Delhi is the home of the Indian government and about 17 million people in the city proper and 29 million in the metropolitan area, making it one the world’s four largest urban areas along with Tokyo. Jakarta and Manila. Delhi— which includes Old Delhi and New Delhi — is a bizarre, congested and polluted city with decorated cows walking the street, monkeys clinging to government buildings, entire families piled on a single motorscooter, crowded streets and markets, slums known as “jhoggis,” and huge masses of people sleeping on the sidewalks. Some of these things may shock you at first but will soon be engulfed by new experiences that will leave you feeling richer and more deeply intertwined with India’s culture and people.

Ruled by some of the most powerful emperors in the history of India, Delhi has traditionally been welcoming to Muslim, Hindu and other cultures. The capital of world’s largest democracy, Delhi bridges two contrasting worlds. While Old Delhi is a labyrinth of mysterious narrow lanes, haveli’s and majestic mosques, the imperial city of New Delhi is composed of spacious, tree-lined avenues and imposing government buildings.

Justin Bergman wrote in the New York Times, “Strewn with splendid Mughal forts, monuments and mausoleums, Delhi is imbued with history much the way Rome is. India’s capital, though, is often overlooked by visitors passing through on their way to the Taj Mahal and Rajasthan and, more recently, it’s been avoided because of concerns about safety and pollution. Determined to revive Delhi’s reputation, the government started a campaign this year to rebrand the city and announced a “Delhi Festival” reportedly set for early 2017 to showcase its culture and heritage. Tourist safety is also being addressed, with a new 24-hour, multilingual foreigner helpline and enhanced Uber background checks and safety measures. Such steps are sure to help, as are the city’s innumerable charms — the ruin-studded gardens, the growing contemporary art scene, the diverse regional cuisines. And then there are Delhiites themselves, ever-proud to show visitors the best their ancient city has to offer.” [Source: Justin Bergman, New York Times, November 24, 2016]

If you have the will wake up early and watch Delhi come to life. After dawn the city is almost empty; around 8:00am bicyclists, rickshaw drivers and buses are beginning to make their way around the streets; and by 10:00am, when shops and businesses open, the city is going full swing with bustling carnival atmosphere that is known as everyday life in India. People harvest weeds from overgrown English gardens and feed their cattle. Women gossip from roof to roof. Shops sell astrological gems and cars have bumper stickers that say "Be Happy! Sing Krishna”. Some shops have special gates designed to keep cows out.

Delhi is India's Washington's while Mumbai is New York. Mumbai is India's financial and entertainment center. When people from Mumbai visit Delhi they complain about a lack of nightlife. Delhi is comprised of New Delhi, designed by the British with clean lines and orderliness, and Old Delhi, centered around Jamal Mosque, and less orderly. Historical buildings, markets and government offices can be found in both Old and New Delhi. New shopping malls, middle class neighborhoods and call centers and tech businesses are mostly in the suburbs.

Delhi is dry and hot. In summer temperatures can reach 50̊C (120̊F). Late autumn and winter are pleasant enough. The highs are usually in the 50s, 60s and 70s F. The nights are cool and mornings are often foggy, which results in a number of flight cancellations. Delhi has a reputation for being one of India’s least safe cities, Women should take extra care. In the 2000s and 2010s there were some well publicized rapes. Women are advised to have a hotel or restaurant call a taxi for them rather than trying to hail one from the streets.

History of Delhi

In 1192 Afghan warrior Muhammad of Ghori captured the area, and the Delhi Sultanate was established (1206). In 1398, Timur, a Turco-Mongol ruler, invaded the city and founded his kingdom. It was later ruled by the Lodi dynasty kings, who were overthrown by Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India. Delhi became the capital of the Mughal empire during the reign of Shah Jahan. The Mughal period lasted for over three centuries and later India fell into the hands of the British, who shifted their capital from Kolkata to Delhi in the year 1911. Delhi has also served as the capital for other major dynasties such as the Tughlaqs and the Khiljis. Post-Independence, New Delhi became the official capital of the Republic of India in 1947.

Delhi’s strategic location in the heart of north central India near major trade routes connecting India, China and the Middle East made it an ideal location for a seat of power. Eight cities lie under modern Delhi beginning with Indraprasthat, a capital mentioned in the 3,000-year-old Hindu epic “Mahabharata”.

