Can India Tame Its Intractable Capital?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tomas Munita / The New York Times / Redux

A traffic jam at rush hour in the old city of New Delhi on Jan. 9, 2008

For a thriving, cosmopolitan city, New Delhi has remarkably low self-esteem. Indians generally agree, and those living in Delhi have no trouble admitting, that the nation's capital is the rudest of the country's metros. It's aggressive — just watch the motorists, cyclists and pedestrians fight it out on the roads, willing the other to give way with loud horns, murderous looks or outright elbowing. It's uncouth — no one even blinks at jumping queues or spitting betel juice or urinating in public. It's loud and brash, entirely unabashedly.

Now, with the Commonwealth Games just a year away, the city's bad manners have upset a personage no less than the country's Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who said on Sept. 22 that Delhiites needed an "attitude makeover" in order to "play good hosts" in 2010. Delhi's Chief Minister, Shiela Dixit, readily agreed and said plans are afoot to teach Delhi folks to be "more caring and sharing." She indicated that a Beijing-style program of civic education, like the one rolled out before last year's Olympics, would be launched soon. It's only the third time a developing country will host the Commonwealth Games. Last week, Delhi got pulled up for its tardy preparations by Commonwealth Games Federation chief Michael Fennel. In a letter to the local organizing committee, Fennel wrote that it was "reasonable to conclude that the current situation poses a serious risk to the Commonwealth Games in 2010."

Amazingly, in a polity so fraught with socioeconomic tension that films can cause riots (as the makers of Slumdog Millionaire learned when there were protests over the film's title, which some people found offensive), no one disputed the high-level censure. No displays of injured pride, not even a pretense of offense taken. Even the Home Minister's tactless remarks blaming migrants for Delhi's civic woes — "People come to Delhi. This is the capital, and we cannot stop them. But if they come to Delhi, they will have to adhere to the behavioral requirement, the discipline of the city" — went without remark. And that insouciance is exactly why it will be difficult to teach Delhi residents to say "please" and "thank you" and stop all those annoying behaviors in time for the event that will be India's graduation ball. "No one protested because they know Chidambaram is right," says Delhi-based writer Namita Gokhale. "And frankly, no one cares."

Part of the city's problem is that there are too few true Delhiites to really care about Delhi. Among the 14 million people living in the capital today, some 40% are migrants. "If you ask anyone in Delhi where they come from, they don't say Delhi, they name their native city or village," says Delhi-based journalist Manoj Joshi. "No one knows anyone else, so people behave very differently from how they would where they come from. They have no affiliation with the city." Gokhale agrees: "There are no real Delhi insiders anymore, and the Delhiite's identity is diluted and fractured. There's no sense of loyalty to the city, so no sense of investment."

After India's partition in 1947, it used to be de rigueur for Delhi old-timers, who prided themselves on their Mughal courts–inspired etiquette and culture, to blame the influx of Punjabis for the city's civil decay. Having lost all they had in the butchery that accompanied partition, these Punjabis were intent on succeeding in this alien land — and they did. The Punjabis are among the richest communities in Delhi today, owning many of the city's largest and most successful businesses. In the process, they became accused of injecting a new ruthlessness into the city's DNA, and are the butt of xenophobic jokes still being tossed around today, such as "the national bird of Punjab is tandoori chicken" and "the only culture in Punjab is agriculture."

Now Delhi houses people from all corners of the country, who have carried on the tradition of blaming one another for bad public behavior and who refuse to claim this orphaned city as their own. Few know the history behind even the largest monuments that dot the landscape and stand witness to Delhi's layered past. Because people here don't know one another, Delhi folk feel no compunction in replicating the same behaviors they disparage in others — honking horns, staring unabashedly at women (yes, even women stare at other women) and, not to forget, urinating in public, sometimes right next to a urinal. "It's so stressful living in Delhi," says Gokhale. "To survive here, you have to be really pushy, and the result is that the city is completely dehumanizing."

To be sure, bad behavior is not unique to Delhi — it's just worse here. But that's not the image of its national capital that India wants to project to the world. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, India has displayed the same touchiness about its self-image as the other rising Asian giant, China. "It's the same case with all Asian cultures," says Joshi. "They want to showcase their modernity to show they've arrived. Take spitting, for instance. In Singapore, China, India ... it's seen as something that belongs to the past and should be left behind."

Will Delhiites be tamed? There have been drives in the past to discourage urinating in public, which all failed, abysmally. But at the same time, awareness programs to teach people "manners" on the Delhi Metro have shown that Delhi residents can be taught to stand in queues. The Delhi government has been training police to learn basic English and auto-rickshaw drivers to deal more courteously with customers. But the challenge before Chief Minister Dixit's civic-education program is huge: How do you get Delhi residents to put their best face on for a city they don't even consider to be theirs?