The future of humanity is decidedly urban. Today nearly half of all people worldwide are living in cities and it's projected this number will increase to 70% by 2050. Compared to a global urban population of 34% in 1960, 14% in 1900, and only 3% in 1800, these statistics suggest the human race is currently on an exponential mass migration to our planet’s cities.
This large scale population movement has resulted in the relatively new phenomenon of the “Megacity," a metropolitan area with a population of 10 or more million people. In 1950, New York City became the world’s first megacity. 65 years later it’s population has doubled to 20,300,000 and there are now two more megacities in North America - Los Angeles and Mexico City.
As of 2015 there are a total of 36 global megacities; 23 are in Asia compared with only 5 in the Western World. This is to be expected as Asia holds the bulk of the global population. The economic potential alone of all these people makes the prediction of the Asian Century, wherein cultural and political dominance shifts west to east, extremely likely. The engines fueling this growth are its megacities.
This topic of global "mega urbanization" is one of my key interests and I've traveled in 17 of the planets's 36 megacities. I want to know, "What are the present and future challenges facing the planet’s super populated urban areas?"
Much of this large scale urbanization is found in the developing world where it's happening at unchecked speed and with little long term planning. The logistics of managing such large populations and areas becomes increasingly difficult for governments, especially those prone to instability and corruption. Other immediate, tangible problems include pollution and sanitation; increased pressure on food, water resources, and infrastructure; social problems such as human trafficking, exploitation, poverty, public health, and basic quality of life concerns. Beyond this are problems likely to result from climate change and likely to be an even bigger existential threat than the problems at hand. The true human and environmental costs of a city of 20 or 30 million have yet to be fully seen.
India is a developing country of 1.25 billion people. It has 6 megacities of its own including the capital, New Delhi, metropolitan population 26.5 million. It faces serious hurdles in its development. As a British colony it was exploited; systematically dismantled and agriculturalized. Post independence its population has quadrupled, its environmental record has been poor, human development low, and until fairly recently, stagnant from decades of adhering to a planned Soviet style economy. Massive regional differences in ethnicity, language, culture, values, and religion make governance and policymaking even more challenging in an already endemically corrupt system. Reforms made in the 1990's have improved environmental policy and spurred numerically impressive economic growth but widespread extreme poverty remains an undeniable fact of life here.
The Indian government defines poverty its own way but the World Bank criteria is any individual living on less than 1.25 USD per day. 33% of the total Indian population is currently living at or below this line and many hundreds of millions more at levels not substantially higher. As the economy has grown and diversified, a broader middle class has emerged however remains relatively small at 150 million out of 1.25 billion people,
Delhi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is projected to become one of the largest. It provides an excellent case study for the 21st century megacity as many of the problems of dense urbanization are here in plain sight. With many millions dwelling in slums or living on the street, it offers a window into the realities of extreme poverty. Also, as a capital city, the visible wealth of the political and business elite makes for a striking contrast between those who have nothing and those who want for nothing.
The city is big, dirty, and occasionally threatening. The human condition is on display here in a way unlike any place I've ever been. The initial shock of those first few hours after arriving alone here is something I'll never forget. The overwhelming chaos and filth of its streets; people approaching me so aggressively and shamelessly trying to get money. Lying to my face. My first night in town I lay there, thinking, "What have I done? I can be back in Thailand in four hours." I ended up staying for two months.
"New Delhi", "Old Delhi", to the locals it's all just "Dilli". Here's the old part of the city seen from the rooftops. On the ground below is a tangled network of crumbling 14th century alleys, filthy mud streets, and the true signature of all Indian cities: the endless crush of people, vehicles, and animals. Nothing can really prepare you for it. The air quality in Delhi and in much of the north is a major problem. Unlike neighboring China whose abhorrent air is mostly from industrial coal burning, here much of the urban haze is dust from unpaved roads and smoke from millions of small cooking fires. The only other city I've been in with air this bad was Beijing and there too it's not uncommon to go many days without seeing the sun. This is subconsciously troubling and environmental factors affecting psychology such as this are in my opinion, major quality of life issues.
Trash fires are a common feature of Delhi and are a major contributor to the city's poor air quality. The refuse in the streets is a readily available fuel source for small cooking and warming fires. Seeing people burn garbage in the streets was one of the first things that struck me. Nowhere else in Asia do you see so much of this as in India. In the city or countryside, there's always something burning.
