It’s been a good nine months since I was last in Dilli, and I was quite amazed by the speed at which (some) things have progressed. The Metro extensions to Noida and Gurgaon, a few tentative rebar poking out from the ground in fall 2007, had sprouted into an almost unbroken row of lofty concrete pillars with viaduct cranes connecting the tops and station boxes starting to take shape — they just might make the 2010 deadline. The Great India Place in Noida and the MGF Metropolitan in Saket had both opened and finally given Delhi malls that wouldn’t look too much out of the place in Singapore. The amazingly banged-up super-high-floor city buses slaughering pedestrians on Delhi’s roads have been joined by a growing fleet of slick green low-floor buses, and the Bus Rapid Transit line from Moolchand to Ambedkar Nagar is set to open in a few months. NH-8 from Delhi to Gurgaon has finally opened and the slick swooping curves of the grade-separated intersections around Mahipalpur and the airport are an infinite improvement on the previous jams. Last but not least, the airport’s tentative renovations are now in full swing: the entire five kilometers from NH-8 to the current terminal is now one giant construction site with worker ants scurrying about building the new terminal, the third runway and the Airport Express line. What’s this place going to look like two years down the line when everything is complete for the 2010 Commonwealth Games?
On the flip side of the coin, nine months away from India was enough to tune my eye again to the daily weirdnesses of life in India. Zooming on an on-ramp to the DND Flyway, one of Delhi’s still regrettably few expressways, a wandering swami had decided that the side of the road, ten meters up in the air and inches away from speeding cars, would be a good place to build a bonfire and warm himself. Going to lunch at the Shipra Mall in Noida, a ridiculously pompous palace of consumerism decked out with statues and Romanesque pillars and consequently rather resembling a cross between a Las Vegas hotel and Bangkok massage parlor, had one of the lanes on its entry way under repair — so they’d thrown up a strand of barbed wire across the road, with somebody’s pants hanging in the middle so drivers would see it. On the way out, an empty field between the glass offices of the call centers and outsourcing labs was covered from end to end in cow patties, drying in the sun. Under the flyovers lurk Delhi’s underworld of dirty street kids and destitute beggars, naked toddlers with dust-caked hair running about the median between the roads.
And in the sterile comfort of the bland Sheraton, where a week’s stay costs about the same as a Tata Nano microcar, I flipped my TV to state broadcaster Doordarshan’s Sports channel in prime time and was treated to a rerun of the 2000 World Chess Championship, long ago live from Tehran — another vaguely funny reminder of how India’s well-meaning government continues to cripple the country through misguided initiatives. The week’s talk of the town was the LPG shortage, caused by government fixed rates making it unprofitable to supply, and the limited supplies thus being diverted to commercial use at Rs.600 each or the black market at as much as Rs.1000 a pop, instead of the heavily loss-making consumer rate of Rs.300. The government’s reaction? Raids against retailers to make sure they aren’t selling them on the black market or “hoarding”. Sigh.