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Millennium S***ty

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: August 4, 2012, 10:20 PM IST
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For the past eight years I've been visiting India every other year and spending several weeks at the height of summer in the paradox called Gurgaon. The Wikipedia entry on Gurgaon inadvertently sums up what this city has become. First it says: Gurgaon is (also) the only Indian city to have successfully distributed electricity connections to all its households. Those of us who've spent any amount of time here would chuckle at this description. Luckily for Wikipedia, it also adds this a few sentences later: Gurgaon has been deemed a non-city due to the lack of comprehensive infrastructure and its corporate enclaves, including a dearth of sidewalks, convenience stores, and public parks. Phew, now we can trust Wikipedia again.

Gurgaon is described variously as an industrial hub, a medical tourism hub, an outsourcing hub, and so on. What began with the auto industry and Maruti has now become the destination of choice for most multinational companies. Steel and glass buildings house office after office. Most corporate headquarters have shifted to Gurgaon over the past decade -- (Genpact, American Express, Pepsi, Coke, ESPN, Maruti Suzuki, Hero Honda, IBM, Microsoft, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, Nokia, Ericsson, etc.) Most of India's call centers are located here. Real estate developers build new high rises and gated communities every day. The city boasts around 43 malls, a fact that its citizens are very proud of. In many ways Gurgaon is a microcosm of the new India Shining. It has become, like its malls, a symbol of modernity.

And yet, when you're driving along stretches of undeveloped land and woods, and watching the dust swirl up in the scorching sun, or, at night, when the silhouettes of tall buildings appear in the horizon and the streets are plunged in darkness because there's not a single street lamp, sometimes Gurgaon seems more like what it used to be not long ago - a collection of farmlands and tribal villages, very much a part of India's heartland.

A place like Sohna Road highlights the contradictions of Gurgaon perfectly. Rows and rows of fly by night shops and hawkers stand outside the gates of massive gated high rise communities. In one of these high rises, some evenings I turn the lights off in my room and in the distance I can see lights -- headlights from hundreds of cars out on the highway, street lights, and lights from malls and offices shining against the night sky. I could pretend, if I wanted to, that I weren't in India at all, but in a big city in America. But, leaving aside the fact that I may not want to be in a big city in America right now, there's the small matter of infrastructure that make any comparison with Western cities a joke.

I have lived in several cities across India, and visited many more. Most of them have a unique character and endear themselves despite many flaws. But Gurgaon is a very difficult city to become fond of.

Every time I come here to spend a few weeks in the summer, I find myself getting frustrated over my lack of mobility. Having grown up in big Indian cities like Calcutta and Bombay, I find the lack of public transportation exasperating. You can't just go on to the street and hail a cab. There are no buses. Some areas have rickshaws but these don't go far (or too near) and aren't always available when you need them. The Delhi Metro, which became operational during the Commonwealth Games in 2010, has helped create a link to limited parts of Delhi, but in order to get to the metro station, someone like me who lives on Sohna Road, would have to find some means of transportation. The simplest thing to do is to rent a car, which is what I end up doing every time I want to go somewhere. But these rentals, like the Meru Taxis, are pretty expensive, especially if you want the air conditioning switched on which in the Gurgaon summer is almost essential. I spend Rs. 1500 every time I make a trip to Delhi. If I go 10 times over 10 weeks, it's Rs. 15,000. Just to get to Delhi from one of its suburbs. It's like taking a cab in America. Remember the time when it wasn't prohibitively expensive to use taxis in India? The other problem with renting cars is that you can't just spontaneously step out for a coffee or to see a friend (unless he or she gives you a ride both ways.) Trips have to be planned in advance, coordinated carefully, and timed strategically (so you can come back home and leave the car before your four hours up).

Last month, on July 2, thousands of Gurgaon residents took to the street to protest the 12-hour power cuts that had hit the city in its hottest summer in over 30 years. (This is not to be confused with last week's historic blackout across India, but is in fact is a more routine affair.) The street protests blocked traffic, creating even more chaos than usual. The relentless expansion of industry, malls, and residences in the city is putting more and more pressure on what's already a limited power supply. The demand for power increased by 25 % this year, but supply only by 10 %. According to this report by NDTV, coal shortages around the country and technical faults at power plants have created an acute power crisis in the region.

