Friday, December 21, 2007

Changing Hyderabad

On my recent trip to India I noticed something very important.  It had been silently happening for quite a few years and despite my frequent visits to Hyderabad I had failed to notice it earlier.  Rest of what follows is a discussion of this change.

First, the city's shifting CG

Much of old hyderabad is being pulled down to widen roads for an ever growing city's traffic needs.  Hyderabad is a 400 year old city that grew organically and therefore always lacked a well planned city's architectural blueprint. The CG of this large city lay somewhere near the nallakunta/himayathnaga/chikkadapalli (NHC) area.  These areas are very densely populated but lacked the necessary roads to move a huge population daily.  I bet, many of us remember the bus routes 1, 6, 136 etc. that plies these areas and how nightmarish it was to get to our destinations on time along these routes.  However these areas offered great schools, good commercial establishments, cinema houses and almost formed the heart of the city.  Many would eagerly disagree with me saying that Kothi or Abids woudl be the heart, but I would respond saying those areas were not residential.  The uniqueness of the NHC area was its offering of residences, schools, shopping and culture(read cinema!).

The newer hyderabad - much of the newer municipalities that were subsumed by the metropolis were somewhat better laid out. Although the city experienced a huge population boom on its periphery, the thickly populated central areas experienced a boom in apartments and therefore the CG still remained in the NHC area.

Then came the hi-tech city and the subsequent boom around Madhapur, Kondapur .. whatever (I bet you can smell the spite in my tone).  The CG is no longer in the NHC area, but probably somewhere around the Ameerpet area.  Huge colonies have sprung up all over the place and apartment values have gotten close to a crore.  However, the roads have not kept pace with apartments and as a result, the city is beginning to face the strain of structural imbalance.  The rich are buying Camrys and Accords and are competing for the same road space with the Activas and Pulsars.  The nouveau riche are trading their bikes for Indigos and Vernas.  They are all shopping at Hyderabad Central, watching movies at Prasad's and buying apartments in Madhapur.  The administration's solution to an increasingly demanding populace's traffic needs is road widening. At first glance, it might seem like a good solution.  Let's not jump the gun.  Let's remember one thing - London was not built on great roads. that nicely leads to my second point.

Hyderabad's lack of Mass Transit

The more roads are widened, the more people will upgrade to cars and other private modes of transport.  Thus, greater will be the strain on the existing road network. It was the government's short-sightedness that they did not initiate a much needed massive overhaul of the public transportation system.  Great cities of the developed world are not built on private transport that ply the roads but on public infrastructure - particularly an effective mass transit system such as a metro rail network.  Although the government has now planned something on these lines, I feel it is 5 years too late and the city has grown too fats in the last five years.  From now on, I feel we can only play catch up.  The government is planning to build a couple of main lines as part of the mass transit system and these are going to run through the heart of the city's residential neighborhoods.  A public nightmare, I am sure.
Finally, I am not sure if this will end up like the Bolarum-Falaknuma local trains!  I just hope that whoever is planning this is smarter and has good plans of increasing adoption by the public.

And finally, the water problem

Let's face it, Hyderabad has a severe water problem.  I have always maintained that the city's growth will be limited because of its water problems.  For how long can we all continue to buy apartments and somehow hope that water will be available? Can we sustain as a city by buying water? From where? Have the apartment complexes invested in renewable systems? What about rain water recycling? No builder is even thinking along these lines. If we continue on our path, we will limit our city's growth.

Hyderabad is undergoing a great change. I am not sure if this change will make it a great metropolis that will rival the world's greatest cities or if it will fall flat with its high priced apartments and lack of public infrastructure.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

True capitalism

I guess capitalism has full come circle with this latest piece of news.  Morgan Stanley has agreed to sell almost 10% of its stake to China.  Yes, you read it right.  Now, two of the most prestigious firms on Wall Street (Citi and Morgan), are owned either by a Communist country that faces many human rights violations or by a Islamic state with grandiose plans for its future. A few weeks ago Citibank agreed to sell almost close to 5% of its equity to the emirate of Abu Dhabi. It is also worthy mentioning at this point that the saudi aristocrat Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud already owns about 3.6% of Citibank and is its largest single investor.

