Copyright The International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2005
NEW DELHI This is a capital city in layers, where the remnants of successive pasts live in strange juxtaposition: the aging temples of Hindu antiquity, the domed mosques of Islamic empire, the colonnaded bungalows of the British Raj. It is, as William Dalrymple, a British writer, has called it, “a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic.”
Now it is adding a new layer. Under Sheila Dikshit, chief executive of this sprawling city of 14 million, New Delhi is attempting a makeover from smoggy megalopolis to a city to rival Bangalore or Mumbai as a global showcase for a world ever more inquisitive about India. It is a steep, unlikely climb for a national capital that was long the staid company town of the national government, a place reeking of officialdom – a city, as V.S. Naipaul wrote, “built for parades rather than people.”
But New Delhi is staging a comeback. In doing so, it is creating a model not seen before in this mostly agrarian country.
As a city-state with few rural voters, New Delhi is emerging as the only city in India able to focus on giving itself a largely aesthetic facelift, without worrying about spawning rural envy.
“When you look at a world-class city, it should be neat, clean, spic and span – with good amenities, wide roads, aesthetically well developed,” Dikshit said in an interview at her elegant residence. “And, of course, intellectually sharp, something that attracts, that has a soul – culture, intellectual happenings.”
This may seem like froth in a city that remains, like all Indian cities, a place of vast inequities and chronic poverty.
Millions of New Delhi residents still languish in slums. The city’s acute shortages of power and water, and the resulting rationing, infuriate residents – “my weaknesses,” Dikshit said.
Dikshit is working to simulate the atmospherics of a global metropolis even before a middle-income economy arrives, the trappings, says a government report, of a “clean, green, hassle-free, world-class capital city.”
The widening of roads and bridges is shaving commute times. A campaign has made a once-barren city leafy.
New Delhi now has an underground commuter rail system and the air has grown more breathable since the late 1990s, when the city made taxis and buses convert from gasoline to compressed natural gas.
The city, once “very sedate,” as Dikshit said, has become “very spicy.” Restaurants, bars and nightclubs that seem lifted directly from London or New York are sprouting. The city now plays host to India Fashion Week, which attracts buyers from New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue and other top Western retailers. The area accounts for nearly a third of India’s information technology exports, second only to Bangalore.
This development trajectory – of which Dikshit is part catalyst, part beneficiary – exposes her to charges of elitism from critics who say her aspirations are divorced from working-class needs.
But Dikshit argues that a flourishing city needs pride. When she took office in 1998, she said, “I felt that we needed to do something. How can you have a capital city where people live in a despondent state of affairs, thinking that, ‘Oh, God, everything is going downhill?’ So that has to turn into hope.”
Dikshit is not, technically, a mayor, but rather the chief minister of Delhi state, the only one of India’s 29 states to cover roughly the same ground as a major urban center. While mayors occupy ceremonial posts in India, chief ministers possess real authority.
But in a country where two-thirds of the population is rural, most chief ministers need to subordinate urban improvement to rural development issues. New Delhi is different. It has become a laboratory for a new idea in this country: that a city should have its own municipal governance, rather than be ruled as part of a state.
“Cities have become megastates, or certainly city-states,” said Dikshit, draped in a sari and clutching a phone that rang sporadically with calls from advisers. As opposed to rural areas, she said, “here the aspirations, the development requirement, are very different.”
And if the unusual powers of her office have freed Dikshit to develop New Delhi, her own proclivities have led her to cast the challenge in aesthetic terms.
Her home hints at a woman who sees herself as the city’s designer. Unlike the frequently garish homes of other powerful figures in India, the 67-year-old Dikshit’s residence is modern and minimalist, with few servants and an attractive cluster of paintings – some abstract, some traditionally Indian – on the wall of her salon, where she greets dozens of visitors each day.
Dikshit’s government last year published a report describing its “unprecedented success in increasing the green cover” by more than 100 percent between 1998 and 2003. The report listed other achievements, including such campaigns as “Anti-Fire Crackers,” “Say No to Plastic Bags” and “Say No to Shining Wrapping Papers for Gifts.”
Dikshit has also sought to address New Delhi’s most difficult problem: its chronic shortages of electricity and water, a legacy of the days when state-owned utilities doled out free or cheap power, at levels of quality befitting the price. Today, the twin challenge is to diminish state control over the utilities and nudge them toward greater efficiency, while also nudging consumers toward higher prices.
“People have to learn to pay for what they use,” Dikshit said. “Unfortunately, in this country the feeling has been that what belongs to the government should be for free.” She said, however, that an exception must be made for the poor.
Among the most innovative policies of Dikshit’s government is a campaign to reinvigorate municipal democracy. The project, known as Bhagidari, the Hindi word for partnership, addresses New Delhi’s identity crisis as a capital that was built to represent a country without ever evoking a sense of ownership among the local people.
Under Bhagidari, members of citizens’ groups, from building cooperatives to trade unions, can register with the government to become semiofficial civil servants. They are given identity cards and may enter bureaucrats’ offices, where they can conduct joint problem-solving on issues like the repair of rutted avenues, the installation of street lamps on dimly lighted byways and, the report said, the “rounding up of stray monkeys and dogs.”
The government passed legislation to allow groups to track progress on their projects. And the citizens’ hankering has teeth: Bhagidari empowers them to fill out confidential performance appraisals of civil servants.
For their part, citizens’ groups take on functions mishandled by the state. They maintain parks, collect utility bills from their own neighborhoods, and collect rainwater to create a backup to the government’s highly irregular provision.
Dikshit wakes each morning to a staple rite of Indian politics: a meet-and-greet session with request-bearing citizens.
Many need hospital beds, and chief ministers can pull strings to help them jump the line. On the day of the interview, one man had come to request that his caste be deemed the equivalent of untouchable, thus entitling him to affirmative action benefits.
Dikshit listens, smiles once or twice, then abruptly rises, after each supplicant has made a well-rehearsed speech, handed over a letter and clasped hands in worshipful greeting. The ritual is unmistakably feudal: the lord meting out tidbits of justice to the underlings.
But there is nothing medieval about the lord’s being a woman. India, which still struggles to empower the millions of women of its villages and cities, has produced more ultrapowerful political matriarchs than most Western countries.
“There have been women who have come up,” Dikshit said. “But Indian women have normally had the support of family background.”
Like Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India’s governing Congress Party and a woman on whose patronage Dikshit continues to depend, she added, “I belong to a political family.”
As if to underline the point, Dikshit’s favorite rooms in the house, the sitting room and the den, are decorated with photos of her late husband.
Dikshit got her start in politics through marriage. Born in 1938 in Punjab state, she married Vinod Dikshit, a civil servant, who was the son of Uma Shankar Dikshit, a revered Indian freedom fighter and Congress Party stalwart. When the party split in 1969 and her father-in-law became a central figure, she became part of the political circus.
“Those were the days when styles of living were far more frugal than they are today,” she said. “So I acted as his peon. I acted as his telephone operator. I acted as a hostess, looking after guests. So I got very, very pulled into it.”
She spent years learning from her father-in-law. Now, she says, her notions of governance spring from within.
Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune