When night falls among the SUVs, slipping below the asphalt of some of India’s best built streets, in this country where smooth roads still have the power to astonish and delight, the crows pretend to be bats.
Fear, shushing and occasionally full of braggadocio in the sunlight, stretches its well-gymnasium-ed lumps, airing the unshaved under arms, and adding beer to breath, steps out recklessly.
As it grows, so it growls.
Seven empires, they say, are buried beneath Delhi, perhaps eight. Who knows for certain? The latest has been the hungriest, eating up villages and turning them into acronyms.
The National Capital Region, NCR, fat cat letters all, they could stand for Never Caught Restrained. Ever yawning across Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, Noida and Faridabad, the satellite towns of aspiration of middle class India, added to Delhi form the NCR. But in millions of minds, the name is Delhi. Dilli, we who live here call it, the city of power and possibility.
I prefer to think of it as a sort of Greater Delhi in a place where the naturally OTT population loves naming things greater – Greater Kailish, Greater Noida, what have you. The tale of the Indian National Capital Region or Greater Delhi is the tale of India; a story where so many things have changed in the last 20 liberalising years, ever more so in the last decade.
But the nature of all change, as we know in India, is archeological. When the shades thrust, new realities crumble out. Up until the turn of the millennium, almost a decade after Manmohan Singh, then, finance minister, had quoted Victor Hugo and said no power on earth could stop India from letting lose millions (billions?) of entrepreneurs from the old state license shackles, India’s capital was smoke city, full of homicidal bus drivers, and diesel fumes puking dirty buses, with newspapers screaming blood on the streets.
Curiously, there was a capitalistic twist to the tale. In 1992, barely a year after the no-power-on-earth-ing, Jagdish Tytler, then surface transport minister, faced with striking drivers of the government-owned Delhi Transport Corporation, adopted the Singh euphemism – he ‘opened up’ the sector. Within days around 4,000 public bus operators mushroomed.
Where did they come from? How were they trained? Who were they? No one knew but by the end of the decade, these Red Line and Blue Line buses had become killing machines.
Death of its mean streets has, at least for the last two decades, been the best metaphor for deadly Delhi. Each city needs a space for its sins, the playing field of its Mr. Hyde. Mumbai has its slums, London, the tube, New York, its Hell’s Kitchen, Rio and its favelas.
In Delhi, it’s the roads. Every foul psychology in this city of princes and power is played out on its streets. At the turn of the millennium came a benign grandmotherly chief minister. Sheila Dikshit planted trees, broken the back of the transport unions and forced buses and the thieving three-wheel autorickshaws to switch to CNG from diesel and brought in the swishing metro rail.
All this has won her three elections. But the streets, they have remained mean.
Under her benign gaze, Delhi has bagged an epithet, the Rape Capital of India. It consistently tops charts of the worst crime rates against women among 35 Indian mega cities with more than a million people. Ask Dikshit, as I did in 2009 when the city-state went to polls (just before her hat-trick), and she, correctly, points out that when people say Delhi these days, they don’t mean Delhi. They mean NCR.
In Gurgaon, the Harayana state government is in charge. Noida, Ghaziabad is ruled by Uttar Pradesh. Even in Delhi, police is controlled by the federal Home Ministry. She has never said this explicitly but there was a hope that as Dikshit modernized the city, India’s capital would become more sanitized, even civil.
After all, the average person living in Delhi earns around three times the national per capita income today, an additional feather in cap to the chief minister who also doubles as Delhi finance minister. But Dikshit remains defeated on the streets. The buses are clean, often air-conditioned, but the men, as they will tell you in Delhi, still drive the cars like they treat the women. They stomp, they bruise; they thrust on the accelerator like drunken rapists.
As they drive, so they prey. The vehicles, though, are different. A lady friend wrote the other day on Facebook, “Luxury car ownership should also require a license like a gun license – Mercedes, BMW, Lamborghini – becoming the weapons on Delhi roads!” “Come on, yaar,” a man immediately replied, “these are machines with brute raw power, and the thrill of driving them is like riding and taming a wild stallion.”
With every notch of prosperity, Delhi has found new ways to nefariousness. Look at malls – once the glittering towers of a modern city, today many of these are feared for their dimly lit and isolated parking lots. In the coming municipal polls of Delhi, when one sitting councilor has already allegedly murdered a competitor, some activists have been demanding women parking attendants after dark.
In Gurgaon, a skyline of borrowed names (‘Kensington Park’, ‘Central Park’, ‘Richmond Estate’) and aspirations have been fuelled on easy money. Gurgaon – in fact Delhi and NCR – is a city of the vacuous until recently-landowner, the badlands of the bored landlord. This has transformed Greater Delhi into a land of idle men. Men who have nothing to do and have the money to do nothing – or men who are, ostensibly, looking for work and have nothing to do, and can, for some time, afford to do nothing. The mind of the idle man, as senior Delhi policeman recently reminded me, is the devil’s workshop.
With a booming economy, two things happened in the last twenty years. First, Mumbai became one of the most expensive real estates in the world, unaffordable not just for the new, or upcoming entrepreneur, but for many large companies, including the bump-and-ride new BPOs or technology outsourcing companies of India. So they came to Delhi, closer to the powers that be and with a lovely winter.
But high rises are prohibited inside Delhi, so they snaked up in Gurgaon and Noida. For every new office, one villager became rich, remained little educated and socially primitive, and got cash to burn the night away. So it is in Gurgaon that they licensed in a ‘wine shop’ every few hundred metres. So it is in Gurgaon that private security guards outnumber police by three times. In the liberalized world, cities were up for sale and someone forgot to inform the sleeping authourities that the citizen cannot always buy safety.
As it grows, so it grimaces.
India’s National Capital Region is at war. As in so many other parts of India, the side that is winning is the side with money and muscle power. As Mumbai is ever so often described as a failed city in a failed state, with roads, water and air beyond repair, Delhi wants to grab Mumbai’s old crown of cosmopolitanism.
On one side, more people from around the world, and indeed India, are pouring into Delhi and its satellite towns every day drawn by the spotlights of its growth; but on the other, the barbaric Delhi is hitting back as new money behind new wheels molests, or mows down, at will. The National Capital Region needs furious citizen activism, participation and contesting in local elections and accountability for elected representatives.
It needs high tech information sharing between police across three states – according to Delhi police, it takes at an average 20 minutes to commit a crime and flee the geographic borders of Delhi and melt into the villages of Haryana or Uttar Pradesh. Delhi NCR has become a sieve of ever shifting crime and criminals.
When we mapped the first 100 most unsafe places in Delhi, our biggest find in the survey was that almost everyone surveyed began by saying “everywhere” is unsafe in India’s capital. Now that we are doing this survey in Gurgaon, we are being inundated everyday by the everywhere answer. India’s capital needs better safety mapping, well-lit toilets for women, powerful lights in parking lots and exemplary punishment to crime, especially against women.
Or it needs Batman. As Bruce Wayne is told in the trailer of the upcoming Dark Knight film, there is a storm coming.