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Enough with ‘gas chamber’ New Delhi. It’s time India got a new capital

As an all-out effort is made to keep Delhi afloat, we need a parallel strategy to find a more congenial capital that will better serve India's interests.

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The exasperation of India’s Supreme Court with the appalling quality of life in Delhi was palpable. On 25 November 2019, the Supreme Court was hearing a matter concerning air pollution in Delhi and was being updated on steps taken by the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and the Centre. Reacting to the Delhi Chief Secretary’s admission that 45 per cent of the city’s solid waste was not being lifted by civic bodies, the Court remarked, “Is this not worse than internal war? Why are people in this gas chamber (Delhi)? … you better finish them with explosives… it would be better to go rather than suffer from diseases like cancer”.

The Supreme Court further bemoaned that no government wanted to take measures that were anti-populist. The issue of pollution was being politicised right under the nose of the Supreme Court. It concluded that it was high time to make state governments and officers responsible for not providing clean air and water. One of the judges remarked, “Delhi is worse than hell”.

Delhi’s problems are not of sudden making; they have risen over the years. These comprise, among other things, air pollution, water quality, waste management, housing shortages, crime, transportation and fire tragedies.  Delhi ranks as the most polluted city in the world in terms of its air pollution. Its water was declared by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) the most contaminated among cities that were surveyed.

As stated above, the Delhi government itself admitted that almost half the solid waste of the city continues to lie on the streets on account of the civic body’s inability to dispose of it. More and more of its population is living in slums and unauthorised colonies with substandard amenities. Among the major metros, the National Crime Records Bureau reported that Delhi has the highest crime rate in terms of IPC crimes. Despite huge additions in public transport through the metro, private transport vehicles are rising and clogging Delhi’s streets. And adding to the tragic condition of the capital, Delhi with troubling regularity is visited by horrendous fires since the days of the Upahar tragedy in 1997 to the Anaj Mandi fire on 8 December 2019, exposing the enormous governance deficit plaguing the city.

Also read: Air pollution is actually making our children dumber

One of the primary reasons for Delhi’s mounting infrastructural inadequacy is its demographic explosion. Delhi, with about 400,000 people in 1901 ranked the seventh-largest Indian city. It is now around 18 million and the largest megacity in the country. That is a rise of 4,500 percent. The future appears even more daunting. A UN Report titled World Urbanisation Prospects 2018 by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs suspects that Delhi may be the world’s most populous city by 2028 with 37.2 million people. It does not require great intelligence to foresee that the physical, environmental and social infrastructure of the city – already unable to keep pace with demography and showing signs of severe fatigue and atrophy – will be far more nightmarishly out of joint than what it is today. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s admonitions, it appears the demographic tsunami will make it almost impossible to salvage the city.

What is most worrisome is that Delhi happens to be the national capital, housing the most significant institutions, the most important people and the centre of the most critical national decision-making. What would be the impact on them and their efficiency in a dysfunctional city? Decidedly, the future bodes ill. What should, therefore, be the national response of decision-makers? While an all-out effort is made to keep the city afloat, one would suggest that a parallel strategy needs to be put in place to find another, more congenial capital that would better serve the interests of the nation.

Moving the capital of a city is nothing new. Countries over time have moved their capitals for a variety of reasons. However, delving far back into history to find examples may not be the most appropriate. Hence, we will stick to recent illustrations. Rio de Janeiro was for very long the capital of Brazil. But the city was crowded with huge transportation issues. Since government buildings were far apart, its efficiency was being seriously eroded. Hence the Government decided to create a new city about 1,100 km away in Brasilia. This became the country’s capital in 1960.

Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria and its most populous city was replaced by Abuja in 1991. Lagos was found to be muggy, crowded, hot and politically divisive. Abuja, 300 miles northeast of Lagos, was preferred by virtue of its sparse population density, higher elevation, and more central location.

Cairo, the capital city of Egypt was found inconvenient on account of heavy congestion, pollution and over-crowding and future indications that its population will double in the next few decades. Consequently, Egypt decided on a new capital city. This is under construction, some 45 km away to the east of Cairo.

Also read: Delhi’s toxic air is also silently hurting India’s slowing economy

This year, Indonesia’s President announced that the national capital would move from Jakarta to the island of Java in the province of East Kalimantan, on Borneo island. The reasons are Jakarta’s huge environmental burden. Its air is notoriously polluted. Additionally, Jakarta is sinking, suffers horrendous traffic jams, is short of drinking water and yet continues to grow unsustainably. China continues to house its capital in a megacity Beijing. However, faced with problems of demography and infrastructure, it has decided to limit its population at a pre-determined level by forcibly relocating large populations into other settlements.

It is interesting to note that most highly developed countries have their capitals in reasonably sized cities. The population of Washington, the capital city of USA, is a little more than 750,000. Germany’s capital Berlin is around 3.5 million, Paris is 2.1 million, London around 8 million and Canberra, Australia’s capital city is 390,000. None of these are even half the size of Delhi. There are 36 countries in the world that have capitals that are not their largest city. While almost all European countries have their capitals in their largest cities, most such cities, barring London, are medium-sized and among the best in terms of quality of life.

The cost of building a new capital city is humongous. Jakarta’s new capital, for instance, will cost USD $33 billion. It also takes time to design and construct a new city. For this reason, many observers suggest that moving capital is not a good idea. They caution that it may take generations to see any benefits. Instead, the nation should concentrate on improving and refurbishing existing infrastructure.

However, one has to also see the cost of continuing with a capital city that hinders economic efficiency and quality of life. For instance, the negative effects of Jakarta’s traffic congestion and pollution are computed to cost the economy USD $10 billion annually. Besides, governments may find private partners to share the burden. The Egyptian government has adopted such a partnership and will have a new capital with little cost to the Egyptian treasury.

In the above-cited background, India should start having a hard look at shifting its capital from Delhi. The place should be more centrally located and sparsely populated. It should have a more temperate climate and less prone to be polluted from outside. It should also better serve the requirements of national security. The effort of relocation may take a lot of time. But it appears worth the trouble, given the future downward trajectory of Delhi that seems difficult to reverse.

The author is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. Views are personal.

This article was first published on ORF.

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  1. A typical response to such a suggestion is it’ll take decades – which is without any rationale. Take for example Islamabad, now I’m well aware of failed state of Pakistan and its policies, but Islamabad is beautiful, most beautiful city in Indian subcontinent. It was envisaged in 1959 and in 1966 govt of Pakistan moved to new city of Islamabad from Karachi to Rawalpindi and finally to Islamabad. It was made from scratch, if Pakistan can do it sure we can as well. It requires political will as well as rationality in public. Sadly we as a country lack both of these things as you can gauge from the comments to this post.

  2. Keeping Bombay “ afloat “ presents another set of challenges. Recent studies indicate sea levels are rising faster than envisaged earlier. By 2050, the sea might reclaim the land that once belonged to it. With a Bombay centric party heading the state government, urgent planning is required to ensure that most of the city does not become Atlantis.

  3. That would take decades and over a hundred billion dollars of investment. It is not that the rest of the country is the Garden of Eden, offering a pristine environment. Urban centres all over the country dominate the list of most polluted cities in the world. 2. As an immediate reprieve, MEA could develop a facility in Goa to receive foreign dignitaries in winter.

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