Impressions of India: New Delhi via New Haven

Josiah H. Brown recently traveled to India, where his wife grew up, and returned with these reflections on the New Delhi metropolitan region – from the urban economy and environment to social inequalities and history.

My wife (Sahar Usmani-Brown), who became a U.S. citizen this year, grew up in New Delhi, where her parents continue to live.  I recently traveled there for the fourth time in the past dozen years – my first trip to India since an April 2014 visit that occasioned “Notes on a Nation of 1.2 Billion.”  With that population now estimated at 1.25 billion, some impressions follow in this latest installment of an urban travelogue.

Our last trip came during the 2014 Indian national elections, which brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi (formerly leader of the state of Gujarat) and his BJP to power.  Since then, Arvind Kejriwal of a rival reform party (AAP) has been elected in New Delhi.  As the newspapers reported during our stay, the Delhi and national governments are often at odds over how to address challenges from the economy to the environment.  (1)

Economic Growth, Yet Extreme Inequality; Continual Striving

The Indian economy continues to advance relatively quickly.  For example, India surpassed China as the top foreign direct investment (FDI) “destination” in 2015.  The $63 billion in “greenfield” projects topped the U.S. (at $59.6 billion) as well as China ($56.6 billion).  Yet as in China (and as in the U.S. around the “Great Recession”), there has been over-building in portions of the real estate market (more below).  Moreover, this vast country has hundreds of millions of people struggling at subsistence levels, in both rural and urban areas – where begging, sometimes by children, is just one indicator.  Drought has worsened the plight of many (more on that below, too).

Still, trends of upward mobility, continual striving, and links between the indigenous and global economies are all evident.  Workers commuting, children going to school, older students contemplating college and prepping for entrance exams, families consuming, international brands expanding – Delhi and its surroundings display all of this.  From Accenture and Amazon to MetLife, Oracle, Honda and Uber (engendering controversy in India as in the U.S., over pricing and from cab-drivers), the signs are widely visible.

One illustration is the construction of large new office and apartment towers.

Real Estate and Road Development

After living for several years in the city of Faridabad just beyond the New Delhi border in the state of Haryana (where caste-related protests by a group of Jats led to violence and a Delhi water shortage in recent months), my parents-in-law have now returned to Delhi proper – specifically South Delhi.  Faridabad, along with Noida and other cities in metropolitan Delhi, has seen controversy around expensive real estate developments that have failed to fulfill promises to apartment buyers even as certain developers have become rich – with corrupt politicians also beneficiaries. 

My in-laws themselves have relevant experience with market volatility.  After a decade ago investing much of their life savings into buying a new Faridabad apartment that rapidly appreciated, its value has dropped amid slower economic growth and an oversupply of middle/upper-middle-class apartments that are sometimes unfinished and under-maintained – even as maintenance fees flow to property managers.  (The Faridabad apartment value roughly quintupled from 2006 to 2014 in its first eight years before dipping some 40 percent in the last couple of years.)  My parents-in-law intend to sell the apartment and in the meantime are renting a place in Delhi, closer to friends, family, and prime medical facilities.

The surge in construction of both buildings and roads is salient on the new Yamuna Expressway (named for the Yamuna River alongside) connecting Delhi to Agra. 

The river is silt-filled, polluted, and increasingly sparse – with the expressway built on what used to be the river’s flood plain.  Quickly one leaves Delhi for Noida, a planned city in the enormous state of Uttar Pradesh.  Office and apartment towers, completed or still under construction, abound.  One is called “Ambience,” touting a “new standard” of living.

Jaypee Greens is one major developer, including of a “Wish Town,” golf course and cricket stadium.

After Noida and Greater Noida, agricultural land follows until one reaches the city of Agra – home of the Taj Mahal (the early 17th-century tomb that Shah Jahan built to honor his wife – more on that below).  Along the way, there are rest stops for food and drink, such as the one where this sign appeared.

Here as elsewhere, there is juxtaposition of the modern and affluent with the traditional, of grandiose aspirations and more mundane realities.

