Nepali Times
Southasia Beat
Underground and aboveground


One reason the future of New Delhi as the premier Southasian urban centre is assured is its underground mass transit system.

Underground commuting makes a city efficient and multidexterous and that is where New Delhi is headed in the decades to come. Years hence, credit will be given to those who today are planning the Delhi Metro which is already a three-line network of 65 km.

Calcutta\'s underground started a decade ago and was the first of its kind in the region. This is a matter of great pride for Bengalis but it has been limited to one north-south 16.5 km track from Dumdum to Tollygunge. Meanwhile, on the ground up above, the famous Calcutta tram system is in a decrepit state and the less said about the Kolkota buses the better.

The other cities of Southasia are not even thinking of, or are years away from, a true mass transit network. Take Kathmandu, a capital that does not even have a public transport system in place, much less plans for mass transit. There is laissez faire between superannuated buses on cartel-run routes, Mercedes Benz discard minibuses of overland European travellers of the 1970s, and Korean 'micro\' vans which have proved useful in tackling narrow winding roads. The electric trolley bus service, gifted 30 years ago by the Chinese is today near death.

The only positive thing that has happened in the transport scene in Kathmandu is the indigenous development of Safa Tempos, battery-powered three wheelers which carry up to 12 passengers. As would be expected with any local success story, the Safa is now being eyed with distaste by the authorities because it is said to slow down other traffic. This reminds one of Dhaka, where riksa pullers have started facing some heat. The 300,000 riksas in Dhaka make up what might be called its mass transit system. But when demands of urban efficiency and urban elitism coincide, the uptown bhodralok from Baridhara, Gulshan, Bonani will need to get downtown double quick and the riksas get in the way.

While the other metros of Southasia suffer from bad planning which comes, firstly, from bad funding, the modernisation of New Delhi\'s transportation is being funded by a IRs 5 billion infusion from the central government for undergrounds trains and aboveground flyovers. There are to be not one, nor two, but dozens of new flyovers, plus landscaping!

A limited access dual carriageway already connects Noida with Delhi and another is making rapid progress towards Gurgaon, that ground-water guzzling hi-tech stretch spreading onward to Haryana.

And one only has to look at the variety of cars on the roads to see how the middle and upper classes are making good on Delhi\'s good fortune. Though the Indian president and prime minister and ministers are still stuck with the senile Ambassador sedans, newer, bigger, faster Daewoos, Toyotas and Tatas are taking to the roads. The old Suzuki aka Maruti 800 ('Mehran\' in Pakistan) is slowly migrating to the hinterland on resale.

The Delhi Transport Corporation has a fleet of 2,500 buses, all running on CNG as per the orders of the Supreme Court. The taxis all are fuled by CNG, the three-wheeler scooty remains the standard for mid-distances and the riksa remains the backbone for travel in Old Delhi and the satellite towns and jhuggies. The state government has tried to introduce a new riksa design, made of tubular steel, but it has only caught on in the Nizamuddin and Karol Bagh localities, where they are subsidised. Elsewhere, the tried and tested slanted-seat accordion-hood model is still preferred because (as I realised during a riksa circumnavigation of Humayun\'s Tomb) the new design is awfully uncomfortable on the posterior. Also, said the riksawalla, the resale value is low.

It is 45 degrees in the shade in Delhi as I write this in Kathmandu\'s cool. For the sake of the pampered, perspiring Dilliwallah, it would not be a bad idea if the Supreme Court of India could also order that public buses be air-conditioned.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)