My flight landed on a humid and somewhat benign May morning in Delhi. On entering the Delhi airport, I marveled at how much the airport had improved since my last trip to Delhi two and a half years ago. The airport was still not even close to the standards of an airport in a country like Peru, or Jordan, or Costa Rica, but still the turnaround was there to be admired.
Indira Gandhi International Airport, as the Delhi Airport is named, still operates out of a puny single terminal building – which is odd for a country with so many development pretensions. Condition of India’s infrastructure is best put in perspective through the following – there are a total of 333 airports in India, including small airports handling only private jets, as compared 14,857 airports in the US (CIA Factbook, est. 2004). These facts may raise an eyebrow among the cognoscenti brought up solely on the uniformly gleaming newspaper reports announcing Indiaâ€™s emergence as a new economic superpower.
Of course, not all the excitement about the ‘economic miracle’ is bogus – fortunately.Â Outside the airport, the roads leading to the center of the city are broad and well paved, exhibiting none of the shoddy tar-deficient loose gravel construction that has ailed Indian road construction for the past half century. The roads are flanked on either side by stunted trees sitting in oversized steel cages. In a arid climate like Delhi, and under constant threat of being marauded by cows (hence the steel cages), it is hard to expect healthy trees minus enclosures, yet they make for a sad spectacle. Poor impoverished children, so memorably captured by the firangi (Western) tourists, remain in spite of the repeated demolition drives to eliminate jhuggis (poor hutments) (and other such deportation schemes) that have moved the poor to the outskirts of Delhi.
Ansal Plaza, a prominent mall in Delhi, carries a perfume showroom that seems to have been transplanted from the US. The air conditioned mall also has an escalator, once an unimaginable luxury. I still remember an episode from the time when I was probably about 10 and we had gone to attend a reception at a five-star hotel. We parked our Chetak a couple of kilometers away and took a taxi to go to the hotel. And there in the hotel I first lay my eyes on an escalator, which I rode repeatedly albeit timorously. The point is that escalators were potent symbols of luxury and I don’t remember seeing any escalators while growing up. Anyways, I clambered on to the escalator and entered a department store that had a sort of a haphazard but American department store like decor. One thing that set the mall apart was the sheer number of people in the shop. It is likely that the number seemed greater because the mall was significantly smaller in scale – perhaps not ambition – than typical a American mall. The other significant difference in Indian malls is the legions of well trained and polite sales staff. And thankfully, there were not there right behind you making your life unbearableÂ – as one may have expected- but close enough around to be easily available if you needed help.
Delhi Metro is a landmark achievement for which Delhi Government and others associated with the project deserve unreserved accolades. It is a first world subway system built in record time, even by Western standards. The subway cars appear to be of much higher quality than used on the Boston (and much less the New York) subway. The cars are quieter primarily because – the path is straighter, better carriages lock noise much more efficiently, and use of overhead electrical cables rather than the screechy ‘third-rail’. Traveling on the Delhi Metro brought a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu – It reminded me of a time when I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and I had taken the Calcutta metro when it had just started. There was a police guard checking to see if people didn’t step over the line and the general over staffing that coincided with the inauguration of the system. A similar air of daintiness surrounds the current Delhi Metro. After all this is a first-world shiny subway system in a desperately poor city. People act coy around the gleaming subway but I am sure that five years from now the train system would come to resemble the rat infested dilapidated system that our railways is. It will still work and be on time but the AC would occasionally stop and there would be desperate overcrowding and the seats would be dirty. In all it would be “broken in”. However, it remains an impressive achievement. One last aspect of traveling on the Delhi metro – get ready for passing through a ramshackled metal detector system that probably doesn’t work and a friendly pat down by a policeman.
Delhi, the city where my parents grew up in and I grew up in, is vanishing behind the mindless facade of humdrum commercialization and sprawl. Delhi was never a beautiful city, at least not in my lifetime. Jamuna was always dirty and houses were built to occupy every square inch of land. It was an impoverished city with a tough detached spirit that came from the number of Punjabi refugees that settled in Delhi after partition.
Narrow streets in a city give it its charm and intimacy but the forever widening sprawl of Delhi roads is destroying the feel of a city. Shabby jhuggis have been replaced by faceless parks that look out of place, and construction workers wear orange jackets like elsewhere in the first world, and rich kids now go to air conditioned schools. All of that has come at a cost. But this is a resurgent city, proud in the money it makes, proud in its metro and its flyovers, and buoyed by the economic and social upturn. To Delhi, my home.
The part of Delhi I thankfully missed! New York Times article on the Disneyesque Akshardham complex.