Environment a Global Matter of Daily Concern

Climate change isn’t an abstraction in New Delhi, where already the mid-April temperatures peaked at 110 degrees Fahrenheit every day of our stay, with nighttime lows in the 80s.  There is little margin for error.  An increase of a few degrees over the coming century (as many climate models project) could intensify extremes of heat, drought, and flood (during the monsoon months) in various regions of India, as in other countries.

In anticipation of the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, last fall India had announced its intention to scale back the trajectory of its projected growth in carbon emissions—now slated to swell “only” three-fold instead of seven-fold in the decades ahead as the economy and population surge.  Currently, the average Indian is responsible for just 1.6 tons of CO2 per year—one-tenth the average for Americans (16.4 tons), and one-third the global average of 4.9 tons.

India expects coal use will continue to increase, but its appeal has now been limited by a steeper tax.  Emissions standards for both new and existing coal-powered plants have been toughened.  Ambitious plans for solar power and reforestation have been announced.  This is encouraging.

Both in the Delhi region and beyond, enormous challenges remain—from trash and toilet sanitation to air pollution and water scarcity.  Still, increased attention to those problems is palpable in India.  Coincidentally, our flight home was on April 22, Earth Day, and on the flight I read that day’s Times of India.  Though no mention was made of Earth Day, a remarkable number of news stories addressed issues such as urban traffic, air quality, and the water supply.

One article described how the Haryana government had “forwarded the final draft of the demarcation of the eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) on its side” of a wildlife sanctuary.  Construction would be banned one kilometer from the sanctuary’s boundaries in Faridabad and Delhi, and the ESZ would cover a grove of trees off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Highway.  (Gurgaon is another booming city in the metropolitan region.)

Air Quality

Multiple reports addressed the return of an “odd-even” plan (first introduced in January) by Kejriwal’s Delhi government to limit driving of certain vehicles, depending on their license plate numbers.  Ostensibly intended to limit air pollution, the effort seems to have had a more tangible effect on traffic (as problematic as it remains in many sections of Delhi, during much of the day).

Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment expressed skepticism about the impact of the “odd-even scheme,” arguing: “We need to make car restraint a way of life. That can be done with high charges for parking and road use and augmentation of public transport on a massive scale.”  Reinforcing her doubts, according to the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), there are no data suggesting the “odd-even scheme has led to a decline in vehicular pollution in the capital.”

Another article discussed mysterious landfill fires that some officials in the Delhi government think were set by municipal corporations sympathetic to the rival BJP, to undermine the odd-even plan to improve air quality.  Yet according to a different article, “the spontaneous fires occur mainly due to decomposing organic material releasing methane,” which is flammable.  Though organic wastes are supposed to be composted, they are often dumped at landfills.  There, said one environmental critic, “Toxic wastes like mercury” and “lead are also dumped”; fires “burn these toxic wastes along with plastics, releasing dioxins and monoxides into the air that then enter the food chain.”

There is more consciousness of the hazards of burning materials, but it’s still widely done.

Yet another article described “ a slight decrease in levels of nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide in Gurgaon’s atmosphere” in the previous 10 days.  In addition, a “Daily Pollution Watch” tracked particulate matter (PM) 2.5, ozone, and the air quality index (AQI) in various locations around the metropolitan area.  Among the worst was the Noida border inside Delhi.  “Good wind speed” was cited as a potential factor in PM 2.5 levels that had “dipped” in recent days.  (2)

The BBC’s Soutik Biswas in December 2015 had discussed how in “winter, the air quality in India’s capital has again become appalling. Particulate matter – particles so small they can be ingested deep into the lungs – and a toxic cocktail of nitrogen oxide, ozone, benzene, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide hangs heavy” over Delhi – which the World Health Organization in 2014 ranked as the world’s most polluted city, one of the 13 Indian cities among the 20 most polluted on Earth.  He reported in December, “People cough, wheeze … and your correspondent is no exception.  With the worsening air quality, public outrage against it has spiked.”  These problems, including documented respiratory implications for children among others, were a regression from years of progress in the preceding decade or so – revealing weak implementation of a clean air law dating all the way back to 1981.

