Memory may usually play funny games with one’s mind, but sometimes it can be deadly serious. As it was with me just last week as I was forced to traverse Josip Broz Tito Road, where Delhi is building its first BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) segment of 5.8 km. My driver had warned me against crossing it even at this late evening hour. But rushing for a live appearance at the NDTV studio I had no real option. Truth to tell, I was also curious to see what the commotion was all about.
I will not waste your time, or this paper’s space, to describe to you what a revelation it was. For that you read the front pages of all Delhi newspapers every day. I will only tell you what it reminded me of: my four-year tryst with biology. And while that I still managed to graduate with flying colours speaks more for how a disastrous examination system can somehow deliver you a brilliant result, none of my teachers would even have vouched for my skills with the scalpel in the zoology lab. Every unfortunate animal that died for the sake of mankind — as in the ’70s you only studied biology to try and become a doctor — turned into a mass of blood and goo on my dissection table. Veins and arteries, muscle and bone all lay in a horrible mess as I, invariably, looked apologetically to the teacher or the lab attendant for help. All I got in return was the look that said, “And what if you ever became a surgeon! If you ever opened up a patient for surgery, you would never be able to stitch him back together!”
Well that calamity was averted, and just as well. But one look at Josip Broz Tito Road today and I remember the disasters on my dissection table. Here indeed is at work a team of surgeons about as skilled at fixing our city’s transportation system as I was at cutting up frogs, rabbits, pigeons, leeches and cockroaches in my biology lab. Except that the mess they have created affects living people, and millions of them. Except also that they have access to a very cash-rich Delhi government’s billions to try and fix it. They will now build several bypasses, insert streets (in the form of ship roads and foot over-bridges) and even build a whole flyover at a cost of more than three times that of the original project. And all of this because in this lab the surgeon is also the examiner, and the victim, in this case the Delhi resident, is exactly as helpless, and nearly as dead, as the helpless chloroform-drunk rabbit on my dissection table.
Governments make mistakes and fix them. Politicians are also usually brilliant at knowing when to cut their losses. That they have taken leave of that basic instinct on this disaster is because the BRT is being built by an incredibly powerful alliance of well-meaning civil servants, politicians, activists, and private “experts”. They are all well-meaning and sincere, but it is now evident they were not as wise as they — and we — had imagined them to be. Proper homework and planning weren’t done. The plans were neither put in the public domain nor debated. No public opinion was created, not even any basic communication put forward on what such a radical surgery on our roads would mean for the city that matters more than any other to every Indian. It is now obvious it was an operation planned in stealth and executed through surprise. Unfortunately, much like George Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, it has produced shock and awe not just for the people of Delhi, but its own supporters as well. And that last category, I must state in the interest of full disclosure, even includes this newspaper, and of course, its editor.
At The Indian Express we have a clear editorial policy on a few issues. Infrastructure is one of them. So, until the degree of the blunder became evident to us, we supported BRT as much as any of the other big infrastructure building initiatives in Delhi and elsewhere. Creation of infrastructure results in temporary inconvenience and citizens must learn to accept it. That is what we maintained when there was clamour against the Metro, the initial melee at the Delhi-Gurgaon highway toll plaza and now at the Delhi and Mumbai airports.
We had the same view on BRT, even accepting that the loss of tens of thousands of trees was unavoidable and worth the value we would get in return, in the form of the saving of fuel, time, money and CO2 emissions. So strong was our belief in this that I even planned my recording with tree-saver Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai along one of the BRT corridors and got her to say, more than once, that the cutting of some trees was okay, if it resulted in so many benefits. Then what is it, you may ask, that has so changed that view?
It was, to make a confession, my first look at the BRT “corridor” on that drive just last week. The obscene dividers that turn a beautiful, wide avenue into a series of parallel strips, segregating and forcing different kinds of traffic to drive bumper to bumper as if on a rail track, with no room for manoeuvre, overtaking, pulling off in case of a break-down. Contrary to what I had imagined — obviously stupidly — the BRT was not creating additional space or lanes for buses. It was taking two lanes away from an over-crowded road and why that exercise in brutal enforcement of licence-quota raj on our roads was going to cost Rs 1800 crore would be beyond most people’s comprehension.
A little bit exploring, even talking to some of the most passionate supporters and planners of the idea, made it very clear what we imagined was a project to “add” infrastructure and traffic-carrying capacity on our roads at great cost in money and in terms of the loss of trees, not to speak of colossal inconvenience, was just a cynical and expensive exercise in enforcing a new kind of ideological socialism, so idiotic that even the CPM finds it insulting to its intelligence. The idea, as is now clear, was to take socialism to the streets, literally. Ensure equal distribution of traffic and road space by “taking away” lanes from private vehicles to persuade (read force) car-owners to shift to public transport. Now has that ever happened in the history of mankind except in Mao’s China or North Korea? And if there too, in the first it ended when private vehicles arrived, and in the second it will if North Koreans can buy cars. So the mess that you see, the reduction of road-space instead of expansion, is not a mistake. It is by design.
Knowing Sheila Dikshit, I can’t believe she was seized of some late revolutionary fervour on the eve of the second term. She was sold not just a lemon but a bus-load of lemons by well-meaning but not necessarily the wisest people. The choice to cut her losses, or to serve “their” cause is hers. As somebody who has admired her remarkably successful double tenure as Delhi’s chief minister, I would be sad to see her not able to get out of this trap six months before the election. Sadder still, that a good leader will pay the price merely for catering to the fancies and fantasies of some whose “ideological” motivations far surpass their wisdom in urban planning, and that it will take down with it the decent cause of public transport, even a BRT if planned prudently and wisely.