Notebook

October 2, 2012 6:21 pm

Flora and fauna of an Asian megacity

Cohabitation is a tribute to Indian tradition, writes Victor Mallet

For Paul Ehrlich, neo-Malthusian author of The Population Bomb, it was a taxi ride on a hot night in Delhi that notoriously provided him with the “hellish” personal experience of the population crisis he believed he already understood intellectually.

“People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people,” he wrote in the prologue.

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That was 45 years ago, and since then both Delhi and the wider world have added many millions more. I moved to the Indian capital two months ago and can testify that greater Delhi, with its 22m inhabitants, is an Asian megacity with bigger crowds, worse traffic jams, fuller passenger trains, poorer sanitation, uglier slums and more persistent beggars than anywhere in the west.

As striking as the number of people, however, is the quantity and variety of other animal species surviving and thriving in the city – a tribute to Indian cultural and religious traditions encouraging the mass of humanity to coexist with the other beasts of our planet.

There are rats and cats and monkeys and dogs, of course. Even the smartest shops tend to have a mangy cur dozing on the doorstep. Delhi-ites feed and care for packs of feral dogs and have gone to court in defence of their welfare. I was told the other day not to worry about rabies if I saw a dog foaming at the mouth in Lodi Gardens – that would be the one with epilepsy.

Wildlife flourishes too, especially but not exclusively in the privileged avenues of New Delhi and its parks and gardens. The first thing we met in our own yard was a giant toad relishing the monsoon rains. Walking home at night, it is hard to avoid a series of crunching squelches as you step on giant land snails trying to cross the path. We are woken by the chattering of squirrels and the cries of hornbills, parakeets, woodpeckers and the kind of kite my father used to call a “shite hawk”. Not bad for a megacity.

banx cartoon

It is all a far cry from the wildlife-bereft cities of China. Concerned campaigners in Delhi have even raised the alarm recently about the city’s declining population of house sparrows, prompting Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister, to declare it the “State Bird of Delhi”.

Baffling coexistence

Not everything about Delhi, alas, is so charming for the new resident.

Impressed with the city’s new airport terminal and feeling guilty about having unfairly denigrated Indian infrastructure, we arrived just as the electricity grid collapsed, leaving more than 600m people without lights and setting a record for the world’s biggest power cut. Yes, China does infrastructure better.

One of the baffling aspects of life in Delhi, in fact, is the astonishingly poor quality of such basic services as plumbing and electrical work, all leaking pipes and bare wires held together with tape. If you think rabies is dangerous, you should try the light switches and power cables; the nephew of a gardener on our street died by electrocution a few days after we arrived.

It would be easy to blame such failures on the fact that India is a poor country, and lament that it has exported all its good plumbers and electricians to the Middle East. But it cannot be that simple. Tailors are skilful. Online banking works fine. So do the country’s 900m mobile phones. As I was ducking the shrapnel sent flying around my office by a man attempting to hammer the screws of an air conditioner fitting into a concrete wall, India was announcing its plans to send a spacecraft to study Mars.

The problem, particularly in the state-dependent city of Delhi, is an abundance of corrupt cliques and cartels and family ties, and an aversion to the free market.

That is why Delhi taxis are so awful, and why there has been such a stink about the government’s plan to allow foreign investment in retail – an idea that would benefit hundreds of millions of farmers and 1.2bn consumers while mildly inconveniencing urban shopkeepers.

Trouble is, while this maddening rejection of financial common sense and the greater human good is hard on new arrivals, it may also be the only thing enabling Delhi’s unprofitable wild animals to continue their wonderful, improbable coexistence with so many people.

victor.mallet@ft.com

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