By Professor Tanvi Nagpal
Like every other winter for the past decade, I spent winter vacation in Delhi with my parents. When they moved to this South Delhi community from the frenetic North Delhi area in which I was raised, the sleepy two-lane road was straddled by an old village turned illegal settlement on one side and large middle class apartment complexes on the other. Today it often takes half an hour to travel a quarter of a mile on the stretch. It is congested, loud, dirty and anything but sleepy. I often refer to it as the “ugliest mile.”
Bookended by the bustling Malaviya Nagar metro to the north and the city's largest shopping malls on the south, the street has become a destination for shoppers from all over the country. At these malls upper middle class and wealthy shoppers sip Starbucks coffee, buy Versace and Gucci. Younger people come in groups to see and be seen. Between the metro and the mall, lie two mammoth, state of the art hospital complexes. Both cater not only to wealthy Indians but also to medical tourists from Afghanistan and Pakistan who flood to India for better medical treatment. Both the malls and the hospitals appear to have run out of parking spots!
So, one might say, that sounds like Manhattan or London—metros, malls, hospitals, no parking—but of course, it’s not. It is typically Indian in its maddening contradictions. Because on this street, which is home to hospitals, malls and metros, also sits two large solid waste transfer stations, with heaps of stinking garbage spilling into the street. Packs of stray dogs terrorize walkers day and night. Scavengers sift through the garbage with bare hands, flip flops on their feet. The stink of rotting garbage is heightened by the nearby public urinal that probably hasn’t been properly cleaned in a decade.
And the mile is ugly for another reason—it’s a snapshot of the gross inequality to which my fellow urbanites appear to have become desensitized. It is now also home to about fifteen families of rural immigrants who live in shacks on the pavement outside one of the hospitals, selling their wares to the millions driving and walking on this busy stretch. They have no running water and no toilets. Their children play with all manner of trash scavenged from both dumps, and fashion toys from plastic bags, inner tubes, broken concrete barriers. There is no school for these kids. Women cook on open fires every evening and disappear into their shacks every night, where they sometimes watch TV powered by electricity stolen from the overhead poles.
Billboards all over the city announce the prime minister's new campaign for a "Clean India," exhorting Indians to take responsibility for their streets. There are signs shaming Indian men for urinating in public and radio spots proclaiming the end of toilet-less schools for young girls. I am somewhat circumspect that any of this is changing behavior. My own taxi driver left me with the car keys and ran off to urinate against a wall in the heart of town the other day. And on my walk in the market I dodged projectile spitballs from car and truck drivers three times in an hour. I am told that the metro is the only place where Indians appear to be observing basic civic rules—no spitting, littering, urinating in public! Perhaps this is because the metro authorities have been diligent about doing their part and keeping platforms and trains clean and passengers are actually creating new norms for riding public transport.
But on this stretch, which is home for a few weeks each year, things just keep getting worse. Trash from our spotless homes spills into the streets. Homeless creatures, both animal and human, subsist on our discards as we drive past them, our noses covered and eyes averted. This is how life is lived on the ugliest mile.