This summer, when temperatures reached close to 50 degrees Celsius, people were forced to leave their coolers and air conditioning on, promptly causing widespread power shortages across the city. In homes that do not have power backup, no electricity is unbearable in this kind of heat. Even where backup is available, often it costs extra, or does not supply all appliances or rooms. Where I live, we have 100 per cent backup, but there's a small (5 minute) interval between the time when power goes and backup comes on, and the reverse. So for those 5 minutes, there's no light, no air conditioning, no internet, no TV. There have been days and nights when the power would go off every 10 minutes. Off, on, off, on, off, on. Every time it's back on, the TV channel has to be found again, the AC takes a while to warm up, Internet a while to boot up, and DVDs have to be fast-forwarded again. At first it's exasperating. Then it becomes surreal.

Many homes, especially those that are not in gated communities, also suffer from water shortages, which worsen when there's no electricity to run water pumps. What finally drove those people to the streets in protest that day was their inability - on a weekday morning following a sleepless night - to shower or shave, make breakfast, take the elevator down from, say, the tenth floor, drink cold water, etc. India Shining? Maybe from perspiration.

A report in The Pioneer published the day after the protests stated that the Haryana State Pollution Control Board lacks any equipment that might monitor the level of pollution in this city that has 20 lakh (two million) residents and seven lakh registered vehicles. The report added that Gurgaon has two expressways that are currently operational and three more in the pipeline.

This then is the problem. The sheer number of roads, buildings, malls, and offices will continue to grow as real estate promoters continue to mint money from both the government and consumers. Foreign companies will open up more offices here where there's still plenty of undeveloped land. Farmers will continue to become millionaires from selling these lands. Real estate prices will continue to soar, making Gurgaon less and less affordable for the middle class. And all the while, the supply of basic infrastructure such as water and electricity will remain the same.

Every week a new mall seems to spring up somewhere in Gurgaon. These malls, filled with shops, food courts, and movie theatres, are fully air-conditioned. Imagine how much power they consume. Many residents of Gurgaon seem excited about malls and even go there during the day to escape the heat outside. Little do they realize that the malls' power consumption, while allowing them to enjoy an afternoon a few hours away from the summer outside, is eating into the power supply in their own homes. Still, the malls in Gurgaon have taken on a life of their own in these parts, and merit a separate blog post.

Luckily, just when things were getting unbearable last month, as is often the case in India, the rain came, bringing much-needed respite to this region. As I watched the dark clouds sweep in overhead and the storms blow dust everywhere over the vast stretches of unploughed land that I could see from my balcony, Gurgaon looked pretty for a change. I've heard my parents talk of peacocks that frequent the areas around their home at sunrise, and of the monkeys that invade the balcony. In the late afternoon, farmers' markets spring up in some places that become colourful, noisy hubs where you can buy fresh produce, clothes, DVDs, and flowers. Some of the bazaars where wares are sold on the muddy ground rather than in air-conditioned chains have a rustic charm that is all Gurgaon's own.

Gurgaon, like India itself, is a city in flux. It is part Rajasthan desert and part Punjab farmland. It is part tribal village and part urban sprawl. It's both old and new. It is quite unsure of what it really is. It is a mixed up city that can be pretty but is working hard to be ugly. It aspires to be modern and hip but is crippled by poor infrastructure that denies basic necessities of life to its residents.

But the most unfortunate thing about Gurgaon is that in the name of progress it has developed concrete and consumers, not character. Its 800 highrise buildings and ongoing constructions, its emphasis on big corporations, its lack of cultural venues, and its population of a large number of immigrants who've come here mostly to make money (very few of whom claim any attachment to Gurgaon), have collectively made it a soulless city. One can only hope that it doesn't portend India's future.
First Published: August 4, 2012, 10:20 PM IST

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