The concept of national capital has historically had no meaning in India. In a large, diverse country like ours, which was more united in spirit than politically, the capital served as perhaps nothing more than the residence of the local satrap. Even when India was politically united, as under the Guptas or the Mauryas, the national capital meant nothing to the masses who lived in distant corners of the country. Typically, the capital was a fort which housed the royal palaces and accommodated citizens within its ramparts. Each dynasty built its own forts and in the process a capital of its own. The Mauryas & the Guptas had their Pataliputra, the Pandyas had Madurai, while Harshavardhana ruled from Kannauj, Delhi Sultanate was named eponymously named after its capital, while Muhammad bin Tughlaq had it moved to Deogiri. The Cholas and the Pandyas had their Thanjavur and Kanchipuram, while the Mughals ruled from Agra, Delhi and its environs. The Marathas ruled from Pune, while their chieftains ruled from Gwalior, Baroda, Indore and other places. Maharaja Ranjit Singh chose Lahore as his capital, while the British had set up Calcutta as theirs. In short, over the long and ancient history of India, plethora of cities have served as the capital. The rise of a dynasty has often times meant the rise of a new citadel, whereas the loss suffered by a King in a war led to his citadel being razed and his ‘capital’ being obliterated.
In modern times, India had been primarily united by 2 powers- the Mughals and the British. Early Mughals ruled from Agra, whereas the later Mughals built the splendid city of Old Delhi. Akbar experimented with a new capital at Fatehpur Sikri, but the capital was abandoned due to lack of water. As the Mughal power in India weakened, the Mughal King’s authority seldom exceeded beyond the capital. A common saying during this period was ‘Saltanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam’ (the realm of Shah Alam is from Delhi to Palam on the outskirts of the city). The British cities of Calcutta in the East, Bombay in the West and Madras in the South emerged as their Outposts in the country. Slowly, they expanded their control over the country and after the brutal suppression of the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, became the unchallenged masters of the India, which, at this time, stretched from Burma in the East to the Afghan frontier in the West. In the South, it was bordered by the Indian Ocean, and in the North by the Himalayas. The Capital of British India at this time was the faraway Eastern city of Calcutta. Calcutta was 2072 Kms from Peshwar in the North West, 2180 Kms from Madras to the South and 2000 Kms from Bombay in the West.
By the turn of the century, life in Calcutta had become difficult for the British. In addition to the punishing weather, Bengal was witnessing the awakening of national spirit. This resulted in frequent strikes, assassination attempts and protest movements against the British. The attempted partition of Bengal in 1905 had further complicated matters for British administrators. In 1911 during the Royal Durbar of King George V, the British announced their intention to move the capital to Delhi. Upon hearing of this Lord Curzon, the architect of partition of Bengal acidly remarked “They desire to escape the somewhat heated atmosphere of Bengal”, but ultimately the decision prevailed. Delhi, centrally located was chosen as the capital of British India. Located less than a 1000 Kms from the troubled Afghan border, 1500 kms from Calcutta, 1000 Kms from the West coast of the country and 2000 Kms from Madras, Delhi, replete with ancient history, seemed to be the perfect choice as the capital of the British Indian empire. The British built the city of New Delhi from scratch to the south of the old Mughal capital. Wide avenues and majestic Buildings seemed to loudly announce the continuation of the ‘Sun never sets in the British Empire’ in India.
The city of New Delhi was ready by the early 1930s. In less than two decades, the British rule in India collapsed. As a parting gift, the British partitioned the country, severing the North West and the dividing the Eastern Parts of their possessions. Over the decades that followed, New Delhi spilled beyond the British New Delhi designed by Lutyens as it gobbled up villages and townships in its vicinity. Poor urban planning, pervasive corruption and a population that seemed to grow by leaps and bounds reduced the magnificent Mughal capital and the Imperial British Capital to a mere urban village.( As per 2011 data, the combined population of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh is almost equal to that of Delhi. Incidentally, both states are almost 40 times Delhi’s size.) Given its burgeoning population and the need to ensure smooth administration, Delhi was set up as a special state in the early 90s. This meant that Delhi would be a state of the Indian Union and would also host the Central Government. Again and again, citizens vented their ire against the authorities for poor civic amenities, multiplicity of administrative authorities, lack of accountability, VIP treatment for dignitaries etc. etc. Every time, the State government would cite its helplessness, given its limited powers and the Central Government, preoccupied with far more important matters, would appear deaf to citizens’ concerns. With the recent emergence of new political leadership in the Delhi, the demands for power sharing between State and Central government have become shriller. Given Delhi’s unique position, it is impossible to arrive at a solution that meets the requirements of citizens, the State Government, the Municipalities and the Central government. Recent rape epidemic, increasing crimes, worsening air quality and a general degeneration in quality of life indicate the abject failure of this existing scheme.
Delhi’s status as the national capital stems from history more than anything else. Delhi has hardly any resources of its own, it is dependent on its neighbouring states for power, water and other basic amenities. Delhi’s geographical location means that it lies on the path that invaders historically have followed to despoil the country. It has no natural defences of its own. Further, after the partition of British India, Delhi is nestled too far in the North, away from most of the country. Lastly, it lies in Seismic Zone IV, which indicates massive loss of life in case of an earthquake.
Probably, it is time to correct the past. Delhi need not continue as the National Capital anymore. The Central Government should identify a suitable location in Central India and develop it as the new National Capital. This will have several advantages. The first is that Delhi and its large citizenry can be governed as a normal state, bringing an end to the perennial power tussle between the State and the Central Governments. Secondly, a capital in the aforementioned region will provide an impetus to the economic growth of a region that has historically lagged behind. Thirdly, There will be an opportunity to develop a planned city, unlike the haphazard growth that Delhi has seen in previous decades. Fourthly, a new centrally located capital and bring an end to Delhi-led discourse on national media.
Obviously, a change in capital will entail a huge expenditure. It will also need to be supported by political consensus. There are examples of countries having successfully done that in the past. Brazil moved its capital from crowded Rio De Janeiro, which had been Brazil’s capital for nearly 2 centuries to Brasilia in the 60s. Recently, Myanmar moved its capital from the historic city of Rangoon to Nay Pyi Daw further inland. Closer home, Pakistan created a new capital, Islamabad in the 60s, moving the capital away from the ancient and overcrowded city of Karachi. Even Argentina is contemplating to move its capital away from Buenos Aires. Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan are some other countries that have been able to move their capitals in the recent past. Even within India, Chandigarh in Punjab/Haryana, Naya Raipur in Chattisgarh and Amravati in Andhra Pradesh are attempts at de-cluttering capitals and creating new modern cities.
Instead of the old slogan ‘Delhi Chalo’, it is now time to say, ‘Delhi Chhodo’. Something to ponder over may be?