Capital concerns

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

A case for shifting the national capital.

DELHI, as we all know, has been the capital of India for centuries, long before the British moved their empire's capital from Calcutta to that city. This is actually an inaccurate statement, because the region of which it was the capital, whether it was a Sultanate or the Mughal Empire, was not the India as we know it today, and certainly not the India that the British ruled. Its size and complexion varied from one generation to the next. The India we know today, minus the portions which are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, was never ruled from Delhi; the southern regions were never fully under the control of the Mughals, even in Aurangzeb's time, leave alone during the pre-Mughal days when the Delhi Sultanates were little more than fiefdoms. Ashoka certainly did not rule from Delhi; nor did any of the other pre-Islamic kings and emperors.

It became the capital of the India we know today when the British moved to that city from Calcutta, a city from which they had ruled for over two hundred years. They lasted just under 50 years in Delhi and then were gone. Independent India kept New Delhi as its capital, probably because the city had been built for that purpose, had the buildings needed, and the communications - the railways, and an airport. Also because of the complexion of Indian politics, as it emerged from the ardour of the struggle for independence. The northern States, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, had a far larger say in the power structure of the country; they had more Members of Parliament than other States, and the infrastructure of the government, the armies of clerks and section officers and the rest, who buoyed up the Ministries and other offices, was manned largely by people from these States, and from Punjab as it then was, which meant really that part we now know as Haryana.

Whatever the rationale, it need not detain us here. The plain fact is that the considerations that made Delhi the natural choice for being the capital of independent India are not relevant now. Air links, and the revolution in information technology have made most of the old reasons irrelevant; in fact, proximity to the mountains leading to Central Asia and Afghanistan are now a positive liability, given the nature of the tensions and potential conflict that exists in this part of Asia, and the fact that this will not change in the foreseeable future. What must matter is whether Delhi serves the country effectively as a capital.

It has crumbled over the years from being a gracious, quiet, tree-lined city with the old city providing it with a degree of civilised intercourse that most other cities did not have, to a vast urban sprawl, bursting with people. Its civic services are a shambles with a permanent shortage of water, and now of power; with choked drains, sewage floating in lanes and in some of the localities that the city continues to call "colonies" for some reason; its sanitation and cleanliness is no better than that of a mofussil town in U.P. or Bihar; its police force is second only to that of Patna for its corruption; its public hospitals are more charnel houses than places where the sick can get well; hundreds of municipal and government schools in the capital have no buildings worth the name, or no teachers or both.

But these, you could argue, are characteristics of nearly all Indian cities; so why should the capital be any different? The argument is not easy to counter, even though one could point to the huge funds allocated to Delhi by the Central government, more than what a number of much bigger States are given. But even if we concede that the capital will be - indeed, should be - no different from the other cities of India, there is one other factor that has to be considered, and it will not do to trivialise it - the nature of the politics in the city. Being the centres of political power, the places that rule a country, capital cities are known for their intrigues, their power brokers, the manoeuvrings and lobbying that go with it. Washington D.C. is known for this, as are the other capitals around the world. The existence of this kind of politics in Delhi is only natural, but, sadly this is not all. In Delhi, the politics surrounding the Centre of national power, and, to an extent, of international intrigue, are smeared with the cheap, coarsely vulgar and contemptibly petty politics of the local units of political parties, which hold or aspire to national power.

Ever so often, the local leaders of these parties stage demonstrations, take out processions, hold rallies and generally succeed in making the lives of those who have to live and work in the city a purgatory that would have won Dante's admiration. All of these are organised with the help of sweaty, hot-eyed toughs, who appear to be employed by these parties for this work, much as terrorist outfits have their mujahideen and "freedom" fighters. The issues are petty, and caste-ridden, and the level of debate so low that it begins to astonish. What a far cry from the days of imperial intrigue in the courts of Indian emperors! Today, national politics is, as I said, smeared with the filth of this local politicking, and is consequently pulled down to its level.

Around all this, and shaped by it is the social intercourse of the city. The days of civilised, courteous dealing with friends and neighbours, or anyone else in the city, have been replaced by road rage, offensive behaviour with strangers. Even social gatherings like weddings are occassions where guns are used to kill, merely to make a point. This is not a spin-off of national politics; this is a direct manifestation of the kind of people who now infest the city.

AND, paradoxically, the country as a whole moves on; we hear that the growth rate of the four southern States together is higher than that of the South-East Asian `tigers' like Thailand and Taiwan. The IT revolution has India, mainly southern India, as one of its major centres; and industrial investment is more in the southern regions than in the cow belt. The question we now need to ask ourselves is, why must we allow the backward, coarse, northern region to be where the national capital is located? If earlier factors like geography, communications and the rest are now irrelevant, what keeps the capital in Delhi? Can we not leave Delhi to its fate and move the capital - the place from where India, not the cow belt - to somewhere more sensible, a new place, free of Delhi's horrors and pettiness?

Of course, Delhi has its Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament House, the Secretariat complex and all that. So what? They can well be left to the likes of those who are trying to gain control of the place; they would simply love to sit in those large Ministerial rooms, and scamper about the corridors shouting at each other. All one has to do is build a capital - nothing lavish or grand - elsewhere, anywhere, just so long as it is not in the stinking heap of refuse where it now is.

Yes, it will be very very expensive; but consider the amount being poured into maintaining a capital which is a national shame, not for its civic condition - as we said, all cities have the same dreadful conditions, give or take a little - but for the chap - the shoddy mofussil town character - it has succeeded in attracting. And now we hear it will become a State; which may be a good thing for the creatures who will continue to infest it, but a very good reason for the capital to move elsewhere.

The present rulers will pooh-pooh the idea. They may do so now, but a time will come when the rest of India will find their grubby politics, their never-ending backwardness, and their fascination with producing more and more children intolerable, and forcibly move the capital out, even change the definition of India. It may be advisable to consider the issue now.

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