That December 2015 crisis is what had prompted the Delhi “odd-even” plan’s launch in January (for the first half of that month) – and its return in mid-April (for the second half of that month) as I arrived in the city.

The U.S. Embassy in Delhi, via Twitter, reports the daily AQI at both 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.  During the week I was there, Delhi’s AQI ranged from a morning high of 251 (“unhealthy”) to an afternoon low of 77 (“moderate,” on April 16) to a morning peak of 154 and afternoon low of 100 (April 21).  Though far lower than it was during the relatively cool winter months (when for instance it routinely exceeded 400 and the “hazardous” range in January), the AQI was still elevated each morning at 6 a.m., even as it dropped to a lower level by 4 p.m. as the heat burned off some of the fog/smog.  (In comparison, on April 29 the AQI for particulate matter, PM2.5, in New Haven was just 25, in the “good” range.)

Water Scarcity

There was extensive news coverage of India’s severe drought, affecting nearly half of the population.  “Tapped water (treated or untreated) is available for drinking purposes for 80% of households in just seven of the 640 census districts of the country,” per the 2011 census and analysis by Atul Thakur.  In rural areas, “37 million families walk more than half a kilometer for water.”  A related article reported, “Do not be surprised if the country is forced to import drinking water by 2050, thanks to the fast-depleting groundwater stock.”

Also, in the state of Gujarat specifically, most of the two hundred dams “may go dry” within two weeks.  Further, in the state of Karnataka, “a major water crisis” sees “levels in big reservoirs plunging to a new low … dam water may last 20 days.”  In Maharashtra, “with the drought situation … worsening … the state government is mulling to bring in a law that would make … recycled water mandatory for industries.”  The government will also explore “the feasibility of raising the height of dams and desilting and deepening of lakes.”

Late in March 2016, the BBC’s Biswas had asked, “Is India facing its worst-ever water crisis?”  A month later, prominent Indians wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Modi faulting the government’s response to the drought as “sadly listless, lacking in both urgency and compassion.”  This is despite what some call the Modi administration’s “Robin Hood” budget plan

Transportation, and Social Progress

Notwithstanding environmentalist Sunita Narain’s call for “augmentation of public transport on a massive scale” as more than a thousand vehicles are added to Delhi’s 8.5 million each day, one bright spot is the expanding Metro, the Delhi commuter rail. 

We observed its growth already in April 2014, when we rode the Metro, and its extension into additional neighborhoods is favorable both for the economy and environment.  Bicycles and rickshaws (along with motorbikes, auto rickshaws, and of course cars and trucks) are ubiquitous, and there is the occasional horse-drawn carriage or wagon, even in Delhi.  Pedestrians are everywhere, though walking can be perilous in traffic.  Children are transported to school in an array of vehicles.

The horrific December 2012 rape and murder of a young woman now known as “India’s Daughter” – the title of a documentary film banned in India but screened at the New Haven Public Library, among other places including PBS – has raised awareness about the dangers of public transportation in Delhi (where she had been attacked after boarding a bus) and elsewhere.  Arguably paternalistic but useful signs posted on taxi cabs hint at this greater awareness, and at the need for men to respect women.

(As noted in April 2014, the Metro trains include cars designated for women.)

History and Heritage

A complement to the Metro, in Delhi’s urban environment, is the public Lodi Garden and its lush green neighborhood.  Within the garden is a 500-year-old tomb, dating to the late-15th/early 16th-century Lodi period that preceded the era of Mughal rule.  A marker indicates protection of the site through a 1958 National Monuments Act (consistent with aims of the UN Global Colloquium of University Presidents on cultural preservation, which Yale happened to host in April 2016).

In April 2014 and prior trips, we had toured other examples of Delhi’s numerous historic sites, from Humayun’s tomb and the Red Fort to the Qutab Minar.  As documented in a January 2011 piece on the anniversary of his assassination, in January 2009 my wife and I visited the Gandhi Smriti (remembrance) site in New Delhi. 

This year, we returned to show the site to our children (days after England’s Prince William and Princess Kate happened to be there), and to pay our respects to Gandhi.

(Our trip to the Gandhi site involved an adventure: a terrible cab ride from a young, incompetent, repeatedly lost driver who twice drove in the wrong direction, into traffic, nearly causing head-on collisions.  Not only my wife – a native Hindi speaker who of course grew up in New Delhi – but even I at times seemed to have a better sense of Delhi geography than the driver – at least the ability to recognize road signs.  Perhaps he lacked basic literacy, as well as much knowledge of Delhi roads.  Twice he stopped to ask strangers for directions.  Finally we abandoned this driver and rode the last two legs of the trip, to the Lodi Garden and then back to my in-laws’ apartment – via auto rickshaw.  This was an improvement, despite the air pollution to which we were more directly exposed.  You have to have sympathy for the auto-rickshaw drivers themselves, who endure many hours every day breathing in this polluted air.)

Later in the week, we visited two historic sites outside of Delhi: Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal (in Agra).  Fatehpur Sikri was built by the emperor Akbar late in the 16th century but soon abandoned because the desert conditions couldn’t support the city’s water needs as an alternate capital.  The extraordinarily dry climate has preserved the city – a proud part of the country’s “heritage” – to a remarkable extent.

Fatehpur Sikri included an underground tunnel to Agra, and Akbar’s architects made special accommodations for each of his queens.

Last on our brief tour of historic sites was the Taj Mahal, which Sahar and I had seen together in 2005 but was a first for our children.  Even amid the mid-afternoon heat, this beautiful architectural marvel was relatively cool and comfortable inside, as the air flow was engineered to offer relief from the climate.  The Yamuna River, which runs from Delhi to Agra, was low but still evocative of earlier centuries when its presence was a prime rationale for creation of a city and a grand monument on its shores.

(Sadly, days after our departure, a major natural history museum in Delhi was destroyed by fire.)

Local and Global, Continuity and Change

“The problem of Delhi as a capital city today is a problem of integration, a problem of narrowing levels of consumption, of cutting down conspicuous expenditure over an infinitesimally small privileged group in New Delhi enclave, of more equitable distribution and levelling up of common amenities, of bringing about circulations and relationships that will bestow on the nine cities close ties of a common identity.  In short, the problem ... is still what remains pretty much the problem for the Central Government on a different plane: national integration in a federal structure, equitable distribution and sharing of wealth and opportunity, greater interdependence and mutual respect.”

These words were written by Asok Mitra, in his book Delhi: Capital City (p. 48) – published in 1970.  Despite all that has changed in subsequent decades, the observations still seem apt.

In his more recent book, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, Anand Giridharadas offers insights about the country more broadly.  Writing in 2011 of the previous decade, he notes, “India was changing when I arrived, and it continued to change dramatically, viscerally, improbably…. It was partly the enormous physical churn: the quantities of earth being moved, the malls and office towers and gated communities being built, the restaurants opening, the factories pumping out cars, the blue jeans being sewn.  It was the new verticality of the big cities, the slum dwellers in Bombay moving into towering apartments financed by New York investors, the mushrooming of village backwaters into congested satellite cities such as Gurgaon…. Writers were breathless about the pace and scale of change in ‘the new India.’  It was a seductive story of a country unbound, an elephant stirred, a planet-changing model of democracy, pluralism, and growth.  The truth was subtler…. India was erupting in dreams…. They were tempered by countervailing dreams and, as ever in India, by the dogged pull of the past…. The very fabric of Indianness – the meaning of being a husband or wife, a factory owner or factory worker, a mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, a student or teacher – was slowly, gently unraveling by the force of these dreams, and allowing itself to be woven in new ways.”  (p. 23-26)  (3)

