For centuries India has welcomed foreign visitors with open arms, but now the time might have come to change all that especially for high profile visitors like the Presidents and Prime Ministers of some countries.
Ask the harried citizens of Delhi the trouble that they face going about their daily lives, reaching offices and other places in time when high profile dignitaries from the US, China, Russia, Israel and several other countries come calling.
This is precisely what they had to face when traffic in the city was thrown out of gear on Monday morning when Chinese Premier, Keqiang Li, started his official engagements with a formal call on President Pranab Mukherjee before going to pay homage to the Father of the nation and then moving on to Hyderabad House for delegation level talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
I had to experience it first hand during Li Keqiang’s visit. A drive which even on bad days takes me no more than 45 minutes lasted over an hour and a half. And this when I cancelled two appointments because I knew that reaching certain parts of the city on the day that Li was here was going to be next to impossible.
In any case Delhiites are used to traffic jams. Increasing number of vehicles, no road sense and frayed tempers mean that driving in the Capital is a nightmare even at the best of times. Some Indian leaders moving from one part of the city to the other also mean that traffic will be blocked for minutes to let their convoys pass. On average one has to encounter such jams at least once a week, if not more.
A cricket match at the Ferozeshah Kotla means further hassles as some roads are blocked in and around the stadium and cars and buses snake for kilometers on the radial roads. Protests against the gang-rape or even for demanding better electricity supply at Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi means traffic there coming to a standstill. Bad enough as all this is, the situation just gets worse when foreign dignitaries come visiting.
It was not always like this. In the decades gone by Delhi would welcome world leaders with Delhiites standing on the roadside waving flags providing a ‘real’ welcome.
Of course, the world is a different place today. India has found its place in international diplomacy and needs to invite foreign heads of state. Changed international economic relations also mean that there are more international heads of state who want to visit India. It goes without saying that their security is of paramount importance. Most world leaders are prized security assets to be protected at any cost and no one wants to see them being attacked on our soil.
However, given the global scenario this security threat is only going to get worse and the number of foreign heads of state visiting India is going to increase even more. And this raises a few simple questions: Why should the heads of state meet in Hyderabad House? It is in the centre of the city and blocking off this area means the entire city has to suffer. The hotels in which the foreign heads of state and their delegations stay are kilometers away which means that every time they step out to go for an official engagement all traffic has to be stopped. Besides the inconvenience to the normal public, imagine the nightmare for the security personnel as they try and secure so many roads, so many parks and so many other buildings that fall on the route?
Perhaps getting the foreign dignitaries to stay in one secure zone which is cordoned off and sanitised could provide a solution. Instead of the foreign dignitaries hopping from one place to another meeting Indian leaders and signing declarations, the Indian leaders could visit them in this secure zone. The time that traffic has to be stopped would be cut down drastically, the security personnel will have it easier and there will be no loss to India’s prestige and position.
Of course, there are some places that you can’t do away from a head of state’s itinerary. Rajghat is one of them. So how about using choppers to ferry the guests too and from the Mahatma’s samadhi? Besides everything else this will also save on time for the foreign delegation.
And what is even more important, India will be able to raise its head in the growing comity of nations that it was the first stop of the newly appointed Chinese Premier who came and had a fruitful visit even as the common man went about his daily life like he would on any other day.