Delhi’s poor cousin: the inside story of my most talked about Newsweek piece

The most talked about piece I wrote for Newsweek over a five year stint writing for the magazine was a random contribution to a story on the "World's 10 Most Dynamic Cities" about…. Ghaziabad.  Why so?  Well, to start with, Ghaziabad is kindof a dump.  And until recently it was mostly known for its gangsters. 

The Indian media was, and is, perplexed.  As the Times of India puts it today:

"In 2006, bang in the middle of this transformation, US magazine Newsweek profiled Ghaziabad as one of the world's most dynamic cities, along with Munich, Las Vegas and London, much to the bewilderment of residents. The news, however, was lapped up by property developers."

Well, let me explain how it came about.  First, when the story was thrust onto me, the tagline was the world's fastest growing cities, not the most dynamic.  Second, the editors had already selected Ghaziabad.  I asked them for some of the stuff they'd been smoking, but they said it wasn't possible to ship that kind of thing internationally unless I had access to the U.S. diplomatic pouch.  I suggested we do Delhi itself.  Or the NCR.  Or even someplace like Surat or Chennai.  But no, they were keen on Ghaziabad.

Why?  It wasn't because anybody knew anything about the place, apart from my colleague, Sudip Mazumdar, who'd wisely disappeared when this assignment was being handed out.  It was because they were basing their decision on a single "objective" criterion.  Nope, not economic growth.  Not leaps forward in literacy or health care. Or a sudden boom in some flashy new industry like biotech.  The answer was population growth.  Specifically, the cities that showed the highest population growth over the past five years or some such, according to UN figures.  There was Ghaziabad, ahead of everyplace else in India.

I went to check it out.  As the TOI describes today, it was sortof a dump, with a lot of high rise construction projects underway at the same time (including some across from a huge landfill).  It did seem to be growing pretty fast, though.  Everyplace in India is.  So I went with the UN, which no doubt got its numbers from the Indian government.  But I had some unanswered questions, such as (and this was a stumper): What Ghaziabad was the UN talking about? 

Any Delhiwallah looking to buy a swish flat for less than $100,000 will tell you that there's Ghaziabads and Ghaziabads out there. "Indirapuram," for instance, which is in the Ghaziabad district or some such, but not actually in the city.  Was that part of the fast growing UN number?  Or were they talking about "old" Ghaziabad, a few miles further into Uttar Pradesh.  There was no way to find out, as far as I could tell.

Anyway.  Below is what I came up with, after it was tweaked and slotted into the main piece.  If you compare it to today's TOI, it's actually not all that different.  So much for the stupidity of Newsweek.

In old Ghaziabad–20 kilometers outside New Delhi in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh–ancient green-and-white three-wheeled Tempos that double as buses career alongside a tangle of bicycle rickshaws, buffalo-drawn wagons and pushcarts. Tiny, no-name manufacturers advertise rubber gaskets, gears, machine tools. You'd never guess Ghaziabad is India's hottest city.

But thanks to skyrocketing real-estate prices in the capital, Ghaziabad is emerging as the next popular address for Delhi-bound commuters. In residential pockets on the outskirts like Indirapuram, posh new developments are sold out. The largest developer, Shipra Estate Ltd., has built 7,000 two-, three- and four-bedroom flats, all of which are already occupied, says Vijay Sundar Raj, manager of sales and marketing. Many of the residents commute to IT jobs in neighboring Noida and Delhi.

Strategically located on the old Grand Trunk Road from Bangladesh to Afghanistan, Ghaziabad was targeted by the state for industrial development in the 1980s. Today the city is home to more than 14,000 small-scale industrial units and larger plants run by giants like Coca-Cola and the International Tobacco Co., which still provide most of the jobs in Ghaziabad proper. For all the new luxury high rises, Ghaziabad today is one of the most heavily industrialized cities in Uttar Pradesh.

The forecasts of rapid population growth, however, have more to do with New Delhi. Despite attempts to bar new industry within the capital, Delhi still creates more new jobs per year than the southern Indian IT centers of Bangalore and Hyderabad. "Delhi is a very big magnet," says S. K. Zaman, a top planner for Uttar Pradesh state, ruefully reflecting on the government's failure to contain the capital's population, which has grown by 50 percent every 10 years for the last half century, and now stands at around 14 million.

Authorities are having more success shifting at least some new growth to the outskirts. New roads, concessionary land prices and other schemes are drawing companies like Samsung, Honda and Siemens to satellite cities like Gurgaon and Noida. With its excellent highway connections to Noida and Delhi, Ghaziabad is starting to reap the benefits. Though it still doesn't have the cachet of Noida, it boasts cheaper land, and the completion this summer of the controversial Tehri Dam should help prevent frequent water and electricity shortages. None too soon. The city is already building a village to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. And plans for both a new expressway and a second Delhi international airport on the east side of the capital should help put the entire region, Ghaziabad included, on the global map.

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