New Delhi: Romi Roy wasn’t planning to return to Delhi.
She had a job she loved in Shanghai, China, as a senior urban designer with the engineering consultancy, Arup. She could walk to work and buy breakfast from the street hawkers outside her office. At the end of the day, she’d buy roasted vegetables from other vendors who turned up to tout their wares late into the night.
“I had a lovely life,” she says.
But, back in Delhi for a holiday in December 2008, the architect and urban designer heard about the formation of a new government organization and suddenly her plans changed.
“When I heard about Uttipec, it sounded so fantastic that I almost fell off my chair,” says Roy, smiling behind small, neat glasses.
Three months later, she left her private sector job in Shanghai and was back in her home city as a senior consultant at an agency with a complicated name, the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre, or Uttipec, and a daunting mandate: to transform Delhi into a pedestrian-friendly metropolis.
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It might sound improbable that someone with as much international experience as Roy should want to plunge into the notoriously convoluted infrastructure of the Delhi Development Authority, under which Uttipec operates. But Roy likes a challenge. More importantly, she believes in the plausibility of changing the system from within.
She says she jumped at the chance of working in Uttipec because, as an organization with members from all the key transport and planning departments, she saw the potential to integrate the various plans and proposals and to work together towards a common goal.
Uttipec’s multifaceted mandate includes smoothening traffic flow, environmental programmes, housing, greening the city and making the streets safer. “That’s the beauty of Uttipec—it’s a team effort,” she says.
Bringing all the planning, infrastructure and transport management bodies under one roof is a particular problem for Delhi, where planning is controlled by the Central government and transport by the state.
But Roy says Uttipec bypasses the bureaucracy. “It’s a reduction of red tape,” she says. “You can have very open discussions because it’s a multi-disciplinary forum.”
Earlier in the day, Roy met with working groups chaired by the commissioner for transport and the commissioner for planning and exchanged ideas with five or six government departments. She seems enthused by the results.
“I think people need to join the government,” she says. “There has been such a stigma attached to it, because of the lack of coordination, which creates a mess as we have seen during the Commonwealth Games.”
The Commonwealth Games, held in Delhi in October, were marred by delays in preparation and allegations of corruption.
Roy, herself, does a lot to try and remove the stigma to which she alludes. As a woman coming from the private sector, and as someone with a lot of experience working internationally, she embodies a changing atmosphere in Delhi.
Before Shanghai, Roy worked in San Francisco with Arup and in Berkeley, California, managing urban design projects in Moscow, Bangalore, Tunis, Dubai, Pittsburgh and Austin.
She worked on rebuilding and renewal projects in Louisiana after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and she has witnessed first-hand the problems associated with America’s urban sprawl.
Although she’s hesitant about applying American urban planning principles to Indian cities, she points out that the sprawl-type growth predicted for Delhi by 2021 is reminiscent of US cities.
Uttipec’s aim is to put in place competent transport systems and manage their development so that growth doesn’t result in an unplanned muddle.
As well as producing plans for making Delhi’s existing roads pedestrian-friendly, Uttipec is working on a scheme it calls “transit-oriented development” to build with an eye to creating communities that can be accessed by walkers and cyclists, not just car owners.
A plan to promote “eyes on the street” encourages the replacement of boundary walls and fences with roadside windows, small shops and businesses. As well as increasing socialising and commerce, the scheme addresses street safety issues.
A project to clean and renew Delhi’s polluted system of open drains is also on the slate for next year.
Despite her criticism of the city’s existing infrastructure, Roy is a fiercely loyal Delhiite. “One of my fondest childhood memories is getting onto the bus with my parents and going to see a movie,” she says. “In those days, there was much less traffic and more space.”
As Delhi grows, and its citizens buy more cars, the problem will only get worse, Roy admits. But she sees hope in the advent of the Delhi Metro and a renewed sense of optimism in government.
Ultimately, Roy says, people have to get involved to make things happen, even if they don’t like the system. “I feel like a doctor and this city is like my sick patient,” she says. “Just because I don’t like looking at my patient doesn’t mean I don’t have to treat it.”