Delhi, a bustling metropolis with a population of approximately 18 million, is chasing a modernisation dream. Spearheaded by the Delhi Development Authority, a state body that aims to “promote and secure the development of Delhi”, a number of highways, transport systems, shopping malls, hotels and luxury apartments have been constructed. These developments, which resonate with the large-scale modernisation projects of the 1950s and 1960s, are perhaps best exemplified by the Delhi Metro system. This is an urban metro that connects Delhi to a number of satellite towns (e.g. Gurgaon and Faridabad), much like the London Underground and Overground services. Since construction began in 1998 the system has expanded to a length of approximately 190 km and it currently serves 142 stations. This makes it the fifteenth largest metro system in the world, in terms of length, and the twelfth largest metro system in terms of station number. Like other metro systems it is still expanding and it is planned to extend to over 350 km by 2016.
Developments such as these have undoubtedly contributed to economic growth within Delhi. In fact, according to the Government of India Planning Commission, Gross Domestic Product increased from ₹252,753 crores in 2010-2011 to ₹404,576 crores in 2013-2014 (an increase of over 60 percent). But, what are the costs of such development and to whom do they occur?
Like many growing megacities in the Global South, industrialisation and modernisation, amongst other factors, have contributed to severe air quality issues in Delhi. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, the city is the most polluted in the world. In a study of air pollution in over 1600 cities in 91 countries between 2008 and 2013, the organisation found that the annual concentration of particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (PM 2.5) in Delhi was 153 micrograms per cubic metre. This is significant because they define 25 micrograms per cubic metre as a safe concentration of PM 2.5. When concentrations are higher particles of this size can embed deep into the lungs, potentially causing respiratory problems. This is a pertinent issue in Delhi, as discussed by Professor Randeep Guleria, the Head of Pulmonary Medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in an interview with NDTV:
“Those who come to Delhi on work or as students have complained of breathing problems they never had. And those with respiratory problems say their discomfort is now prolonged and more pronounced”.
Some studies (e.g. Greenstone et al., 2015) even argue that such pollution is significantly reducing the life expectancy of Delhi’s population. Although the Delhi Government has undertaken concerted action to combat the problem, for example by ordering all public transport vehicles (including busses and tuk-tuks) to convert their engines to run on natural gas, one feels that it is too little too late.
In addition to this, development in the name of modernisation has created a number of social problems. For example, as in India’s most populous city, Mumbai, there has been widespread slum clearance. Undertaken in accordance with the The Slum Areas (Improvement and Clearance) Act (1956), many slums areas have been destroyed to create modern vanity projects serving the burgeoning middle-class bourgeoisie. On the banks of the Yamuna River, for instance, Delhi’s largest slum was destroyed to create a tourist and leisure centre. In an article in The Guardian, Raekha Prasad discusses this impact of this:
“Mohammed Ibrahim woke to Delhi’s sun and waited for his life to collapse. He had known it was inevitable from the blaring megaphone driven past his door the day before. By 6am three generations of the rickshaw driver’s family had ferried their possessions into the open. Just after 9am, six bulldozers crushed to rubble the two-room home he had built.
With the machines, Ibrahim says, came more than 1,000 police officers carrying tear gas and batons. They destroyed his neighbours’ houses too. Up to a third of a million people living in Delhi’s biggest slum… [have been] evicted under a government plan to transform the banks of the city’s Yamuna river into a tourist and leisure centre”.
This is, of course, not an isolated incident. Other slums have been destroyed in the name of new roads, the metro system and infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Analogous to London’s slum clearance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, alternative accommodation has rarely been provided and those at the ‘bottom’ of society, financially speaking, have been marginalised and vilified by more powerful societal groups.
It is thus clear that modernisation projects in Delhi have led to economic development and western conceptions of progress. However, industrialisation and modernisation have also caused social and environmental destruction. As is so often the case in our neoliberal and capitalist world, economic matters trump environmental issues and marginalise the poorest members of society. In this manner, modernisation in Delhi cannot be considered as providing a sustainable development solution. This is because it does not attempt to give social, economic and environmental issues equal credence; something that sustainable development solutions should strive to do.
MSc Practising Sustainable Development student, RHUL