Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Saturday, 29 January 2011

The good, bad and ugly of Indian life - all on one road

By Chris Morris
BBC News

Rubble beside the Aruna Asaf Ali Marg
When buildings on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg were demolished the rubble was left

India's economy is booming, the rich are getting richer and the poor are able to dream - but chaos and corruption are still everywhere you look.

As with many things in India, I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Aruna Asaf Ali Marg.

This was the road on which I drove, or was driven, from home to work and back, most days that I was in Delhi.

All life was there. A little bit of everything.

There was the India of progress and increasing prosperity. The new hospital on the corner, the South Asian University, the National Institutes of Immunology and of Plant Genome Research.

There were wedding halls and restaurants. Students going shopping and workmen building bridges.

But there was also - how can I put this politely - one hell of a mess.

Shortly after I joined the commuters on Aruna Asaf Ali the council knocked down a whole series of buildings which had encroached on to public land by the side of the road.

Well, they did not knock them down completely, they just knocked down enough to make them uninhabitable, to concertina one illegal floor on to the next.

Little by little, people, families, and businesses started moving back in to the ruins

It looked a bit like the aftermath of an earthquake.

Never fear, I thought, this will soon be part of the new India. India shining.

But then nothing happened. There were legal disputes. Presumably no-one told anyone else what to do with the buildings, so they just stayed there, falling to pieces by the side of the road. Every day, for the next three years.

Did I say uninhabitable? Well I was wrong.

Little by little, people, families, and businesses started moving back in to the ruins.

A used car dealership among the crumbling masonry. A tandoori chicken stall in half a broken room. There were piles of rubbish everywhere.

"How can there be so much contrast in just one country?", people ask. "How can there be so much contrast on just one road?"

Even the surface of the road - the tarmac itself - mirrored this rather schizophrenic existence.

Named after an Indian independence activist
3.5km (2.2 miles) long

Parts of Aruna Asaf Ali - where it skirted the wooded campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University - were like a motorway. Six lanes wide and smooth as you like.

But you had to know the road to know where to slow down. Because the smooth surface ended in the most spectacular undulation, which occasionally caused small cars in front of us to leave the road before landing.

And then there was another stretch where the road almost ceased to exist. Just a few bits of tarmac scattered among the potholes, which became treacherous lagoons during the rainy season.

So imagine my surprise when one day it was all mended overnight.

"Not bad," I said to my driver. "Progress."

He sighed. "The president," he said, "is due to travel down Aruna Asaf Ali to the Chattarpur temple." It had been a very quick fix.

And sure enough, the potholes were soon back with a vengeance.

Such was life on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg.

'Us' and 'them'

I was always just passing through, which is I suppose, the fate of the itinerant foreign correspondent. But you did not have to look too hard to see India unfolding before you.

Nelson Mandela Marg
Nearby Nelson Mandela Marg has some of Delhi's most expensive shops

Rich Indians in expensive cars, on their way to the designer shopping centre round the corner.

More and more middle class Indians building optimistically for the future. And poor Indians, struggling, and wondering when their time to shine will come.

I was walking back to my car from the chemist's shop one day when I saw a man carefully hanging a piece of plastic sheeting from one bit of rubble to the next. He looked like he was moving in.

So I wandered over to ask him why no-one seemed all that upset to be living and working in the middle of such a mess.

Prakash had two children in a distant village and worked as a security guard. Occasionally, he confided, he moonlighted as a rickshaw driver.

"It's not really up to us," he said, gesturing with his head in one direction and then another. "It's up to them."

"Us" very broadly - is the "aam aadmi", Hindi for the Common Man, Mr Average, the very guy the Indian government says it is trying to help.

With some notable exceptions, Gandhian values have all but disappeared from Indian public life

And "them", they are those at the top, the people who have made it in politics, or business, or Bollywood or cricket. "They" are wealthy, and increasingly "they" do not care who knows it.

And that always jarred a little on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, because this was a road named in honour of a heroine of the Indian independence movement.

It is a name which evokes a different era. Images of sacrifice and personal restraint, a reminder of the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.

'Greed is good'

India still talks proudly about its Gandhian heritage.

Tourists walk past a bust of Gandhi in Mani Bhavan
Gandhi believed in non-violent protest to achieve political and social progress

Parliamentarians were delighted when Barack Obama addressed them in Delhi, and told them he might not have been standing where he was if it had not been for Gandhi's inspiring example.

