New Delhi: There are around 10,000 elevators in Delhi, and Avinash Kumar Aggarwal reckons he must have ridden at least 4,000 of them. His batting average was far higher 10 years ago, when there were only 3,000 elevators in the city. That is the rate, Aggarwal muses, at which his city is growing vertically.

Vertical growth: A file photo of skyscrapers in New Delhi. Vertically dense cities are, experts have pointed out, less carbon intensive, better served by limited infrastructure, and relatively environment-friendly. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

When Aggarwal joined the electrical department of the Delhi government in 1975, the Capital had just under 1,000 elevators. Inspecting these once a year, as required by law, was a cinch for Aggarwal and his six fellow inspectors. “Now there are about 500-600 new lifts added every year in Delhi," says Aggarwal, who is currently designated electrical inspector. “There are malls and hotels and cinemas, and lifts in Metro stations and in new housing societies in suburbs like Dwarka. It’s a real elevator boom."

From his office on the second floor of a ramshackle Delhi government building—an office, ironically, that has no elevator leading up to it—Aggarwal now supervises a team of 23, up from eight in 1999.

Amid other electrical works, his inspectors certify new elevators and check old ones. Escalators do not fall into their purview. “Neither do those hoists for goods that are used often in construction sites," Aggarwal says. “There are a lot of accidents with those."

Collectively, these inspectors visit an average of 20 elevators per day; on a particularly busy day, that number once touched 40. (Every Delhi elevator, except those installed in Central government buildings, falls under Aggarwal’s indirect care.) It takes roughly the same time to inspect a building with a bank of six elevators as one with just a solitary elevator: “About an hour, I should say. After all, you have to check the same pit, and you have to climb up to the same engine room, whether it’s one lift or more."

Inspecting elevators is not for the faint of heart. The task involves routinely crouching in the darkness of the pit, an elevator looming somewhere above you; sticking your hand between a pair of closing doors to see if they retract as they should; and sitting in the engine room, often on the edge of a shaft that falls dizzyingly away from you. Aggarwal sombrely remembers one repairman—not government staff, he hastens to add, but a private contractor—who was killed a few years ago because he forgot to flick the inspection switch and turn the lift off before starting his work.

In at least the last seven years in Delhi, Aggarwal claims, there have been no accidents resulting from malfunctioning elevators. But he has other causes for concern. He needs more staff, for one; at present, his team manages to inspect 95% of Delhi’s elevators every year, if not all of them, but the challenge is getting steeper.

What really raises Aggarwal’s hackles, however, is the addition of elevators where none was needed earlier. “I know of one housing society in East Delhi that has more than 50 lifts by itself," he says. “And I’ve seen bungalows and farmhouses, in Vasant Vihar for instance, where even for one additional floor above the ground level, there will be a lift installed."

A decade ago, elevators in Delhi were found nearly exclusively in buildings of four floors or more, where they were required by law. “In a ground-plus-two building, an elevator was a luxury," says Sameer Joshi, general manager of corporate communications and modernization at Otis India Ltd. Only the odd moneyed person, as Joshi puts it, “would say: ‘I’m driving a Mercedes, so I want an elevator in my bungalow.’ But now it has become…something of a necessity."

The Indian elevator market, Joshi says, is growing annually at 15%, a rate only slightly dampened by the economic troubles of last year. Delhi, with its spurt of construction activity ahead of the Commonwealth Games, saw virtually no elevator slowdown at all. In October, even as he said that he was “zealously protecting" the Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone of central Delhi, urban development minister S. Jaipal Reddy admitted that there was “pressure" on him to allow more high-rise buildings in that section of the city. For other areas and other cities, however, Reddy said: “We need to go in for high-rise buildings… There is high density of population in urban areas."

Vertically dense cities are, experts have pointed out, less carbon intensive, better served by limited infrastructure, and relatively environment-friendly. They are also, as of now, the only solution to the quandary involving limited land resources and exploding urban populations, says Kavas Kapadia, an urban planning professor in the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture. “At least until we learn to build under the sea," he laughs.

Compared with Mumbai, where expanding land use is often constrained by the natural barriers of the sea, Delhi has managed to sprawl rather than rise; the beginnings of its transition into a vertical city come late in the game. But it was bound to happen, Kapadia shrugs. “You only have the option of sprawl until you reach the edge of Haryana or Rajasthan. You can’t exactly encroach into Punjab after that," he says. “Now the sprawl is over, and you have to go upwards. It’s as inevitable as ageing—you can only hope that you do your best to age gracefully."

In Aggarwal’s case, that inevitability translates into more elevator rides. “The Union Public Service Commission is conducting interviews right now, though, so we should be able to cope. But our strength will have to increase to at least 34," he says. “Because there’s no doubt about it: There are many more lifts in our future."