Sunday, May 27, 2007

Athiti Devo Bhava in Delhi

I have been travelling to Delhi quite frequently for past 10 years and I have seen it go through some welcome changes over the years unlike other cities like Mumbai and Bangalore which have been going downhill . City looks cleaner and converting large fleet of public buses, taxis and autos to run on CNG has made city's air breathable. Metro rail is a showpiece of new modern India. Roads are wider, even though traffic remains chaotic but that is more to do with our indian driving sense and unwillingness to follow rules than anything else. City is gearing for 2010's common wealth games and government's ambition is to transform Delhi to a "worldclass city" by then. But cities are not defined by thier physical attributes alone. Cities are about its people.

On a recent visit to Delhi, I noticed every taxi and autorickshaw displaying "athiti Devo Bhava" sticker. "Guest is like God" goes the ancient indian time honoured custom but like many of our culture's lofty traditions , this one also remains but a phantom from the past. It means nothing. It is one thing to force (by ministry of tourism) taxis and autos to use these stickers on thier vehicles, but what happens in reality is a starkly different story. Delhi's taxi and autowallahs represents to a large extent what Delhi is about. These guys are rude, unfriendly, foul mouthed and have scant respect or regard for any rule. They blatantly refuse to take pessengers, overcharge them almost everytime and never use electronic meters. Their meters are always broken. You have to haggle with them about rates if they agree to take you to your destination depending upon their mood. And this is regardless of wheather you are a native of city or an outsider. In fact if you are a tourist and insist on using the meter and meter starts working miraculously, be assured that you will be driven all around the city even if your destination was few streets away. Even in case of prepaid taxis, it is not unusual for driver to demand a tip from passenger as if by driving safely he has done a great service to the passenger. The old "bakshish" syndrome in a new avatar. One can imagine what foreigner tourists must go through in Delhi. Their travails start very much at airport when they are swarmed by dozens of touts.

On my first trip abroad to Germany many years ago, I took taxi from airport to a small town. taxi driver started talking to me im his halting english and when he learnt that I was from India, tuned to a hindi radio station aired from UK, chatted to me about India and almost told me history of town I was going to. I never felt like god but I still remember the ride and his pleasant demeanour. The point is that why must we pretend and elevate guests to pedestal of Gods when the fact is that guests to cities like Delhi can not even expect to be charged fairly for a simple taxi ride. We can not whitewash and hide the warts and ugly realities by merely sloganeering from our past.

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