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Price of progress

Published : Jul 30, 2010 00:00 IST

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DRAINAGE PIPES AND debris lie on the main road at Paharganj on June 6, leading to traffic jams and affecting economic activity in what is traditionally the business district of New Delhi.-V.V. KRISHNAN

DRAINAGE PIPES AND debris lie on the main road at Paharganj on June 6, leading to traffic jams and affecting economic activity in what is traditionally the business district of New Delhi.-V.V. KRISHNAN

That Delhi is being developed for the Commonwealth Games is wonderful, but the work ethic of the agencies involved is appalling.

DELHI is being prepared to host the Commonwealth Games. To make it worthy of that honour an almighty effort is being made to build stadiums of international standard, and much more besides. Roads are being widened, pavements are being laid out where there were none or where they were in disrepair, and flyovers, underpasses and pedestrian overbridges complete with escalators are coming up at several places. Signage is being re-done and colours have been used to indicate direction, heritage sites and traffic warnings.

Two major developments are on a breathtaking scale: a state-of-the-art airport, the second biggest in Asia, we are told, after Beijing, and the Delhi Metro that criss-crosses the city, underground and over ground, on which the trains are comfortable, silent and air-conditioned. Even the city's bus system is beginning to look different as more and more modern low-floor buses, some of them air-conditioned, are replacing the terrifying vehicles that passed for buses, but which were, in effect, machines that were meant to suffocate you or crush your limbs (if you were able to get on to them) and to kill or maim you if you came too close to them on the roads.

These have, however, come at a price, and one does not mean money here. One means the price ordinary residents, commuters and travellers have had to pay for these wonders to come into existence. Roads have been barricaded or narrowed to such an extent that traffic jams have become endemic almost all over the city; traffic lights have, in far too many places, ceased to function, resulting in more chaos; a miasma of dust hangs over the city because construction activity has increased in intensity in the past two years.

To the credit of the inhabitants of the city, they have borne all this with stoicism, perhaps because they know that at the end of it all their city will be the better for it. But in the process, a number of them have paid for this development with their lives, or have been maimed and injured badly.

The most recent instance, which would have gone unnoticed if the media had not highlighted it, is the loss of five lives in a little over a week at an underpass where the Public Works Department (PWD) is relaying the road surface. The new material put over the existing surface had increased the height of the road, but there were no barricades or warning signs to indicate this.

The result: five people on two-wheelers died as their vehicles hit unmarked bumps and the drivers lost balance. The travellers either hit the sidewalls or were run over by vehicles as traffic on that road is almost always very heavy. Others have been injured at other sites, some not very seriously, but cars and two-wheelers have been damaged badly when they hit boulders yes, boulders left on the road with no markings and no lights and no barricades. These, or cement blocks, are being used to beautify the central verges, but no one thought it necessary to mark them out, or warn people about them, or, better still, remove them from the road.

And this is the real price that is being paid, the price of indifference to lives, to the safety of residents of the agencies working to develop Delhi. Two musicians were among those injured at the Moolchand underpass. One had to have his leg amputated and will, perhaps, with the help of a prosthetic device, be able to resume his career once he has recovered from his other injuries and the shock. The other, a tabla player, had to have an arm amputated. One wonders what he will do for a living now. That Delhi is being developed is a wonderful thing; but the work ethic at the lower levels, the levels that count because that is where the interface with people occurs, is appalling in its indifference and shoddiness.

Apparently the luxurious games village will have 24-hour supply of treated water, that is water one can drink from the tap, and power with 100 per cent back-up through generators. It is said the flats in the village will be sold after the games for over Rs.4 crore each. Will common residents, who cannot even think of buying these elite flats built at their expense, ironically, get any of this treated water or any of the power? And will any of those wealthy enough to stay in these swank flats ever face the boulder-strewn narrow roads that are being built? Not at all; a special flyover is being built (in the name, of course, of the athletes who will be here for about a fortnight) so that they can drive straight on to the highway and into the central part of Delhi.

METRO, THE EXCEPTION

One must make an exception of the Delhi Metro, and point, in fact, to the irony of the extreme care taken in its construction the barricades, the marshals to guide traffic through diverted roads and the complete separation of construction debris from roads and residential and commercial areas speak volumes about the care that has gone into ensuring that the massive network that is nearing completion causes as little inconvenience as possible.

True, there have been accidents: in two cases there were fatalities when the huge spans that sit on the elevated pillars crashed to the ground. But these were accidents, and immediate remedial action was taken; those found guilty were punished and safety measures were reinforced. When the giant airport terminal was being built, too, there were accidents. Accidents occur the world over; what one is talking about here is the indifference to people's safety at the lower levels of the PWD, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and other agencies.

One is deliberately not mentioning something very characteristic of Delhi its non-functional traffic lights. Most cities in India Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, for example have traffic lights that work. One can only hope that once the preparation for the Commonwealth Games is over, Delhi will have reliable, working traffic lights at all intersections, as in other Indian cities.

The work that has gone into persuading the government to provide funds, and then to plan and organise the development effort is something for which no praise can be too high. From the Chief Minister, the prime mover, to the DDA to E. Sreedharan, chief of the Delhi Metro, to the GMR group, which built the airport, there has been a huge and determined effort which has made all this happen.

It is a tragedy, though, that, where the common man is concerned, the suffering has been as great as it has been, simply because lower down there was the usual indifference. There is no doubt that similar infrastructural development will be taken up in other metropolitan areas; one can only hope that the development there does not cost as much to the citizens of those cities as it has cost the inhabitants of Delhi in terms of lives lost and injuries, and having to endure, for the past two years, endless traffic jams, clogged drains and subsidence of roads.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 30, 2010.)

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