I have nothing against sovereign funds or foreign governments being big time investors in firms.  However, I feel it is ironical that the bastions of capitalism had to bow down in their time of need to entities that are often so despised by the common man in America - a communist country and a Islamic emirate.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Shah Jahan's legacy

I just came back from my India trip. 

I was lucky enough to manage my second ever trip to the much loved Taj. After much deliberation Rads and I managed to purchase a return ticket from Hyderabad to Delhi on Air Deccan and hired a taxi from the Delhi airport for a two day visit to Agra/Fatehpur Sikri area.

I have to admit that my innate hidden UP instinct (honed during my 2 year stay in Lucknow) took over almost immediately! Well, boasting apart, the journey was almost uneventful except for a brief stop at a dhaba en route to Agra.  A frozen Maaza from an almost wrecked "freedge" later we were on our way to Agra.  Like true firangees we booked a one night reservation at Holiday Inn Agra and managed to check in by about 2 PM.  We had a sumptuous Indian meal inside our room and then got out for our first visit to the Agra fort.  My driver, the humility personofied "Asok", a MPite driving Taxi on that route for the past 2 year was kind enough to find us a guide. And, our adventures began.

This guy turned out to  be piece of work. He looked like a film star, wore designer sun glasses and a suit that looked like it was bought on the streets of Milan (except it must have been bought in Kanpur market).  He told us that he was very buys and that he would request his very good friend to show us around.  A shady looking character then entered our car and greeted us in English.  He told us that the Agra fort was closed and that instead he would show us other monuments.  He then took us to a ramshackle of a building, a hotel that was called the Roof Top Taj view.  We did not like the look the place and the stares of the people at the entrance and decided not to go in there.  we then strictly told him to take us to the river view of the Taj that he promised would be magnificent.  I guess our message got through to him and he took us the what is called the baby Taj : Itmad-Ud-Daulah's tomb.

The place looked worthy enough and after a good round of posing for pictures on its lawns he guided us towards a bridge where we barely caught a glimpse of the evening Taj.  Finally, as the sun set he guided us towards what he called the Mini Taj and we were under the impression that he would take us to another monument.  Instead, he took us to a souvenir shop.  After we were poorer by about 2000 rupees, we paid him 350 rupees for his valuable services and got back to our hotel.  We ordered food to our room and hit the sack.

We checked out early morning and went straight to the Taj. I feel sad to say that the path from the road to the Taj's courtyard was horrible.  Beggars, monkeys and hawkers lined the sides and shady looking characters lurked all around.  There was cow dung all over and the path smelled so bad we almost hated ourselves for not hiring a rickshaw.  we passed through security and finally managed to enter Taj's main courtyard.  As usual, it was crowded, but one more time the Taj proved that the trip was worth every penny.  It looked so magnificent in the early morning mist.  It stood tall and majestic, a crazy man's gift to himself more than his dead wife!  I say that because Shah Jahan is remembered for what he gifted than Begum Mumtaz for what she received in posterity.  We walked around for about an hour, took a few pictures and then made our way to the Agra Fort.  Much of what we saw next does not matter and it would be suffice to say that there were few good building at Fatehpur Sikri (Bulund Darwaza etc.). We then made a mad dash from Sikri to the Delhi airport and thanks to our very good Asok managed to get there at 8.12 PM for a flight that was scheduled to depart at 8.20 PM, all thanks to the New Delhi traffic.  We barely manged to beg our way through the security lines and got on the plane and reached Hyderabad safely.

Many things could have gone wrong.  They didn't.  Somehow, I got a feeling that a trip to the Taj works out.  I came back with a lot of butterflies in my heart.  A crazy lover's gift to the world has lasted over 400 years and left us all richer. 

Something as complicated as the Taj, leaves us all with a very simple emotions.  To think of our own lighter moments in life and to care for and always think of someone we love.  For me, that is the real Taj and Shah Jajan's legacy to the world.