The sitting chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, and his Aam Aadmi Party have just won a third term in the Indian capital. This essay is about the task they face ahead.
It was Gustavo Petro, the Colombian politician, and at a time the mayor of Bogota, who once said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Well, let’s just say Delhi is not such a developed city. Despite possessing a world-class Metro rail network, there are more than 10 million private vehicles that run in this city of around 20 million people. Add commercial vehicles including two-wheelers, and you have a city that has, almost, as many vehicles as it has people—certainly it feels like that to everyone who lives here.
The natural solution would be to build a massive fleet of public buses to replace private vehicles, including inefficient feeder services, to and from Metro stations, but the electoral power of commercial vehicle owners, including Delhi’s notorious three-wheeler auto lobby groups, have always curbed the adequate spread of buses. It is yet unclear how this situation could be altered but alter it must for the Indian capital cannot deal with more vehicular traffic.
Such traffic is a key cause of air pollution in the city which is so bad for most of the year—especially in autumn and winter—that it has now become an eternal meme. This problem is now at a stage where reports of people relocating from the city—especially corporate executives and diplomats are no longer said in jest, for this is already happening.
As the mountains in the Aravalli Range in neighbouring Haryana are attacked by illicit real estate developers, the natural barrier between Delhi and the deserts of Rajasthan are also crumbling. Summers, always crippling in Delhi, are becoming worse. But how much worse? Could summer temperatures touch 49, or even 50 degrees centigrade in the shade? At the moment, anything seems possible.
All data, both government and otherwise, suggests that the city’s groundwater is disappearing at an alarming rate, and is certainly not getting replenished rapidly enough. It is among the 21 Indian cities which face the gravest crisis in groundwater depletion.
Despite many an uproar, the city continues to top charts of infamy in abysmal women’s safety and has been struggling to shed the rather sticky tag that it is one of the most unsafe cities in the world for women.
But beyond all this, there is another thing that cannot be easily quantified that Delhi must aspire to. In the mid-2000s, it had begun to look and feel like India’s most cosmopolitan city beating other favourites like Mumbai.
This has been lost somewhere. Delhi today feels angry and agitated. Often called the graveyard of empires, Delhi has once again regained the mood of intrigue and exasperation, of jostle and shenanigan.
Worse, in the mood at the very least, it has begun to feel provincial once again. Its nightlife ends too early. The best restaurants seem, these days, to merely recreate old ‘classic’ favourites. When seeking literary adventures, its citizens still prefer to escape to nearby Jaipur.
But if India is to attain its rightful place in the comity of nations, it cannot have a provincial capital. It must aspire to develop a truly global, outward-looking capital which thinks about the world even as it considers the problems at home. This, no less, is the task ahead of the new government.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.