The weaving of the old and new, of contentment, curiosity and impatience, is evident throughout a culture – including its food.  Last month in Delhi, at home and out, we enjoyed a variety of meals.  Breakfast brought Kellogg’s muesli, with explicit status associations on the box (which invited eaters to “reward yourself” with this “cereal for those who script their own success.  People like you who know where they are and where they want to go.”)  There were also “Soulfull” brand cereal flakes made from ragi millet.  Dinner offered fresh chapatis (bread) with aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower) and dal (lentils).  Before our last snack at the airport – where I had a spicy paneer (cheese) wrap at McDonald’s – we ate two meals out at Moksha, an excellent restaurant with delicious paneer tikka hara masala.

Fittingly, Moksha was located around the corner from a fine South Delhi grocery market: “Modern Bazaar,” blending the new and the familiar.

Another symbol of this duality is sport – for example, basketball.  In 2015, the Dallas NBA team drafted a Punjabi villager, Satnam Singh Bhamara, who is over 7 feet tall (an even taller Canadian player is of Indian descent, too).  An Indian American, Vivek Ranadivé, is an owner of another NBA team, the Sacramento Kings.

So perhaps it’s not surprising to discover that in India, where cricket has long been the main sport, basketball is growing in popularity.  In South Delhi, we found basketball courts at an outdoor sports club.  Significantly, this was a private club, not a public park – characteristic of the country’s socioeconomic inequalities and the privatization of many amenities.  My father-in-law purchased a membership for a relatively modest fee, and one evening – after the daytime high of 110 degrees Fahrenheit had dropped to 90 or so degrees – my son ventured onto the court.  Three teenagers kindly lent him a ball for a few minutes of jump shots under the lights.

Transplanted from New Haven to New Delhi, basketball is a reflection of the planet’s interconnections – a Western sport new to an ancient city, ever evolving to join the local and the global, continuity and change.


(1) Also in the news during April: Ashton Carter, U.S. Defense Secretary, was in India to strengthen bilateral relations.

(2)EPA calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health. Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country.”

(3) Anand Giridharadas, in his 2011 book India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, writes, “India was changing when I arrived, and it continued to change dramatically, viscerally, improbably…. It was partly the enormous physical churn: the quantities of earth being moved, the malls and office towers and gated communities being built, the restaurants opening, the factories pumping out cars, the blue jeans being sewn.  It was the new verticality of the big cities, the slum dwellers in Bombay moving into towering apartments financed by New York investors, the mushrooming of village backwaters into congested satellite cities such as Gurgaon…. Writers were breathless about the pace and scale of change in ‘the new India.’  It was a seductive story of a country unbound, an elephant stirred, a planet-changing model of democracy, pluralism, and growth.  The truth was subtler.  India’s economy was not growing as fast as it could.  The country was cutting the poverty rate gently, but nowhere near enough.  It was trading anew with the world, but only at a fraction of its potential.  It was flexing new muscles overseas militarily and diplomatically, but only sporadically and aimlessly, with little sense of what kind of power it wanted to become.  But one thing needed no such qualification.  India was erupting in dreams.  It was the dream to own a microwave or refrigerator or motorcycle.  The dream of a roof of one’s own.  The dream to break caste.  The dream to bring a cell phone to every Indian with someone to call.  The dream to buy out businesses in the kingdom that once colonized you.  The dream to marry for love, all the complicated family considerations be damned.  The dream to become rich.  The dream to overthrow the rich in revolution.  These dreams were brilliant in some instances and in others delusional.  They were by turns farsighted and far-fetched, practical and impractical, generous and selfish, principled and cynical, focused and vague, passionate and drifting.  They were tempered by countervailing dreams and, as ever in India, by the dogged pull of the past.  Some were changing India…. The Indian revolution was within.  It was a revolution in private life, in the tenor of emotions and the nature of human relationships.  The very fabric of Indianness – the meaning of being a husband or wife, a factory owner or factory worker, a mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, a student or teacher – was slowly, gently unraveling by the force of these dreams, and allowing itself to be woven in new ways.”  (p. 23-26)

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