The seven old cities that occupied present-day Delhi were built by different dynasties: Laklot was set up in the mid-eleventh century on the banks of the Yamuna River; Siri was established by Allauddin Khiji in the 13th century; Tuglakabad and Ferozabad were built by the Turkish Lodis in the 14th century; and Shajenhanaabad, the capital of the Mughals, reached its peak in the 16th century under Shan Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal.

In the early 13th century, a Turkish slave dynasty defeated the Ghuids in India and established the Sultanate of Delhi. It ruled the whole of the Ganges Valley, consolidated Turkish power and lasted for 300 years until the arrival of the Mughals. Shams-ud-Din Iletmish (or Iltutmish; r. 1211-36), a former slave-warrior, established a Turkic kingdom in Delhi, which enabled future sultans to push in every direction; within the next 100 years, the Delhi Sultanate extended its sway east to Bengal and south to the Deccan, while the sultanate itself experienced repeated threats from the northwest and internal revolts from displeased, independent-minded nobles. Iltutmish (1210-35) and Balban (1266-87) were among the dynasty's most illustrious rulers.

Old Delhi was given its character by the Mughals (Moguls). It was founded in 1639 years by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and originally named Shahjahanabad (Shah Jahanabad). Many of the old “havelis,” the ornately carved residences of the courtiers and craftsmen of Mughal Delhi, have been broken up into warehouses, tenements and warehouses. There are still 14th century step wells, the graves of Muslim saint's in the middle of busy thoroughfares and royal tombs scattered around the Delhi golf course.

The origins of New Delhi dates back to King George V's triumphant tour of India in 1911. While encamped on the outskirts of Old Delhi, he announced that the capital of British India would be shifted from Calcutta to a new city to be built beside of Delhi. City planners Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens, laid out dream city with large parks, wide boulevards lined with 10,000 trees, red sandstone government buildings and traffic circles with fountains and flower borders. The city they conceived was completed in 1931, sixteen years before the British gave up the Raj. During the last couple of decades modern skyscrapers and large commercial districts have been introduced.

Delhi's Population

Delhi is the home to about 17 million people in the city proper and 29 million in the metropolitan area, making it one the world’s four largest urban areas along with Tokyo. Jakarta and Manila. The population of Delhi doubled in the 1990s and it now has five times the population density of New York City. Delhi absorbs about one million newcomers every year. Deforestation around the capital has driven bands of wild monkeys into resident areas ans homes.

Around 49 percent of the population of Delhi lives in slums and unauthorised communities without any civic amenities. The majority of the slums have inadequate provisions to the basic facilities and according to a DUSIB report, almost 22 percent defecate in the open. Many people like in shacks made of scrap wood, pieces of plastic and scavenged bricks. Urban middle class live in the suburbs. Many modern satellite cities have appeared in the outskirts of Delhi. Real estate values of some suburbs outside of Delhi have tripled in a few years. These areas are filled with advertisement for real estate agents.

According to the 2011 census of India, the population density of Delhi was 11,297 persons per square kilometers, a sex ratio of 866 women per 1000 men, and a literacy rate of 86.34 percent. Major social groups of Delhi include Brahmins, Jats, Punjabis, Purvanchalis, Vaishyas, Gujjars, Sikhs, Muslims, Uttarakhandis and Bengalis. Dwarka Sub City, Asia's largest planned residential area, is located within the National Capital Territory of Delhi. Urban expansion has resulted in Delhi's urban area now being considered as extending beyond the NCT boundaries to incorporate the towns and cities of neighbouring states including Faridabad and Gurgaon of Haryana, and Ghaziabad and Noida of Uttar Pradesh. [Source: Wikipedia]

Delhi’s Poverty

In Delhi’s slums you can find families with 12 members living in a 4-x-4-meter mud and wood huts, open sewers and piles of cow dung and rotting vegetables. Clothes and dishes are washed in chocolate brown water. Goats and cows are around. People sleep on cot-like charpoys, which double as benches in the daytime.

On a trip to New Delhi slums, Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates, told Newsweek, “I saw tiny babies left on mats with flies landing all over them because their mothers had get into the city in search of a job. I saw young children filling an old antifreeze jug with ostensibly clean water from a hole they’d punctured in a pipe. The pipe was about nine inches above a trough of raw sewage that ran the length of the slum. I saw children playing on rooftops within a few feet of live electric wires.”

“People lived side by side in rows upon rows of houses. Each hose was 6 feet by 8 feet and housed an entire family of as many as eight people — as well as the family business — which faced the street. There were no toilets. Families bathed and defecated in the river behind the slum—a fetid stench hung in the air. A few pharmacies sold pills one at a time to people who could afford them.”

