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Capital makeover

The 19th century Urdu poet Zauq knew what he was talking about. Who will ever go leaving the streets of Delhi behind, the poet wrote in one of his memorable couplets. He could have been talking about contemporary Delhi.

Indian cities are the dumps — but New Delhi, while no way near a First World metropolis, gleams with its broad boulevards and green spaces. The city is the envy of those who live in India’s other choked and unplanned metropolises.

They’ll soon become even more envious. Consider:

By October 2010, when the capital will host the Commonwealth Games, another 128 km of Metro lines will snake their way across the city, in addition to the current 65 km. The Metro will link New Delhi Railway Station to the airport. Trains running at 135 km per hour will cover the 19.2 km stretch in 16 minutes.

Delhi’s drivers should certainly have an easier time with 25 flyovers slated to come up over the next two years, as its main arterial roads become signal-free by 2010.

Parking will be easier. Two multi-level automatic parking lots are being built by real estate firm DLF in central and south Delhi; drivers will merely have to place the car on a platform — the car will be moved to an empty slot and retrieved later.

Commuters will board better-designed buses which will have ticket vending machines. New disabled-friendly bus shelters fitted with electronic information boards will dot the city.

Delhi-ites will get seven new hospitals, more water (a new canal and beefed up water treatment facilities are in the offing), and an end to power cuts, thanks to more power plants.

The capital will only get greener. The Northern Railways is planting 1.5 lakh saplings and the Delhi government is launching a greening drive. “This will be one of the few instances of development not harming the environment,” says Delhi chief secretary Rakesh Mehta.

Of these, the most far-reaching change for Delhi-ites will be transport. Commuting, promises Mehta, will become much easier. A Rs 1,518-crore high capacity bus system will see special low-floor buses fitted with an automatic vehicle tracking system moving along segregated lanes. The Delhi Transport Corporation will have 1,100 new buses for the Games, which will later get added to its fleet. With a wider network and 500 more coaches, the Metro will be able to carry 80,000 passengers an hour. The bill for this urban nirvana? A jaw-dropping Rs 65,000 crore plus.

For many Delhi-ites, makeovers offer a sense of déjà vu. The 1982 Asian Games got Delhi to shed its overgrown village look with eight stadia, seven flyovers, wider roads, resettlement colonies to which squatters were moved and a host of five-star hotels. “We changed the face of Delhi,” exclaims former urban development minister Jagmohan, then Delhi’s lieutenant governor.

Faded pictures of Delhi before 1982 highlight lightly populated roads, with forested areas within the city. Then came the Asiad, and construction became the buzzword. But the burgeoning city quickly outgrew the bounty of the Asian Games. Piecemeal upgrades kept happening — flyovers, underpasses, subways and so on — and Delhi clearly needed another overhaul.

The Commonwealth Games have provided the city with the perfect excuse. To be sure, only a part of the revamp has been prompted by the Games — Rs 13,297 crore is being spent directly on improving Delhi’s stadia, building a Games village for players, security arrangements and sprucing up areas near the venues. This includes a Rs 767-crore loan from the Centre to the Games organising committee for putting up players and transporting them to sports venues, expenditure on ceremonies and so on.

A good chunk of the money that Delhi is splurging on civic infrastructure is being used for projects that were anyway on the anvil. The Games have merely put projects on the fast track. “Because of the pressure of the Games, what would have got done in 2015 will be ready by 2009,” says Mehta.

Politician Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee, points out, “Every Games event takes a city forward by 10 years.” And Delhi’s gain, he adds, is Mumbai’s loss — for he had earlier suggested the western city as the venue for the Games, but was cold-shouldered by the Maharashtra government.

So you have the Northern Railways spending Rs 96 crore on projects in Delhi, of which a piffling Rs 20 lakh-odd is for Games-related projects. One involves building at a cost of around Rs 15-lakh sound barriers along railway tracks near the Games Village (something not attempted in India so far) so that players will not be disturbed. A new airport and expressway on the Delhi-Jaipur highway are also in the offing, though the projects are not related to the Games.

Evidence of the sprucing up is visible everywhere. Cranes and heavy machinery groan while an army of construction workers garbed in orange jackets toil away at creating the express corridor for buses. Metro workers are in every corner, digging away for the new lines.

A new airport is expected to come up by March 2010 — with a combined domestic and international terminal sprawling over 100 acres, and 75 aerobridges — the highest number in the world for an airport this size. Six plots have been earmarked within the airport complex for hotels — budget to seven-star.

The existing international airport will be revamped by March 2008 and a new domestic terminal, capable of handling 10 million passengers and with equipment that will help aircraft land and take off in visibility as low as 50 metres, will be ready by June.

By 2008-end, Delhi will also get a brand new Rs 86-crore mega terminal (where trains will originate and terminate) in east Delhi and new buildings in the existing railway stations, with international signs, plasma screen displays of train schedules, coach indicator boards, airconditioned lounges, shopping zones and separate areas for embarking and disembarking passengers. The busy New Delhi station will get four new platforms.

Sounds good, but will all this get done? It should, says Jagmohan, who recalls Delhi just had 18 months to prepare for the Asiad. This time it’s got a three-year head start. Committees at the state and Central government levels are already monitoring the progress of projects.

The frenetic activity will perhaps bolster the widespread belief that the capital gets special favours from the Centre, which other cities don’t. But Mehta insists that Delhi isn’t being pampered. The bulk of the spending on civic infrastructure, he says, is from the state’s own budget. “We have a Rs 9,000-crore annual budget and have the resources to spend.” (In contrast, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s budget this year is about Rs 2,100 crore.)

The Delhi government had sought Rs 1,314 crore from the Centre for improving infrastructure for the Games, but was sanctioned Rs 770 crore. Central government spending is confined to the stadia under the jurisdiction of the sports ministry, work being done by the Delhi Development Authority, security arrangements, and half of the expenditure on the Metro — the state paying for the other half.

Still, problems abound. The Delhi Urban Arts Commission hasn’t given its approval for five projects. The DDA has auctioned around 20 plots for hotels, which should add close to 8,000 rooms. But Deepak Sharma, secretary general of the Federation of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Northern India, doubts whether the hotels will get built by 2010. “It takes two years for just a soft launch. How can these hotels open for business by 2010,” he asks.

Even if they don’t, they’ll probably add to the infrastructure legacy the Games will leave behind. The city, after all, will live beyond the Games.

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