Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let's move the capital of India!

Mothers smeared their children with mud, and men swathed themselves in wet towels. Tar oozed in the streets…In India last week not even mad dogs or Englishmen went out in the midday sun.”

This could have been written last week. In fact, it was a report on the Indian summer in Time magazine in the first week of July, 1958.

The monsoon is late. Everyone from the prime minister to the marginal farmer is waiting anxiously for news of rain that hasn’t come. So far, the weatherman has only this to say: that it’s not going to be a good monsoon, and that temperatures are even higher than they always are at this time of the year.

It didn’t take thermometers or experts to tell. We’ve felt it in Delhi. It has been about five degrees above the normal, hitting 44 degrees Celsius on Wednesday. With rain clouds nowhere on the city’s horizon yet, both water and power supplies are beginning to falter.

To be stuck in this searing heat without electricity or water is rather uncomfortable. Add a fire and it could be a version of life in hell. There is no shortage of devils here; that deficiency won’t be felt.

This is when a Raj-era practice begins to make sense. From 1864, every summer, the British began moving the administration to a summer capital up in the Himachal hills in Shimla. It was quite an effort — the national capital then was in Calcutta, 1,700 km away.

This very civilised practice was discontinued after Independence.

Perhaps India should think of  reviving it. If the British empire at its zenith could rule its Asian territories from Shimla long before there was telephone or Internet or air travel, surely it is not impossible to do so now.

Another alternative might be to take the capital to a city with a more salubrious climate, like Bangalore. There, the summer maximum temperature rarely rises above 33 degrees Celsius, or the winter minimum falls below 15 degrees.

Making it the capital would do Bangalore — and India — a world of good. The city’s identity crisis would be resolved for good. It would stop being conflicted between its laid back small town self and its identity as a global city. Its infrastructure problems would be addressed seriously, like Delhi’s have been.

The sense that south India is like a whole other country would also evaporate. At present, the general impression among most people in other parts of India is that all of south India is one homogeneous mass, where everyone speaks either Tamil or Malayalam, and eats dosas and idlis. Nothing like transplanting an army of these ignoramuses to the southern heartland and exposing them to Andhra, Chettinad and Mangalorean meat and fish dishes.

There would be other benefits as well. The capital would be 2,000 km further away from the borders with Pakistan and China, for one.

Of course Bangalore and Shimla are not the only options. Capital cities can and have been built from green field up — Brazil did that with Brasilia. It deliberately located the new capital in an underdeveloped region to take development to that part of the country.

So, on third thoughts, maybe India can build a new capital in the hills of Northeast India somewhere near Shillong. Moving the centre is really the best way to make the periphery feel it belongs.

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