Saturday, December 13, 2008

City of Flyovers

City Of Flyovers
When I first heard this epithet to describe Delhi's growth aspirations, I laughed it off. But six years on, as I see that vision turning into reality I have frightfully realised how revealing that is of our model of development and how harmful it has been for a vast majority of us....
Debarshi Dasgupta

The first time – as an undergraduate student in 2002 – when I heard the epithet "city of flyovers" being used by government officials to describe Delhi’s growth aspirations, I laughed it off. I credited the uninspiring and dull description of my city to our bureaucrats and their political bosses. But six years on as I see that vision turning into reality – Delhi since then either has or is building close to 80 flyovers – I have frightfully realised how revealing that epithet is of our model of development and how harmful it has been for a vast majority of us.

It tells us the story of an India that skirts problems rather than find sustainable solutions for them in pursuit of rapid development. Of how the country has opted for quick-fix solutions that benefit a few in the short-run but end up being problems for most in the long-run. This has led to a model of urban planning that has largely pre-empted the majority of the city’s population from developing any stakes in Delhi’s well-being. This is equally true of any other Indian city.

Photo courtesy:

To go back to Delhi’s flyovers, the government has delightedly realised that they are the best way to get rid of the urban chaos that has arisen out of absence of any planning and abundance of greed. Befittingly, public transport in Delhi has always got the short end of the stick. Bus routes were contracted out in return for a certain commission to influential individuals rather than being run by one consortium. This has led to the killer phenomenon we only know so well – Bluelines, competing buses that run over people as they race on Delhi’s congested roads to rake in more passengers. Am I to believe that a government that seeks to build and operate new-age nuclear reactors cannot operate an efficient and safe fleet of buses? Try telling that to the families of hundreds killed by Bluelines.

The government may have now gone ahead with the gradual introduction of low-floor buses but it is too late. Cars and two wheelers have already taken over our roads. Jams are inevitable given the vehicular growth and irrespective of the number of flyovers built. A Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) survey found that while private vehicles account for 67.6% of the vehicles in India and occupy 67.1% of the road width, they carry only 37% of the commuters. Buses, on the other hand, make up 24.4% of the vehicles and occupy 38% of the roads. They, however, carry 61% of the commuters. Likewise, blueprints of rotary mode separators, with traffic separation at distinct vertical axes and designed around the comfort of pedestrians, have not been looked at as an alternative to flyovers by the Delhi government.

So, to enable these private vehicles to run smoothly the government has been on a road-expansion and flyover-building spree. That has pushed the majority among us – pedestrians and slow-moving transport such as rickshaws – off the roads. We cannot walk on them anymore. Pedestrians now are sent either overground or underground to make way for speeding traffic. It doesn’t matter if you have to walk nearly a kilometre just to reach the nearest underpass to get to the other side. Or if you are left wondering how to walk to your destination at major flyovers such as the one at AIIMS or Dhaula Kuan. Asinine planning like this means that people forcibly risk their lives daily as they take the easiest route by leaping across road dividers to cross over.

Why can’t traffic moving in the heart of the city stop to make way for pedestrians? Probably because the few who benefit the most wish no roadblocks as they hurtle away to superpowerdom, just the way India develops rapidly without any concern for the damage inflicted on either the marginalised majority or the environment.

Encroachment of public space in our cities for promoting private interests is also worryingly picking up. Urban public art – so important to cultivate a sense of belonging to a city – has been used for other interests.

Photo courtesy: Debarshi Dasgupta

Recently put up at the AIIMS flyover, "Sprouts", an urban art installation made with steel from Jindal, is less of art and more of avarice. To be fair, its dubious artistic merit may be defended by some. But what is certain is that the Delhi Urban Arts Commission – a public body meant to vet urban art – was never consulted before the installation of Sprouts. Why should a public artwork, aimed at celebrating the "arrival of a new India", be put up so undemocratically? Why should scarce green space – used by people to lounge about freely – be pulled down to make way for more steel? And that too if it is was built at a cost of around Rs 4 crore and will be maintained for Rs 1.5 lakh each month.

Even the newly designed bus stops – made again with steel from Jindal – are of little public convenience. They can’t seat more than ten at a time. This in a city of over 14 million where the average waiting period for a bus is at least 10 minutes. And if it happens to be in summer, tough luck! Even an empty spot is of no use, lest you are willing to scald your posterior on the burning steel in Delhi’s 45 degree Celsius heat. Comparatively, the earlier blue cement bus stops offered more shade – thereby being cooler – and had seating for more than 50.

Photo courtesy: Debarshi Dasgupta

Unfortunately, what they didn’t have was space for advertisements. So while the new bus stops are more like billboards with nearly all of the display area dedicated to advertisements, nobody has thought of a map marking the various bus routes telling commuters which bus to take to get where. That makes one wonder if Delhi’s bus stops are really meant for the people or are simply developed as revenue generators for the government.

Likewise, the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which should have served as an occasion to marshal public involvement in developing the city, has been reduced pretty much to a private-limited exercise. The games village being build on the banks of the Yamuna is a glorious example of that. The government cares two hoots and has utter indignation about opposition from environmentalists who have been alerting us to the perils of building on the banks of the Yamuna. Even the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute warned against any permanent construction on the riverbed in 2005. That it later changed its position, arguing the construction of Akshardham temple nearby had removed the risk of flooding, leaves us very little guesswork to do.

From the activity on at the site, it would seem all is well but the status of the games village is still unclear as the Delhi High Court is yet to rule whether it should stand there or not. It has appointed another committee to inquire and examine. The tactic is simple: hem and haw till it is too late and then use the India’s-prestige-is-at-stake argument to steamroll all opposition.You would have to be demented at the least to believe that if the village, if found to be genuinely harmful to the Yamuna riverbed in a year’s time from now, would be relocated! Meanwhile, having acquired land at cheap rates (whether riverbed can be termed as land is another matter of dispute), the real estate developers of the Commonwealth Games village are already advertising and unabashedly soliciting buyers for the flats being built for the athletes. One only hopes the promise made by the government in the bid document of using part of the games village as a students’ residence is adhered to.

The signs are ominous. Rather than a legacy that we all can be proud of, the games are likely to bequeath little more than a few richer corrupt officials at Delhi Development Authority, the real estate developer of the village who would have made a killing by selling horrendously expensive apartments, and the rich who will be able to pay for them and live there.

I want to be part of this city’s growth but it is being developed rapidly in a manner that doesn’t involve public concern or encourage public involvement. Most people are too busy surviving and paying the cost for such short-sightedness. As much as we would like to believe in the spiel of Delhi being a "global city", the truth is starkly the opposite. The way things are today in 2008, Delhi seems more like a medieval fiefdom of the privileged few.

Postscript: The Supreme Court on December 5 stayed Delhi High Court orders stalling constructions in the upcoming Commonwealth Games Village

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