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2 August 2007

Moving on

From SUVs to battered buses and auto-rickshaws, Delhi's transport captures the divide between rich a

By Sandy Howard

My heart sank as the auto-rickshaw driver named his price. “Three hundred rupees to Vasant Kunj? No, no, 100,” I insisted. The driver, or autowallah, looked back at the expensive bar we had just left, and repeated his price.

Three drunk, young Delhiites strolled out the bar and up to their SUV. Their western-style clothes and confident manner were brash and loud, like the city itself. One of them banged on the windscreen to wake his sleeping driver. They sped off, Punjabi-remix music thumping from inside the air-conditioned cab. From their dust emerged some child beggars. Little girls dressed in shabby dresses marched straight up to tug on our arms and gesture to their mouths.

Living in New Delhi, you spend a lot of time in transit. Seven different empires have made this their capital, each building on a new area of land. The resulting low-lying, spread-out city is a transport nightmare. Like India’s other big cities, Delhi embodies the contrasts of a country that has experienced several years of unprecedented economic growth, but where poverty and social inequality are rife. These contrasts are rendered vividly through the chaotic transport system.

Most aware of this are the relatives of those routinely killed by Delhi’s Blueline commuter buses. Over 60 people have died in bus accidents since the beginning of the year. These beasts are overcrowded and manically driven. Many passengers are crushed by the giant wheels while dangerously leaping on and off.

The problem became so acute that the Delhi government announced that all buses would be pulled off the road for safety inspections. Without a cheap alternative, many of the very poor Blueline commuters protested. They put worries about lost work before physical safety.

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From the back seats of their air-conditioned cars, Delhi’s wealthy read about the Blueline commuters’ concerns in the morning paper. Being driven to work from the expensive enclaves of south Delhi is as natural for them as having live-in servants.

Nipping between the monstrous Bluelines and chauffeur-driven SUVs are the yellow and green auto-rickshaws. Their passengers are neither wealthy enough to have their own cars nor poor enough to ride the buses. Many of them are part of Delhi’s ambitious and aspiring middle classes; entrepreneurs increasingly willing to marry low costs with high risks on the way up the social ladder.

Along with their passengers, the auto-rickshaws themselves are touted as a sign of progress. As part of Delhi’s modernisation drive of the past few years they have been made to run on less-polluting compressed natural gas. But the autowallahs are the most hated figures in the city. Aggressive and extortionate in equal measures, their driving bangs their passengers round the cabin and they never follow the meter.

Autowallahs take no greater pleasure than charging astronomic rates to foreigners. When I haggle, my efforts to tell the autowallah I work for an Indian company on an Indian salary are never believed. They look around the dusty, noisy, street where a mutilated dog is taunted by a naked child-beggar and ask, “Why would you come from over there, to work here?”

This is a question that many expats ask each other. Many young European businesspeople hate the heat, pollution and con artists but choose to stay. One German engineer I met expressed a sentiment that matched many others. He said he came to Delhi to see for himself “this process of change, this emerging giant”.

Last week, driving back home from a night out in an overpriced auto, I passed dozens of families sleeping naked on the pavement in the baking heat. The more things change the more they seem to have stayed the same for the bulk of Delhi’s poorest. Little has visibly changed in the city since I first came here eight years ago. New buildings are restricted to the outskirts, while pollution and poverty are still ever-present.

A critical exception is the Delhi Metro: with spacious, clean stations and state-of-the-art technology, the Metro is a shining symbol of definite progress. Its elevated tracks cut strong lines into neglected west and north Delhi.

Historically despised by the rich of south Delhi, the residents of these poorer areas now have access to cheap, safe transport. In the recent bus crisis, the Metro happily accommodated thousands more passengers. Its large-scale expansion to the rest of the city is being heralded as the answer to Delhi’s transport fatalities. And symbolically, the Metro nurtures the idea that this city of so many injustices can become an easier and fairer one to live in.