Delhi, our Gotham City?


A man wearing protective face mask rides a bicycle along a street in smoggy conditions in New Delhi. (AFP Photo)

What is the record-breaking pollution in Delhi all about, excepting that it is an Indian abomination? A truly unfortunate aspect about India is the overwhelming political domination of the northern plains over the rest of the country. The sustenance of New Delhi as its capital is a logical extension of that. The hard-earned incomes that most ordinary Indians are taxed on goes into the planned destructiveness of cities like Delhi and the socio-economic structures of the northern plains.

The capital of a country and one with the democratic experience of seven decades ought to be the exemplar of the best things about it. It hurts to say that despite its many charms, the negatives outdo Delhi's riches. Its jugaad culture, its unpredictability, its lack of safety, its toxic air, and its rank poverty -- all combine to complete its woeful image. It creates a bad impression in the eyes of both Indians and foreigners. In the expanding sphere of stand-up comedy, Delhi is often lampooned. Most millennial Delhi citizens are aware of how their city is perceived. Satirising Delhi, and what it stands for, is now a part of the city’s identity, even a cliché.

In the limited and perhaps prejudiced view of this writer who has lived in Mumbai and Delhi for long, it’s unmissable to see those who have resided in Delhi for long often insist that they don’t originally belong there. It’s true, for they are migrants. But the attitude is the opposite in a city like Mumbai. So often, migrants who have lived there even for a short time quickly say they belong there, as they identify with it. Though Mumbai is anything but a paradise, such stereotypes have some validity.

It’s even sadder. Delhi had no public transport to speak of till the Metro came. As a student there, this writer remembers the horrors of the smoke-spewing Blue and Red Line Delhi Transport Corporation buses, which had earned the tag ‘Blood Line’ buses for the accidents they caused and the rudeness of its drivers and conductors. Delhi got its Metro so many decades after Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata had local transport networks. In the early days of the Delhi Metro, it wasn’t uncommon to hear some uppity Delhi folks refusing to take it as it was beneath their status. In contrast, the Mumbai train, the cliché goes, has millionaires aboard it as they have no better choice. When a city has such a built-in attitude towards equality, its ‘national capital’ status seems undeserved.

As a city, there are few resources Delhi can call its own. Its water comes from adjoining states; its weather dependent on the vagaries of the Himalayas; the hot summer winds from Rajasthan; industrial waste from western Uttar Pradesh; the stubble-burning fumes from Punjab and Haryana: It’s a hemmed in basket-case of a city that happens to be our capital.

Lest you think otherwise, let me hasten to add that the state of most of our metros is bad. There are few that tick off the boxes of healthy living considerations. Cities like Beijing have improved upon their pollution record. On public services, authoritarian China appears to make apparent democracies look bad. And, as is usual, the worst sufferers of Delhi’s toxicity are its poor, who are hammered in the cold, in the heat, in the mosquito-filled scanty rains.

Recently, I watched the film Joker, at a cinema in Delhi. It’s a complex, mesmerising story that is very political about voicing the rage of the American underclass. In the end, the story descends into chaos and Gotham City is set on fire with a crowd of joker mask wearers cheering on: The mask is a metaphor for identification with their collective helplessness and outburst through shared suffering. As I exited the cinema, I felt all that I had seen had left the screen and come onto the street, with almost each person wearing an anti-pollution mask. Delhi felt like Gotham City, awaiting a trigger.

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