Delhi's Infrastructure

Delhi is stretched to the limit. Thee isn't nearly enough electricity, sewers, water or housing for everyone. Around 48 percent of the residents lack municipal water connections. Water is usually collected from public wells and some people tap into electric lines. New Delhi has stood at edge of its breaking point for years, to the point where it has become the norm. "Delhi is collapsing," one demographer told the Washington Post in the 2000s. "It's infrastructure has already collapsed." At that time tens of thousands of people had been waiting 15 years for government-allotted apartments and the waiting list for a new land-line telephone had 343,000 names on it. It was equally impossible to obtain electricity through authorized sources or a cooking gas line.

Things started going down hill for Delhi after partition 1947 when hundreds of thousands of refugees from Pakistan flocked to the capital. Newcomers kept coming. Most are from the poor districts of the nearby states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. There also refugees from Tibet, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. One U.N. official told National Geographic, "Delhi is a city of refugees. It's become a Wild West boomtown. Everybody's on the make. Anything goes." There is Little regard for zoning laws. Buildings are openly put on public land supposedly reserved for parks and open spaces. The commissioner of the Delhi Development Authority has personally overseen the demolition of 14,000 illegal structures.

Delhi's municipal water supply, managed by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), according to on estimate, provides aboyt two thirds the residents consumption requirement. The shortfall is met by private and public tube wells and hand pumps. Delhi's groundwater levels are falling as its population increases, and water shortage are particularly acute during times of drought. Some researchers say up to half of the city's water use is from unofficial groundwater. Only half of New Delhi’s residents have access to treated water. Some squatters are lucky enough to be able to take showers from leaks from the massive pipes that bring water into the city. A large portion of the sewage flows untreated into the Yamuna river.

Delhi's Pollution

Delhi is regarded as world's most polluted major city, now that Beijing has cleaned up its act somewhat. Bloomberg reported in November 2019: “Despite new government policies meant to address the issue, New Delhi’s air quality has fallen from where it was five years ago, rising to the fifth-worst spot globally and making it by far the world’s most polluted major city, the World Air Quality Report published by IQAir AirVisual said. The worst-ranked city — Ghaziabad — is a Delhi suburb, as are a number of others ranked separately in the top 20. India, China and other Asian countries remain disproportionately affected by toxic air as a result of factors ranging from crowded cities, vehicular exhaust, coal-fired power plants, agricultural burning and industrial emissions.”

In November 2019, Delhi declared a public health emergency when the city was blanketed by a thick haze and most areas of the city and surrounding areas breached the 999 air quality index mark, which according to experts, was the equivalent of smoking 40 to 50 cigarettes a day. Levels above 400 poses a risk for people with respiratory illness and can also affect those with healthy lungs.

In the mid 1990s, vehicles spewed out 1,430 tons of pollutants every day and people inhaled the toxic equivalent of between 10 and 20 cigarettes a day on a daily basis. At that time residents of the city were 12 times more likely to have respiratory diseases than people elsewhere in India. It was estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the population would get cancer, and 7.500 would die from and 4 million woul be treated for pollution-caused illnesses each year. The air is so foul that traffic police have been ordered to wear masks over their nose and mouths.

By one reckoning vehicles accounted for 70 percent of the pollution with power plants responsible for 15 percent and industry for 10 percent. Most of the pollution created by vehicles was caused by ones that coughed out low quality diesel fuel with 200 times the sulfur content allowed in Sweden and the sheer number of vehicles on the road, which increaseed from 1.8 million in 1981 to 3.3 million in 1999.

Water pollution and shortages are also a problem. A large portion of the sewage produced in the city flows untreated into the Yamuna river. The sacred river is so polluted it "foams with filth" but people still bath and wash in it and drink it. A study released in November 2004 found millions of residents of the city (two out every five people) suffer from lung, liver or genetic disorders related to pollution and that pollution affect immunity and caused blood-related abnormalities.

On the overall condition of the city, William Langeweische wrote in Atlantic Monthly in 2000, "The streams were dead channels trickling with sewage and bright chemicals, and the air on the streets was barely breathable. In the heat of the afternoon, a yellow-white mixture hung above the city, raining acidic soot into the dust and exhaust fumes. At night the mixture was condensed into a dry, choking fog that enveloped the headlight of passing cars, and crept with stink into even the tightest houses."

