Delhi has a pollution emergency on its hands.
For the past week, the capital’s been choked by smog—the result of the burning of crop stubble in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, as well as vehicular emissions and industrial pollution. Its air is more toxic than that in most other parts of the world. The city has recorded levels of PM2.5—particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, prolonged exposure to which causes respiratory diseases—430 times the US standard.
This is the situation across north India. However, Delhi has received the lion’s share of the attention, perhaps inevitably. It is, after all, the capital of the Indian Union.
But what happens when the capital itself is near-unliveable? Last Sunday, an American airline cancelled all its flights to Delhi, calling the city a “gas chamber”—news that was covered by major publications across the globe. Diplomats posted in Delhi are getting sick and opting to leave. The Indian Express reported that Delhi might soon be slotted as a “hardship posting” or “non-family posting,” joining the ranks of war zones like Afghanistan and Syria.
It does not look like the situation will get any better in future. This is because governments have not shown much concern since pollution is not a matter that would force politicians to act (no one is going to lose an election for not controlling smog). In such a situation, drastic measures are required. One of them: shift the national capital out of Delhi.
Delhi is often seen as a natural capital for the Indian subcontinent. But this was not the case till recently. No kingdom in ancient India had its capital in the Delhi region. The area first came into political prominence with the Turkic invasions in the late 12th century. From there on, a series of Muslim empires based themselves in the Delhi region, founding cities such as Siri and Tughlqabad (now reflected in the names of areas in modern Delhi). Even then, Delhi was no subcontinental capital. In 1353, for instance, as the sultans of Delhi and Bengal battled each other to a stalemate in the Battle of Ekdala, they recognised each other as co-equal sovereigns of their lands.
It was the Mughals who gave Delhi its current prominence. In 1638, they made Delhi the Mughal capital. The empire had by then conquered all of India with the exception of the south. Within a few years, they conquered most of the south, too, under Aurangzeb. And for the first time in history, Delhi became the capital of the Indian subcontinent.
With the coming of the British Raj, however, the power centre shifted east to Kolkata, then Calcutta. Located in the swampy Sundarbans region of Bengal, the area was a backwater till the British, a major sea power, discovered its use as a port.
Kolkata grew to many times the size of Mughal Delhi and became the largest city in India during the 19th century—a status it held on to till the 1970s. Delhi, on the other hand, was only the seventh-largest city in India in 1901.
When Delhi poet Mirza Ghalib visited Kolkata, he was struck with envy at the shiny new city, the usurper of his city’s capital status. “The very mention of Kolkata was like an arrow piercing my breast,” he wrote in Urdu.
Yet, this power did not translate into mind space. Kolkata could never occupy the place Delhi did as a subcontinental metropole. As a result, in 1931, New Delhi was formally inaugurated as the capital of British India.
Given that the capital of India changed merely eight decades ago, could it be changed again? Leaving behind its toxic air would be a major advantage. Moreover, as the Delhi government itself argued in court on Wednesday (Nov. 15), no law fixes Delhi as the capital and the union government can locate itself in any place it wants.
Yet, the barriers to such a move are many. A political capital is a centre of power and money. The move from Kolkata to Delhi, for example, was greatly resented by elite bhadralok Bengalis who had benefited from being at the centre of British power and dominated the bureaucracy at that time.
Similarly, Delhi’s status as the capital has spawned its own beneficiaries. In his book India’s New Capitalists, Harish Damodaran writes about the rise of the Delhi businessmen from the Khatri Punjabi caste whose “proximity to the seat of power provided a platform from where they could be heard and also a vantage position to influence policy.”
Yet, capitals do shift. In 1960, Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia. Nigeria moved its capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. Closer home, both Pakistan and Myanmar have moved capitals.
Delhi, too, has had its capital status taken away, even if it was a long time ago. In 1327, the capital of the Tughlaq sultanate was moved from Delhi to Daulatabad in modern-day Maharashtra. But the move was scrapped within two years and Delhi went back to being the capital.
If the resistance to shifting from Delhi is too high, how about a temporary shift during the winter, when pollution is at its peak? Having seasonal capitals might sound odd but it is not uncommon. The British Raj shifted lock, stock, and barrel from the Bengal delta to the hills of Shimla during the summer months, unable to bear the tropical heat. Jammu & Kashmir still carries on with this capital migration, working out of Srinagar in the summer and Jammu in the winter.
During the days of the Raj, the process of shifting capitals took five days and required the services of elephants, horses and bullock carts. In the modern age of cloud services and mobile telephony, the process might be easier.
But where would the capital shift to?
This is a tough question, given how much money goes into building a capital. If Ghalib was envious of Kolkata in the 1800s, the boot is clearly on the other foot today. Just 80-odd years after being made the capital, Delhi’s status as a power centre has attracted big money and produced a gleaming city with large industries, top universities, wide roads, and infrastructure. Unfortunately, bad governance has ensured that all this excellent infrastructure remains under toxic air for a vital part of the year.
Since governance is crucial to the decision, south India may have the edge when it comes to hosting India’s new capital. Tamil Nadu, which is perceived to be more efficiently governed than most states, might be a leading contender. As it is, the state often sees itself as slighted by north India. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam openly championed separatism from the Indian Union—the only major Indian party to do so—till 1963. Even today, separatism is a distinct part of the Tamil political landscape. In January, state-wide protests against a supreme court ban on the ancient bull-wrestling sport of Jallikattu had given rise to demands for a sovereign Tamil state.
Therefore, picking a small town in Tamil Nadu and focusing the Indian Union’s development energies in the south might help change the perception of the north being favoured. And it would provide a clean, liveable capital for the country.
Delhi’s status as the centre of power in north India and the frequency with which it changed hands in the past inspired this Persian couplet: Whichever ruler builds a new city in Delhi will lose it. Modern India has not built a new city in Delhi, but losing the old one may not be a bad thing.