Delhi's controversial clean-up

When Baldev Singh arrived to open his car parts showroom last September he found not customers but officials from Delhi’s municipal council at his doorstep.

Part of a drive to clean up Delhi in advance of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Singh was forced to close his business—sacking 12 of his staff. Officials told him that zoning laws, previously ignored, were now to be zealously enforced. ‘They said I was operating illegally in a residential colony. But for seven years I had paid taxes and customers had been coming,” says Singh, whose property remains impounded by the city.

‘I had a luxury showroom. Why have they killed my business? Just for 15 days of the games. After that the city will have to return to life, but they will have killed everyone off.”

Although the games are just less than three years away, India’s capital is being reshaped as the city prepares for the biggest sporting event in its history. The Delhi government has begun putting up posters saying the capital will be transformed into a ‘world-class city” by the 2010 deadline.

There will be a new underground, lavish stadiums and even a high-tech ambulance service. Most notable are the prestige projects meant to dispel most visitors’ first impression that India is a poor country.

Delhi’s main railway station, which currently doubles as a home for the destitute, will be replaced by a glass and steel structure.

The city’s new seven-storey airport aims to be open by 2010. The authorities also plan to ban 400 000 bicycle rickshaws and order the remaining 100 000 to take a driving test.

However, campaigners say that the rush to modernise is bringing ‘unsuitable” development to many parts of the capital. Environmentalists highlight the case of the athletes’ village, a luxury riverside development in Delhi, which is now being considered by the courts.

The banks of the river Yamuna, which runs through the capital, had been off-limits to developers. For about 60 years only farmers were allowed to use the fertile banks to grow vegetables for local markets. But last September work began on the complex, which consists of 1 100 luxury flats, tennis courts and swimming pools.

Environmentalists claim that when the Yamuna next bursts its banks the water will inundate residential areas further downstream.

‘The land was leased to farmers and in the agreement there was a provision that the state could have it back for public purposes,” said Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, the NGO taking Delhi city to court. ‘But what is the public purpose? The Commonwealth Games runs for two weeks. What is the use after that?”

The Delhi government has admitted that there were some concerns expressed by the ‘environmental agencies”, but the project would go ahead. ‘Already there has been much delay to the project and we do not want any further delay,” said Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of the capital, earlier this year.

Delhi is also making serious attempts to check traffic levels on its congested roads, with the aim of cutting air pollution ahead of the games. Breathing Delhi’s air is estimated to be equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. To help reduce pollution and congestion, Delhi’s planners have brought forward plans for bus-only lanes and overground light rail lines.

But motorists have been incensed by the go-ahead to redesign roads so that only half the space ends up available for cars. On these corridors, the highway will be partitioned by dividers giving a quarter of the road space to cyclists and the rest to buses.

Officials say that such disputes were inevitable in a city with such sagging infrastructure. Just to accommodate the expected number of tourists, planners calculate the city needs another 10 000 hotel rooms.

Lalit Bhanot, the secretary of the Commonwealth Games organising committee, said the economic effects of renewing the city would trickle down to ‘the common man”. He said that currently Delhi suffers power cuts every day. ‘This affects every person. But by October 2010, Delhi will have a surplus of power and no electricity blackouts. That is going to be a real benefit, thanks to Commonwealth Games.”—



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