Combating Delhi's Pollution

A campaign to clean up Delhi began in 1996 when the government ordered thousands of chemical and textile factories to close down. In 1999, the Supreme Court, ruled that public transport vehicles, including local buses and taxis, were required to be run on compressed natural gas (CNG) by April 2001. In December 2000 a court ordered the closure of 90,000 polluting factories that employed one million people. In 2002, Delhi opened its subway system.

Efforts to reduce air pollution have produced mixed results. The amount of air pollution has been reduced but people are having difficultly getting to work and fuel shortages and long lines has resulted as vehicles line up for alternative fuels. When the laws went into effect service stations were not properly equipped and huge lines of gas-equipped buses, taxis and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws formed. Riots led by jobless bus workers resulted in torched buses, burning tires and shattered glass on the city's roads. Buses that were operating were much more crowded than usual.

The efforts paid off. Pollution levels were greatly improved. Levels of sulfur dioxide and suspended particulate matter were all greatly reduced. Residents claimed they were able to see stars at night for the first time in years. The air is still dirty and not up the standards of European and Japanese cities but is still worse than the air in Kolkata and Mumbai. There is still is long way to go and after things improve they get bad again..

Delhi's Traffic and Driving Conditions

The traffic situation in New Delhi can be unimaginably bad. There also isn't enough road space for the metropolitan areas’s 11.2 million, which includes about 7 million cars, 200,000 buses, taxis and three-wheeled auto rickshaws, and 4 million other vehicles—motorcycles, trucks and scooters. There are more are cars in Delhi than in India’s’ three next largest cities—Mumbai, Kolkata and Madras—combined.

Traffic is congested. Many roads are one-way. Old Delhi has many narrow streets. New Delhi has many wide avenues. Traffic is chaotic in both sections of the city. Many roads are in poor condition. Huge flyovers and other improvements are being made to the Ring Road at great expense. Road construction methods are often sub-standard, and maintenance is inadequate. Construction sites poses a serious risk to road users. Building materials, excavated rocks, etc. are often left on the roads. This practice is especially hazardous at night in poorly lit areas. Road width is often reduced to accommodate construction areas. The city’s drainage system is inadequate. Flooding often affects road and rail traffic. Road damage is often extensive. Landslides have occurred. Even light rains can cause severe flooding and gridlock streets and main arteries. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)]

Drivers swerve between lanes and generally do not observe traffic rules. Bus drivers often speed. Some drivers do not use the lanes designated for their vehicle type. Many drivers stop on the road to take phone calls, fail to signal when changing lanes, speed or jump traffic signals.

Traffic jams are common. Heavily congested sections of road have increased. Longer travel times contribute to high pollution levels. Parking is scarce. Police put hard-to-remove warning stickers on illegally or poorly parked cars. Cycling lanes are being built on major roads. There are more motorcycles, scooters and auto-rickshaws in cycle lanes than cycles. Pedestrians may fall when walking on make-shift paths across work areas.

Traffic Accidents and Deaths in Delhi

New Delhi has one of the highest road crash rates in the world. Factors in high fatality rates include: poorly maintained roads, insufficient pedestrian crossings and pedestrians jaywalking. Road crashes are steadily decreasing, partly due to increased law enforcement. Many crashes occur near main gate of the Safdarjung Hospital. Drivers may speed or run red lights. The intersection has no pedestrian crosswalks. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)]

At one time more people died in traffic accidents in Delhi (2,091 in 1996) than the rest of India's other cities combined. Four to five people die in traffic accident everyday, one of the highest rates of any city in the world. According to Delhi Traffic Police, road accident deaths increased from 1584 in 2017 to 1690 in 2018. The police reported that in 2018, 6515 road accidents occurred in Delhi in which 6086 people were injured while 1690 people lost their life. According to NDTV: The fatality rate has increased by 6.69 per cent though there has been a total decline in road accidents by 2.36 per cent. Pedestrians were the most vulnerable victims. In 2018, 45.86 per cent of the total persons killed in road accidents were pedestrians while scooter or motorcycle riders were second most vulnerable with 33.72 per cent killed in an accident.” [Source: NDTV, August 21, 2019]

Buses routinely pick up and discharge passengers while the bus is moving in mid-traffic. Some buses seldom stop at bus stops, forcing riders to leap on. In the 1990s, privately owned buses accounted for 300 deaths a year and eight of 100 of traffic deaths were caused when passengers were getting off or getting on city buses. In the early 2000s, college students attacked a city bus, smashing the windows and beating up the driver after he ran over a pedestrian, the 224th person killed by the city’s Redline bus company in less than a year.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website , India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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