With pride doesn’t always come prejudice. The history of cities shows that while rulers built them to showcase their power and glory with great buildings, wide avenues, vast squares, gigantic statues, waterworks and well-tended rivers, it is the inhabitants who gave them spirit and unique character. ‘Parisian’ doesn’t just mean residents of the world’s most enchanting city, and represents a distinct culture and way of life. A New Yorker is more than a person living in a brownstone in Brooklyn and goes to Manhattan for a night out. London is a state of being, and not just pigeons in Trafalgar Square. The world’s great cities are jewels of national identity, whose inhabitants take pride in their uniqueness, and all threats to its existence are met with vehement action.
So what has happened to India’s capital city?
Delhi is consumptive with pollution. This week, the city’s air is at toxic levels considered unhealthy by the Central Pollution Control Board. Wasn’t it embarrassing that the king of Belgium was in town, his eyes watering? The Yamuna, once pristine and holy to Lord Krishna is now a poisonous, sewage-infected stretch of weary water in which nothing survives. Epidemics are a given in all seasons. Roads are clogged, and unauthorised colonies pox the outskirts. In 1957, Britain’s Natural History Museum declared the river Thames biologically dead.
However, a major revitalisation drive brought it back to life. In 2012, London Mayor Boris Johnson offered government help to clean up the Yamuna, but red tape put an end to it. Garden city Bangalore is collapsing of thirst and trapped in traffic snarls. Yet Bangaloreans, many of them out-of-towners, are proud of their metropolis. In contrast, Chennai is flooded; maybe less this time than in December 2015, when 300 had died. Chennaites are proud to belong to their city neverthless.
Annual floods in Mumbai, in spite of the ritual annual government meetings afterwards, routinely drown people in open sewers. Still, the Mumbaikar loves Mumbai. Calcutta, no longer the City of Joy, has been dying for decades. But you can take the Calcuttan outside Calcutta, not Calcutta out of the Calcuttan.
Argue as much as you want, but Delhi is India’s greatest city. When Mumbai was just a fishing colony, Calcutta a spot in the swamp, Chennai a village and Bangalore didn’t even exist, Delhi was the capital of empires for centuries. Kings, emperors and Viceroys brought the best of their traditions to the city.
Romanticise bucolic serenity as you much as you will, but cities are the lifeblood of nations. They are the souls of civilisations, where art, culture and music flourish. It’s in cities where architectural styles are set. Cities have been great centres of learning through the ages. Delhi is no different.
It is, and will always be, a seat of power. With power comes responsibility. Hence, instead of pandering to unauthorised colonies with free power and land, allowing cowbelt crossovers from splattering the august pillars of Connaught Place with paan juice, taking bribes from squatters on burial places of long-dead Mughals and ignoring vehicles poisoning the air, Delhi should be reclaimed from the smog of the present. It’s time to turn it into the capital India deserves. Dilli Door Ast doesn’t cut it anymore.