This is an open air "men's room" on a Delhi street. India's public health and hygiene problem is so big it's difficult to comprehend without seeing it yourself. The lack of proper sanitation, particularly in slums, is the main reason so many have no other option than to relieve themselves in the open. Piles of rotting garbage along with human and animal waste contaminate municipal water supplies across the country. This has been directly linked to India's chronic problem of underweight children, affecting nearly half of all kids under the age of 5.
People pissing everywhere is the other thing first time visitors to Delhi are likely to notice. Public urinals aren't uncommon but apparently there aren't nearly enough. I sensed an attitude that the city is already so dirty, adding a little more makes no difference so who cares?
This is a uniquely Indian solution to Delhi's public urination problem. In places popular for pissing, locals have covered the walls in these small tiles depicting sacred images of the world's religions. Many people here are quite religious and as no one would choose to piss on their god, this little preventative measure has been surprisingly successful. Here Krishna, Jesus, and Ganesh all narrowly avoid being splashed together.
There are no pastures for Delhi's urban cows so they eat from garbage piles and receive food offerings from those looking to improve their karma. Cows are sacred animals to Hindus so they're neither killed nor eaten. Instead they're free to roam where they please and occasionally make their way into odd places like train stations and indoor markets! Their owners let them out during the day to wander the city in search of food and at night they meander back home. Though we have little experience with them in the west as they're regarded as nothing more than a future hamburger, they're actually very sweet and intelligent animals with a lot of personality. Comparatively cows in India have a very charmed life but once their useful milking or breeding days are over, they're abandoned to die a natural death. India's cities are filled with not just cows but dogs, goats, monkeys, pigs, horses, and the occasional camel or elephant. The waste from all these animals is everywhere and another factor contributing to the public health and hygiene problem.
The Jama Masjid Mosque is the main focal point of Old Delhi. This structure and the neighborhood around it date back to the era of Shah Jahan, the Muslim ruler who built the Taj Mahal and many other architectural treasures of the north. India's cultural heritage is endless and an entire lifetime could be spent exploring it. There are several other parts of the world with equally long histories but what makes India unique is that it's so remarkably well preserved. Not just ancient structure still in use but cultural practices alive and largely unchanged since before anyone even knows.
Many, but not all, Hindus maintain a vegetarian diet. For Muslims, the main dietary restriction is pork. Because cows are sacred to Hindus and pig is forbidden to Muslims, the meat that's available in India is typically goat or chicken. Butchering animals and preparing meat is often the work of Muslims and is sold from behind curtains so as not to offend passing Hindus with the sight of dismembered animals. Age old customs such as this are evidence of the millennia long and occasionally precarious coexistence of faiths here. But this same coexistence is what defines the place; Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Christians of all ethnicities along with cows, pigs, dogs, birds, rats; everyone and everything piled on top of each other and somehow making it work. It's remarkable.
Beggars and hustlers are just part of the experience traveling in India as they form the front line of the endemic culture of poverty here. As a western visitor in Delhi, you can count on being harassed for money pretty much from the time you leave your hotel to the time you return. Babies and children as well as people who've been intentionally disfigured are commonly used as a ploy to get sympathy and thus more money. Being constantly confronted with such tragedy is mentally and emotionally challenging but it's just the way it is here and has always been.
The true population of Delhi's homeless is unknown but their numbers appear to be vast. At night, people will be seen sleeping in parking lots, under road blocks and on traffic islands; almost any place that can accommodate a reclining person will have one or several. At least in a slum there's a roof over your head but if one is unable to afford even that, the street is where they'll make their home.
These young kids are "Delhi street boys"; unwanted and homeless, many have developmental problems but are lucky enough to find themselves at Salaam Balaak Trust, a non-profit where they can live in safety for up to 6 months. It's hardly a paradise; they're locked inside this cold, damp building and sleep on thin mattes in the same room where they study. The Trust is not an orphanage so is only able to keep them for so long. After their time is up here, they may be moved to another care facility, back with an abusive family, or possibly out on the street where glue sniffing, petty crime, and those who prey on the vulnerable await. This organization offers a "Street Kid Walk" where a rehabilitated youth guides you through a slum, telling their story of being homeless in Delhi. Needless to say the experience just rips your heart right out. The situation for India's homeless kids is absolutely devastating.
Glue sniffing is the plague of India's poverty stricken youth. Offering a cheap and readily available escape, kids who show the signs of abuse are commonly seen like this boy in a village in nearby Uttar Pradesh. He looks far older than he probably is.