But for years now, with some notable exceptions, Gandhian values have all but disappeared from Indian public life. For most of the time in modern India, greed is good.

Maybe they are just reverting to type. Indians love to trade, Hindu festivals are often celebrations of wealth and prosperity, and this is a country which needs to get richer to help the poor.

But when the head of the government's main anti-fraud body retired last year he made an extraordinary statement. One in three Indians, Pratyush Sinha estimated, is utterly corrupt. And a majority of the rest are right on the borderline.

"When we were growing up," he said, "if somebody was corrupt, they were generally looked down upon. There was at least some social stigma attached to it.

"That's gone now. There's greater social acceptance."

When the BBC commissioned an opinion poll which came out in December, corruption and greed emerged as the most widely discussed problems in India

By and large I think he is right, which is why I was taken by surprise during my last few months in Delhi by the sudden intensity of focus on corruption in high places.

Cabinet ministers, wealthy businessmen, members of the armed forces, and politically well-connected organisers of the Commonwealth Games, all of them came under the microscope.

The media were having a field day.

India's excitable 24-hour news channels were breaking so much news that I thought they might burst.

One day my morning paper ran five different major corruption stories on its first eight pages. Nothing else got a look in.

So it was not too unexpected that when the BBC commissioned an opinion poll which came out in December, corruption and greed emerged as the most widely discussed problems in India. Yes, even more than losing a game of cricket.

My more cynical friends were distinctly unimpressed. They assured me it would all be taken care of in the usual way - a couple of scapegoats, a commission of inquiry lasting 20 years, and snouts back in the trough.

Even the doyen of Indian business, Ratan Tata, the owner of Mumbai's famous Taj hotel and the man who brought us the Nano, the world's cheapest car, has spoken of the dangers of a "banana republic" mentality emerging, with crony capitalism ruling the roost.

The government said it would get to the bottom of it all. The opposition stalled parliamentary business for weeks - shouting down speaker after speaker - in order to embarrass the government.

And the record shows that nearly a third of all members of parliament are facing criminal charges, many of them for corruption.

Top-level corruption

So I must admit I prefer grassroots initiatives. Like the zero rupee note.

A man counting rupee notes
Can schemes fighting bribery at local levels be successful?

It is a replica of the 50 rupee note - complete with a smiling Mahatma Gandhi. Except it adds a written declaration that "I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe".

The idea is that one is handed over when any official asks for their palm to greased, appealing to a lost sense of shame.

More than a million "zeros" have now been pushed across counters up and down the country.

And for those who transgress, who pay the extra money just to get things done, just to take away some of the stresses and strains of everyday life, there are websites like I Paid A Bribe where you can confess all and compare notes with fellow sufferers.

But what is been emerging recently has been of a rather different scale.

It is not about the low-level bureaucrat asking for "tea money" to countersign a passport form or hand over a driving licence.

It is about a multi-billion-pound overspend on the Commonwealth Games, with no-one entirely sure where all the money has gone.

It is about a six-storey building meant for war widows in Mumbai which became a 31-storey luxury complex where relatives of army officers and politicians got preferential rates.

In urban India, money determines your status now, no matter how you made it

And the biggest scandal of all surrounding the sale of mobile phone licences? It is estimated to have cost the public exchequer more than £20bn ($13bn).

Little wonder that some are saying enough is enough. And back on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, whether in the ruins, the restaurants or the research centres, there is probably a tingle of pleasure that at least some of "them" are, perhaps, finally being held to account.

But at the same time there is undoubtedly grudging admiration for those who have made it to the top, whether by fair means or foul.

Where next?

India has always been a place where hierarchy is all important, where everyone is supposed to know their place.

Out in the villages the caste system still reigns supreme. But in urban India, money determines your status now, no matter how you made it.

After leaving India, I have been left to wonder where my former home, that vast country of infectious energy, is going next.

"What will you miss about India?" I have been asked. "The chaos," I said, "the creative surge."

"And what won't you miss?"

"The chaos," I replied again, "the other side of the same coin."

If you want a quick taste of it all, you could do worse than taking a trip down Aruna Asaf Ali Marg.

It is all there in glorious technicolour. The good, the bad and the ugly.

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