So I am driving down the broad, new Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road that is the capital city’s pride and joy. There’s this high-end Mercedes pointed the wrong way in my lane. It’s been stopped by a policeman and the driver is on his cell phone. I stop my car and tell the officer he should get the car off the road and issue a ticket for going the wrong way, northbound on a southbound carriageway. The policeman tells me: “I have stopped him but he is calling his boss to pull strings.”
He was doing what he can without much success. The phone call may have called him off. Given there is just one for policeman for nearly 800 citizens and three for every VIP, there’s not much the police can do. Their job is to smooth the way for VIPs in the chaos of Delhi. We have to lump it.
Meanwhile there is all kind of mayhem on the newly built road. Cars are zipping past, oblivious of the speed limit; others are making all manner of illegal lane changes and turns; as for the other vehicles including motorbikes and rickshaws, transit buses and the newly-introduced “Grameen Seva” shared taxis (they are rickety contraptions with engines not much larger than a lawn mower but with cramped accommodation for nearly 10 passengers), they drive on the road without any concern for safety or rules.
Actually where we live, on the capital’s outskirts, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past year, with the Metro making inroads. There are fancy stations (infested with street vendors), steel-and-glass bus stops (uglified by handbills) and high-tech street lights (which have never been lit because of a turf war between the National Highway Authority of India that built the road and the Public Works Department of Delhi that is in charge of lighting).
The entire modern infrastructure that was supposed to uplift our lives has done little to improve the civic experience. The spanking new and wide road is now a market with fruit sellers, chaat carts, illegally parked cars and lunatic drivers. Chaos rules and you feel you’ve landed in a battlefield of crazed individuals, ineffectual police and poor planning. It is as though modernity has been aborted by the pre-modern economy.
Above all, you get the feeling that putting modern amenities in the hands of neanderthal civic officials and junglee citizens is a bad idea that has metastasized into a life-threatening situation, never mind enhancing the quality of life.
The narrow road that leads from the iconic MG Road to my house is an example of the ineptitude and criminal neglect of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is probably the most corrupt organization on Earth. The only way to describe it is to resort to Hindu mythology: it combines the evil machinations of Ravana and the wicked insidiousness of the Kauravas.
It is a road I have fought to better with some amount of luck because of the backing of the political leadership. There are superficial improvements but the road still becomes a morass of sewage water and gigantic potholes during the monsoon.
Despite all the new accouterments of modernity, commuting in Delhi is a nightmare. After all, no matter how slick you make the monkey cages in zoos, the inhabitants will still be all over it. In the end, through behavioral modification, primates can be taught to use their new facilities.
But how do you deal with humans, who have mutated into scofflaws over the sorry history of this much-conquered place?
Delhi’s scofflaw citizens are the archetype of a culture that is steeped in mythology, feudalism, ideology, elitism (think Lutyens Delhi) and rampant narcissism. Their gruff and scruffy ways are the despair of citizens whose lives are vandalized by their behavior.
I have lived in the capital for two decades. We live in a bubble suffused with the warmth of family and good friends. Our granddaughter was born here, the first ever in generations of my wife’s and my family.
Plus, the city has an enlightened political leadership under the aegis of a three-term chief minister, who battles constantly with civic agencies that are not really under her control. The only reason Delhi has not degenerated into a Hobbesian mess is because Sheila Dikshit has held fort against the barbarians.
In the interim, infrastructure has improved exponentially but civic life has taken a dive. The metro, the fancy buses, the bus stops, the new roads…all come to naught because of the behavior of scofflaws; 21st century civic amenities are wasted on them.
It hits civil people, and they may well be a majority, between the eyes: modern infrastructure, poorly implemented by the corrupt and inept civic agencies and abused and vandalized by scofflaw citizens.
Delhi’s ugly reality is the outcome of years of feudalism, colonialism, refugeeism, socialism and today’s ersatz culture that mixes mythology, superstition, mercantilism and amorality. Delhi has no modern urban roots; it has, for sure, a pre-modern urban idiom derived from the Mughals, which has been raped and pillaged by the refugee culture that took hold after Partition.
The capital city’s citizens are held hostage to scofflaws, who drive insanely, urinate in public, deface public property, molest women and create mayhem in public spaces.
This article appears on the Times of India website.