Delhi cops are the most notoriously corrupt in India so many crimes go unpunished here. Government jobs like the police are some of the most desirable in the country as the work is stable, relatively well paid, and includes opportunities for "extra income". The culture of corruption is certainly not unique to India but is an acknowledged aspect of life here.
While Delhi exemplifies many of India's widespread social and environmental problems, it's still a city like any other; full of normal working people just going about their business. The bustling streets are busy open air markets selling cheap and tasty food, goods of all kinds, and a variety of services, even medical.
This man's red turban identifies him as an "ear cleaner", which earns him 3 or 4 USD per day. Some traditional occupations such as digging wax out of people's ears are still caste based and generational. This man's father cleaned ears as did his father before him. Though it's illegal in India to discriminate against low caste people, the system itself is a part of the culture and hasn't gone anywhere. It's a challenging topic to research as it's not well understood by the outside world and many here aren't terribly comfortable talking about it. Almost everyone in this country is likely to be a member of any number of social, cultural, economic, and religious classifications.
Here, a friend I met in Delhi takes a leap of faith letting the ear cleaner work his craft. He's doing this without the assistance of a flashlight and removing horrifying amounts of deep buildup through his sense of touch alone. From a western perspective it seems crazy to let a random man on the street stick a long metal pick in your ear but this is India and necessity has meant finding creative ways to earn a living.
A Delhi street "dentist". They can fit you for dentures, pull a tooth, fill a cavity, and I'm sure would be happy to attempt some light oral surgery if you're feeling brave.
This is a barber shop set up in a parking lot. India's genius for making it work with whatever's available is seen all over Delhi. I got the worst haircut I've ever had here which inspired me to buy a pair of shears and just shave it all off. Then again I got exactly what I paid for with my 200 Rupees (3 dollars).
Drinking hot spice tea, or "Masala Chai", is a big part of the street culture in not just Delhi but all over India. Cheap and nourishing, it's made by boiling lots of black tea with fresh ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, fennel seeds, black pepper, sugar, and fresh whole milk. When it's made well it's super strong, creamy, spicy, and sweet. An abundance of caution should be exercised eating or drinking anything on the street here. One of my worst bouts with food poisoning was actually from masala chai!
Delhi's expanding Metro is clean, modern, and cheap. It's a major point of pride for the city, efficiently connecting tough inner-city slums with the affluent, gated "residential colonies" of the south side and posh satellite cities like Gurgaon. This city is very spread out and after I grew weary of fighting with cab drivers, I took the Metro often. It's really quite an impressive public transit scheme.
Most of Asia's megacities are inundated with western brands and part of what feels so unfamiliar about Delhi is the noticeable absence of this. For a city of 26 million, Delhi in many ways offers little of the convenience typically found in a city of this size. Seen here is one of only two Starbucks in Delhi proper, and perhaps the only Starbucks in the world with a metal detector and pat down. The lack of westernization here is refreshing in some ways but it also suggests the lack of base of those able to afford it. Lattes at western prices aren't in the family budget for most.
This is Khan Market, one of a few upscale shopping areas in central Delhi. Catering to diplomats and wealthy Indians, places like this are where western goods are available. The further south one travels, a very different city begins to emerge.
Many of Delhi's affluent "colony" neighborhoods have guards and gates with restricted hours. Walking around in places like this I was treated with great suspicion. Statistically speaking, Delhi is a very dangerous city that currently holds the shameful title, "world rape capital". As an able-bodied man, I felt threatened at times and I do not recommend solo females travel here. There are just too many desperate people and with inadequate law enforcement, there's little stopping someone with nothing to lose from trying something bad. If you called this city home and you were able to afford it, clustering with other wealthy people and building walls around yourselves is a legitimate safety measure. The rich separating themselves from the poor is by no means unique to Delhi though and is sadly pretty much status quo the world over!
India's rail network is one of the most extensive in the world and train travel is a big part of the life here. Public places like New Delhi Station seen here, are where visitors get a real sense of just how populous India really is. Trains are used by everyone; rich and poor, all castes and creeds vying for the same cramped space.
India's official population is 1,252,000,000 but is still growing and by 2025 is projected to overtake China's population of 1,350,000,000. 10 short years from now, there will be another 1 billion of us worldwide. Many of these people not yet born will live in megacities. Delhi, by then could be the biggest city in the world but hopefully one with an improved quality of life for more of its inhabitants.