Saturday, September 25, 2010
Corrupt rulers, cynical people
The filthy underbelly of Delhi, best described in Kipling’s words as a ‘packed and pestilential town’, has been exposed by the CWG mess.
(Toilets at CWG Village. Organisers said hygiene is not an issue! - BBC)
August 24, 1690. This day at Sankraal, I ordered Captain Brooke to come up with a vessel to Chuttanuty, where we arrived about noon, but found the place in a deplorable condition, nothing being left for our present accommodation, the rains falling day and night.” The “deplorable condition” of ‘Chuttanuty’ (Sutanuti), laid to waste by the Nawab of Bengal three-and-a-half years ago, would have dampened the spirit of any other official, but Job Charnock, no stranger to Bengal, had set his mind on building the headquarters of East India Company at this place and remained undeterred. His persistence paid off when Calcutta was born of the union of three villages — Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. Much later, it was to become the Empire’s Second City, the centre of British affairs in India.
Yet, for all its economic, political and social importance, Calcutta was not free of blots and blemishes. Two centuries after Charnock landed in Sutanuti, the celebrated chronicler of British India and for a while Assistant Editor of this newspaper, Rudyard Kipling, visited Calcutta and was not impressed either by its magnificent buildings that symbolised the power of the Raj or the splendorous lifestyle of the ‘White nabobs’ who controlled trade and commerce. Rather than lavish praise on the city and its residents, Kipling caustically wrote:
Thus the midday halt of Charnock — more’s the pity! —
Grew a City
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
So it Spread
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built on the silt
Palace, byre, hovel — poverty and pride —
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.
Kipling was accused of being cynical and allowing his antipathy towards Hindoos who, though restricted to native quarters, shared the city with their colonial masters, get the better of his judgement. In retrospect, Kipling was just being prescient in his own inimitable style. Even before the Union Jack fluttering atop Governor House was replaced by the Tricolour at Raj Bhavan and the last British official, trader and fortune-seeker-turned-boiler operator at Victoria Jute Mill left Calcutta, the city had begun to crumble. Garbage and poverty, hunger and disease, death and decay enmeshed to become the leitmotif of Calcutta, compared to which Delhi, Bombay and Madras were small towns.
As Calcutta’s collapse gathered speed, Delhi — or rather New Delhi — emerged as free India’s First City, pampered at the expense of every other urban centre. Over the decades, Delhi has grown, “As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed; So it (has) Spread; Chance-directed, chance-erected”, but it has never had either the glitz and glamour of Bombay or the sedate respectability of Calcutta. It’s a city of ghettos, both real and of the mind, where the elite live in what are referred to as ‘posh colonies’ while politicians and bureaucrats occupy sprawling bungalows in Lutyens’s Delhi. Then there is another Delhi where people live in festering urban slums and ‘unauthorised’ colonies of various kinds. The chrome-and-glass malls, bridges and underpasses are an alluring distraction from the city’s filthy underbelly. If Calcutta was India’s ‘pestilential city’ in the 19th century, Delhi best fits Kipling’s description in India of the 21st century. For evidence, look at the alarming outbreak of dengue and swine flu. Neither class nor cash serves as a protective barrier in this “packed and pestilential town, (where) Death looks down.”
Despite the huge sums of money that are spent every year to make Delhi a “world class city” — a phrase popularised by Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit — there really is little to show by way of public services that are in any manner better from those provided in India’s other, and lesser, cities. A corrupt administration supervised by venal politicians who believe glib talk is a substitute for governance cannot be expected to perform any better. Delusions of grandeur no different from those that clouded the mind of the last Mughal Emperor whose writ did not run beyond the walls of his serraglio prompted Delhi’s rulers to believe they would be able to stage the “best-ever Commonwealth Games” and stun the world.
In the event, the preparations for the Games, which have cost India’s honest tax-payers upwards of `70,000 crore, have turned out to be no more than the Great Indian Rope Trick. Initial audit reports suggest limitless loot by those entrusted with the task of creating new and refurbishing existing infrastructure; a final assessment would reveal the enormous scale of the thievery that has taken place in the name of hosting the Games.
It would, however, be dishonest to blame politicians, bureaucrats and contractors alone for fetching such ignominy and abiding shame: India is being laughed at by the entire world; this nation has been reduced to an object of ridicule and pity. More than politicians and organisers, bureaucrats and contractors, it is the people of Delhi who are to blame. There is a certain callous disregard for values and ethics that sets apart the elite of Delhi from their counterparts in other cities. So long as their lives are not adversely affected, they are reluctant to take a stand on behalf of others, leave alone the nation. Scrutiny of Government’s actions that involve spending taxpayers’ money by citizens is an alien concept in Delhi.
Nor are the elite of Delhi easily moved by the horrific realities of life to which others are subjected in this city — poor sanitation, non-existent civic services, corrupt babus, rationed water, endless power cuts, ill-equipped hospitals and a criminally indifferent police force. It is amusing that there should be widespread anger over Games Organising Committee secretary-general Lalit Bhanot insisting that excreta-encrusted toilets and bathrooms at the CWG Village (which Ms Dikshit says is better than the one built for the Melbourne Games) are “clean to both you and us” but “may not appear so to some others”. If only newspapers had published, equally prominently, the bathrooms and kitchens at All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, we would have known that accepting filth and squalor as ‘normal’ is a way of life, and not an exception, in India’s “world class” capital city.
By this time next month the Games will be history; what will remain are the leftovers of an orgiastic feast at the taxpayers expense: Bridges that are badly designed and poorly built, roads that are no more than a layer of asphalt and stadia with leaking roofs nobody will use. Life will go on as usual. The slums will become more squalid than before. Yamuna will once again be reduced to a fetid drain. And we will still be ruled by the same lot who have let India down. As for the guilty men and women, none of them will be either shamed or shunned.
[This appeared as Edit Page Main Article in The Pioneer.]