Asiad Village is one of New Delhi’s more upmarket addresses. It’s near where I live, and on many mornings I have seen a car racing along the main road, a man engrossed in a newspaper on the back seat. As it nears a municipal dump (where in any case the garbage is more often than not dumped outside rather than in), the driver tosses a bag of garbage on the road, without even slowing. The plastic rips and spreads the pile of vegetable peels, chicken bones and eggshells on the street. The car races on.
Locking horns: The Chirag Dilli stretch of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor, which has earned the wrath of many and given rise to heated debate over the desirability of such a system. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
To say that the Indian middle class is pampered and spoilt is to make a statement of little value. Throughout the world, it is no secret that the middle class determines the quality of urban life. Its ability to buy or rent space, its capacity for consumption, its requirements for offices, schools, parks, recreation, shopping, and indeed, its needs for transportation, all set the tone for the city. Yet there is little in the actions of the Indian middle class that shows concern for citizens that don’t belong to it. It uses the city on its own terms, with a selfish emphasis on convenience, requiring unencumbered access to shopping, insisting on alighting and parking only at doorsteps, waging continual territorial wars over private space, and usurping all that belongs in the public realm. It grabs sidewalks, seizes airspace, cantilevers illegally and reclaims all that belongs to others for its own purposes. However minuscule a minority, the middle class has the power to hold the city to ransom. And it does.
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The Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, system has faced the direct ire of Delhi’s middle class. Connecting the city’s posh southern colonies to the working district around Connaught Place, the experiment cut room for itself on the centre of one of the busiest arteries, leaving little space for private vehicles. Unused to the mismatch of road space between the private car and the public bus, many have raised their voices at the most potent venue for debate: the cocktail party. In upper class drawing rooms, voices are raised in uniform condemnation of the new mode of public transport: “I spent 2 hours in traffic”; “I was stuck at the light for 45 minutes, yaar, this BRT just doesn’t work. Why don’t they scrap it?” The same people who will spend hours labouring on New York City sidewalks without a squeak, or carrying heavy packages in and out of the London Underground without so much as a groan, will mount a scathing offensive if made to walk on Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade or Bangalore’s Brigade Road. Without a driver waiting with an open car door at the kerb, no trip in the city is possible.
Their sharp refrain carries none of the concerns for the larger benefit of any urban idea, which is condemned simply for private inconvenience and the fear of lost status. Why should a bank clerk get to work on time while I, in my Toyota, am delayed at his expense? Transport, like everything else in the city, needs to share the burdens of the class divide.
Is the supposed failure of any public project always to be measured from a singular perspective? Is it possible for the few car owners who are inconvenienced to see that the BRT has been greatly beneficial to the multitudes of bus passengers commuting to office every day? For every one of those car owners, seven bus commuters get to work in relative comfort and efficiency. But when less than 20% of all movement in the city is by private transport, is the silent majority—travelling by bus, cycling, or walking—ever going to be heard? Unlikely.
The idea of the BRT was adapted for implementation in Delhi by the Indian Institute of Technology, and it is indeed a shame that the project had none of the public support that a new initiative deserves. Of course, there is a reason why the BRT has been successful in Bogota, Colombia, and Jakarta, Indonesia, and not in New Delhi. The original model was planned as a complete system that considered people’s passage through pedestrian paths, tunnel links and bridge access. The system not only worked as an efficient organism but also created the necessary moments of pause— sit-outs, self-contained flower gardens, kiosks, etc—that made movement in the city worth the experience.
The BRT’s success or failure is linked intrinsically to our ability to reproduce second-rate clones of foreign ideas. Without underpasses, speed control, or incentives for car owners to use the alternative, the New Delhi attempt was half-hearted and incomplete. It took only the picture of a cow squatting happily in one of the lanes to give an indication of the local conditions within which the foreign copy was set.
In its search for ways to accommodate the increasing number of commuters in a growing city, the government needs to seriously rethink transportation possibilities, away from the conventions in other countries—perhaps a radical shift in practice to schemes that allow people to abandon private cars altogether: to develop traffic master plans for a range of metro, A-grade and B-grade cities that effectively integrate all forms of public transport into a comprehensive map. The idea is to come up with individual and imaginative alternatives to private transport which has, as a failed model, thus far consumed almost a third of city space— space that could well be used for parks and recreation. Transport planners know very well that it is possible to link all points in the city through BRTs, metros, three-wheelers, cycle rickshaws and pedestrian sidewalks. With a road system free of private cars, the city will not just breathe easier, but will once again become a place for all its citizens.
The Harbour Crane at the seaport of Harlingen, Netherlands, may well be one of the world’s most unusual hotels. Earlier used to unload timber from Russia, its machine room has now been converted into a 17m- high bedroom between a sky full of seagulls and the Wadden Sea. Occupants can go to the control room and swing the 65,000kg cabin around in a 360-degree circle. A Dutch breakfast comes up in a lift. http://www.vuurtoren-harlingen.nl
To meet the shortfall of hotel rooms in the Capital, the Delhi Tourism and Transport Development Corporation (DTTDC) had launched the bed-and-breakfast scheme—less than 500 houses have been registered under it. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) has auctioned 39 sites for the construction of hotels in time for the Commonwealth Games. It had estimated that these hotels would contribute around 6,500 rooms. But many hoteliers who were allotted plots have developed cold feet, fearing poor visitor turnout in the wake of the downturn. A recent parliamentary committee on tourism, transport and culture has criticized the delay in creating additional hotel accommodation at the 39 hotel sites auctioned since January 2006, noting with concern that there would be a shortage of about 16,000 hotel rooms in the Capital during the Games.
Every month, the Greenbirds, an army of school-age to middle-aged environmentalists, descend upon one conspicuous Paris site, ridding its streets of cigarette butts, dog droppings and a host of other indignities. The volunteers in the picture are gathered outside the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Donning emerald vests and cleaning gloves, they scrape the surface of every sullied crevice between the stone steps of the famous art museum with metal pincers. But they aren’t French; they’re Japanese. Greenbird Paris is the first overseas wing of a Tokyo-based non-profit group that has been working in Japanese neighbourhoods since 2003.
This photo, taken on 20 February, shows a clerk holding an original ‘netsuke’ (right) made of boxwood and its copy (left) at a gallery in Tokyo. ‘Netsuke’, miniature sculptures made of ivory, boxwood or animal horn traditionally worn by Japanese men to decorate their kimono belts, have become the latest target of counterfeit artists in Hong Kong and China.
Gautam Bhatia is a New Delhi-based architect and writer.
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