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Behind a New Delhi Suburb's Golden Image

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

GURGAON, India Five years ago, this sprawling New Delhi suburb was known as the Manhattan of India for its skyscrapers and as the Silicon Valley of South Asia for its technology corridor.

Amid media fanfare and lavish ceremonies, new gated communities named their apartment complexes Santa Barbara Marina and Beverly Palms, signaling the aspirations of a youthful generation that saw this dusty, landlocked development outside the capital as part of the new India, a cosmopolitan boomtown of jobs, upward mobility and round-the-clock electricity.

But reflecting a country where hype often outpaces reality, Gurgaon's builders have yet to get the dream up and running. As the English-language Hindustan Times newspaper detailed in a recent series titled "Gurgaon Collapsing," India's famed suburban El Dorado today looks more like a Wild West frontier town.

Traffic jams, unpaved roads, daily power outages and unreliable garbage collection have many Gurgaon residents and office workers complaining that the dream has turned into a cautionary tale.

"It is supposed to be a world-class city in the making," the Hindustan Times said. "Behind the facade of high-rises and condominiums hide very basic issues like blocked sewer lines and missing storm water drains."

The former farming area that has been transformed in the past 10 years into a hodgepodge of development is home to 150 Fortune 500 companies. But it remains a work in progress -- a still-under-construction suburb of half-empty shopping malls, bustling back-office operations, call centers and condos. Many of the malls and offices still run on generators.

The population is a mix of young urban professionals from New Delhi and Mumbai seeking good jobs in the technology industry and largely uneducated migrant laborers from India's poorest states. With their children in tow, the migrants leave their farms between harvests to look for work here as security guards, drivers, construction workers and maids. Many live in the vast shantytowns that sit beneath the new gated communities, making for a slapdash skyline of ramshackle tents, tall shopping malls and skyscraper office parks, all covered by the dust from the construction sites.

"But be it traffic management or public interaction in the power and water supply offices, the available infrastructure does not match the requirements or expectations of the people who shifted to Gurgaon looking for 'world class experience,' glibly promised in the glossy leaflets of private property developers," the Hindustan Times wrote, adding that people were waiting for electricity connections for "up to two months" and that property transfers were taking "months, even years."

Other Indian media outlets have begun questioning the suburb's golden image, too.

Recently in the headlines were stories about law enforcement so weak that Gurgaon has been nicknamed the gun capital of greater New Delhi, because residents feel they have to protect themselves. Murders, bank robberies, carjackings and burglaries here are frequently in the news.

"But there is also garbage," said Sudhir Kapoor, secretary of the residents' association of DLF, one of Gurgaon's largest housing developments. "Rubbish is thrown anywhere and everywhere. No official landfill site exists. The posh areas of DLF Phase 1 are fighting for survival. The garbage is permeating groundwater."

Still, many hold out hope that such problems are merely growing pains and point instead to signs of the new city's promise. New Delhi's Metro subway system is slated to reach Gurgaon by next year. A major highway is being built between Gurgaon and the northern city of Jaipur. And Epicentre, a cultural center for dance, music, films and art, opened in the suburb recently.

"Epicentre has provided a wonderful alternative to mall culture," said Kamini Singh, a 16-year Gurgaon resident who works at the center. "So far, galleries were based in malls, which don't provide the ambiance, since they are crowded and play loud music. Gurgaon is a baby as compared to Delhi in culture. But we are starting out on the cultural front, and that's exciting."

Residents are also beginning to take cooperative action.

After the Hindustan Times series appeared, more than 250 resident groups in Gurgaon formed the Gurgaon United Residents Movement, or GURM, whose aim is to become a new voice for residents and workers in the struggling suburb.

"We have derived inspiration from the 'Gurgaon Collapsing' series," Col. Rattan Singh, a residents' association leader, told the Hindustan Times in an interview. "In the past, various resident forums had been raising infrastructure and governance-related issues with the authorities, and who gave a damn about it? But now the authorities will have no option but to listen to us, as we all have decided to get united under the umbrella of GURM."

Ramesh Khanna, a real estate broker and Gurgaon resident, said he thinks the suburb has opportunities to break old ways of doing things.

He was thrilled, he said, to see wide-aisled, American-style supermarkets here instead of open-air markets. He loves the supermarkets' underground parking and frigid air conditioning during the scorching summers. And as in most suburbs, properties are cheaper in Gurgaon, with apartments costing about 30 percent less than equivalent ones in New Delhi, he said.

"To be very frank, we still need the basic infrastructures needed for a city to function smoothly," Khanna said. "But at the same time, Delhi is an old, chaotic city, with power, water and crime problems, too. There are many irritants in New Delhi, like lack of personal parking spaces when many families are getting cars."

"Delhi people visit Gurgaon and the outings are treated like picnics," he added. "So it's not all bad."

Special correspondent Ria Sen contributed to this report.

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