India’s Building Boom
Sunday morning I got a lesson in Indian style urban planning. I woke up early to meet Gobind for a Rotary event, a rally to raise public awareness for a newly established blood bank. As we drove north, out of the city, we caught the DND (Delhi Noida Direct) Flyway. The expressway was broad, three lanes on each side, with plentiful vegetation in the middle. Early on a Sunday morning it was not congested by the sparse but mixed crowd that shared the road. Speeding along next to us were other passenger cars, trucks, buses, and men, couples, or families on motorcycles – dad driving with one child in front of him and mom riding side saddle on the back with the smaller child in front of her. Along the shoulder, a number of people traveled on foot, by bike, or pedaled a rickshaw headed toward the city. The open lanes and sunny day made me miss the freedom of getting in my own car to head north. I wished wistfully that I could hop on I-35, destination Chisholm, and open my windows to the smell of crisp pine air.
Once you enter Noida, the DND Flyway turns into the Mahamaya (The Great Maya) Flyover, named after the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh. I asked Gobind to explain what looked like a large shrine being built on the side of the expressway – a large stone building with the typical Taj Mahal-esque domes and turrets, flanked by two 3-story fountains, pillars, and other large structures. He explained that it was a park, a very controversial project because of the fact that it featured statues of the chief minister, other political heroes, and thousands of elephant sculptures, the symbol of her party. At an expense of $200,000,000 (yes, USD) its self-serving largesse made the sort of pork barrel spending we complain about in the States look as innocent as a soup kitchen for elderly veterans and widows.
The thousands (perhaps millions) of hectares north of New Delhi, once jungle and green space, have all but completely been developed over the last ten and twenty years. I got the sense that we were driving through the Woodbury of India. The remaining green space has already been purchased by commercial developers with designs for golf courses, malls, schools, private clubs, and planned communities. Gobind commented that when I return to India in ten years with my children this place will look incredibly different. No doubt.
After the blood bank event, where we made an appearance and got nice Rotary T-shirts and hats, we drove around the expansive India Expo Park built when India hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games. We stopped at the site of one of the future private clubs in the area. A high wall ran the perimeter of the large and mostly empty area. We pulled up to the gate and stepped out for a few minutes to venture inside and survey the construction. Most of the laborers and their families were milling around, enjoying their day of rest, but others could be seen shoveling sand, mixing concrete, and bracing the wooden support beams used to hold up each floor of a newly constructed building as the cement dries. Construction workers are a migrant workforce and hundreds or thousands of families arrive monthly to India’s three largest boom cities – New Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore – to erect the edifices of a nation on the rise. Gobind explained that Calcutta, while also a large city and commercial hub, does not draw as much business as the three boomtowns since the surrounding state was under communist rule for forty years. He asked someone who looked like the foreman about the specs of the project and told me the club will have thirty or forty villas and something like 18 servants quarters.
Land use is a huge and hot topic in India. Every day there is news of legal battles between farmers and private developers over land rights and the price of land. This is an issue we discussed in my environmental economics course – should the price of land be determined by its value prior to or after development? What is a fair purchasing price for farmland that will soon be home to shopping malls and luxury apartments? The real estate value of developed land is obviously much higher than farmland, but agreement on a fair price is hard to come by.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the big city and see somewhere new, a different part of India. I look forward to traveling around during the year and gaining a broader understanding of this diverse and energetic nation.