Before moving to New Delhi in the late 1980’s, I imagined India as a place where crowded trains had as many passengers riding on the roofs of the cars as inside them. Four years later, I had become very familiar with the paradox that is India. Urban and rural, modern and medieval, India was and still is a land of contrasts. In one part of New Delhi, for example, the government institute dedicated to space exploration sat across the street from the government institute dedicated to designing a better ox cart.
Now, twenty years later, India had changed in many ways…but had stayed the same in many ways. Before, the “snake wallah” arrived on his bicycle to rid your garden of poisonous snakes. Now, the same guy arrived on a motor scooter, after being summoned on his cell phone to rid your garden of snakes.
Train ticketing is now computerized, as are the sign boards at stations, but the train stations are as crowded as ever, and the passenger lists are still on pieces of paper pasted with glue to the individual rail cars.
The passage of years, especially the last three or so, had resulted in many changes. A huge new terminal had just opened at the airport complete with food court (including a McDonald’s) and a shopping mall (with Gucci). Even more amazing was the notorious airport parking problem solved by a new multi-level parking garage.
The highway system has been improved with numerous new fly-overs and overpasses; four lane roads doubled to eight lanes..but the roads are still just as choked with traffic. Now, less polluting public buses ply the roads and, for a few cents more, you can take an air conditioned bus. Many old smoke-belching buses and trucks still crowd the roads, however, and the sky is yellow with smog and haze.
Perhaps the most impressive improvement we noticed was the New Delhi metro system, built in recent years, which now is one of the largest systems in the world. The metro’s numerous lines begin far out in the suburbs and outlying cities and funnel into the center of town, cutting travel time for commuters from hours to minutes. The metro system, where a ride costs a few rupees, is already packed with customers.
New Delhi, like India itself, has improved the lives of its citizens in many ways over the past 20 years; however, with a population that has grown from 800 million to more than 1.2 billion in that time, the nation’s steps forward sometimes seem to be only marching in place.
So much has changed, while so much has stayed the same. The old memory of crowds riding on the roofs of railway carriages came to mind when we read (while waiting in a metro tunnel 100 feet under a New Delhi street) a large sign listing among the metro rules that “No Riding on the Tops of the Cars Allowed.”