Traffic moves along a flooded road after monsoon rains in New Delhi.
Photographs: Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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Where do the funds go in one of the richest places in the country? Mostly into the pockets of the Hydra-headed government, the multiplicity of agencies assigned to the same job.

A case in point is the decades-old project to clean up the Jamuna, Delhi's main waterway. The Commonwealth Games should have been the perfect moment to restore it as the city's central showpiece, a sign of the Capital's overall prosperity and health.

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Image: Delhi traffic.
Photographs: Reuters
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Why Delhi's infrastructure seems to be falling apart

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Despite crores of rupees spent, noisy public campaigns, endless committees and judicial interventions, it remains a parched eyesore and repository of much of Delhi's filth. Reason: there are 13 central and state bodies involved in its proposed transformation.

Like the ambitious overreacher who falls flat, Delhi talks big. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


Image: A general view of the indoor cycling velodrome constructed for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Photographs: Reuters
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