The asses of New Delhi

NEW DELHI, India — At the impromptu stables near Jawarhalal Nehru Marg, on the outskirts of Old Delhi — the Indian capital's 400-year-old core — a group of  men in salwar kameez and skullcaps are seated cross-legged in the straw playing cards. A line of stubby-legged ponies and donkeys stretches along the stone wall. The animals ruminate placidly as cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws, horns blaring, race past on the adjacent road.

There are as many as 150 donkeys here and Delhi’s builders still find  them useful for ferrying bricks and concrete from demolished building sites. But if New Delhi's plans come to fruition this month, another piece of the city's medieval heritage will disappear, and another group of poor people will be booted out of their homes and jobs.

“The government said they are going to come and take away the donkeys and force us out,” said Mohammad Shakir, a fierce-eyed man in a white kurta whose ancestors have been carters for more than 100 years. “It's not right. We live here. All our families are here. Our forefathers stayed, lived and died here. Our livelihood is here, and our kids go to school around here.”

According to Mohammad Salim, whose father is the leader of the donkey and horse owners, the government has already done a survey of the area and told locals that they must remove all the donkeys and clean up the  area.

“Where will they take us and our livelihood and throw us?” Salim demands. “What if it's across the Yamuna River? Our work is here. They moved us all here about 25 years ago, because the government said let all the dirt be in one place. Now they are kicking us in the stomach.”

The donkeys’ owners aren't alone.

Delhi is awash with bukwas – Hindi for nonsense — about the Indian capital's supposed emergence as a “world class city” before the opening ceremony of the 19th annual Commonwealth Games, to be held here beginning from Oct. 3 next year.

Much of the talk centers on whether the city will be ready for the games. But the big question is not whether Delhi will make the deadline, but to what disastrous and wasteful ends it will resort between now and then.

Already, many of the plans strike observers as impractical, poorly thought out, unfair or simply impossible. To start with, in a country where the average person earns less than $1,000 a year, the state will spend upwards of $15 billion to prepare Delhi for the second-tier sports event.

And while much of those funds will go to needed improvements to roads and other infrastructure, critics say the various initiatives suggest the government's plans will make life better for the city's wealthy without doing much good for its long-suffering poor.

The city has promised a “signal free” stretch of costly flyovers and tunnels into the heart of town from Indira Gandhi International Airport, which will only make life more difficult for pedestrians and bicyclists — i.e. those too poor  to afford a scooter. While the games venues include mostly public facilities, a hefty sum has been allotted to renovate the Siri Fort Sports Complex, an elite club that is closed to new members. Meanwhile, plans to use the money for athlete housing to construct dormitories that would later be turned over to Delhi University — where the shortage of rooms is more shocking than the state of its libraries — have been scrapped in favor of a scheme that will see the “Games Village” sold off as luxury apartments.

But that's not all. On the way to becoming world class — a feat that a five-minute walk in any neighborhood of the city suggests will take 25 years, not less than one — Delhi also plans to renovate one of its oldest and (though chaotic) most charming areas, sterilize the city's
260,000 stray dogs, stamp out Delhi Belly and send the city's 60,000 destitute beggars packing for parts unknown.

And then there are the infamous donkeys, though it seems the sacred cows get to stay.

For better or worse, though, this is Delhi, not Beijing. So locals are less concerned about the smart of the totalitarian stick than they are cynical about the eventual destination of all that cash. For instance, in Delhi's ancient commercial center Chandni Chowk, a bustling thoroughfare that has remained a top tourist draw since the 17th century despite overwhelming chaos and filth, the government has allotted a paltry $3 million — less than a tenth of what is being spent on some Games venues — to remove dangerous thickets of electrical wires, lay new water and gas lines, and convert the area to a pedestrian-only zone paved with Mughal-era bricks. And residents doubt that even that much will be spent as intended.

“Half of it will go in bribes,” said Chandraprakash Sharma, the 55-year-old owner of a sweet shop started here by his grandfather 80 years ago. “It's good they are doing the Games. But they should also  look within themselves and think about the state of the country.”

In less than a year, that's what the rest of the world will be doing. But planners would do well to remember that the world doesn't want New Delhi to be another Beijing. What audiences will be looking for is proof of the moral character and sensitivity of the world's largest democracy — India's “soft power.”

That, and maybe a donkey or two.