Although it was the British who decided in 1911 that New Delhi should be the new imperial capital of India, its strategic location has made it important throughout Indian history from the Delhi Sultanates to the Mughal Empire. Historical reminders still abound, but it is now a gleaming, bustling melting pot of everything that is modern day Indian. Western foreigners in New Delhi are now guests rather than invaders – but what does New Delhi hold for them? We look at its strengths and weaknesses from an expat perspective.
Pro: fast-growing and full of opportunity
India has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, and a commercial presence that is advancing rapidly. At 5.8% its GDP growth is second only to China. And as its capital city, New Delhi is therefore a city of opportunity for Indian locals and expats alike.
Also, no country has more young people than India (about 600 million people, more than half India's population, are under 25 years old). Sometimes it seems like they are all here in New Delhi. The city is exciting, cosmopolitan and full of promise. No wonder young people like it.
One inevitable consequence of this is a lot of cars and very little fresh air. According to the World Health Organization, New Delhi is the world’s sixth most polluted city. In January 2019, a drop in wind speed and temperature led to an unprecedented ‘smog’ descending on the city.
Poorer sections of the population were forced to burn wood to stay warm, thus making the situation even worse. This combination led to pollution levels of 500 (on the PM 2.5 scale). Bear in mind that US Government acceptable levels are just 35.
Pro: low cost of living
As with any expat city, you can find expensive places to eat and stay if you look hard enough. The local economy has not been slow to notice that expats come armed with compensation packages that dwarf the typical local incomes, and there are some fantastic (and accordingly pricey) expat villas in select suburbs like Vasant Vihar, Defence Colony, Golf Links, Sunder Nagar, and Jor Bagh.
For the typical expat, however, it is a cheap place to live. The website Expatistan lists some of the typical costs: for example, an 85m2 apartment in what they call a ‘normal’ area costs just $373/month. A workday lunch can be bought for less than $7. One blogger estimates that monthly utilities cost typically $57, compared to $225 for the same services in London.
While many services such as banking, mobile contracts, and satellite TV, are inexpensive by Western standards, contracts and installation processes can be administratively cumbersome.
Con: “Delhi Belly”
It is no secret that Indians like spicy food. While you may also like curry, your Western equivalent is probably a pale imitation of the real thing. Ask any Indian expat in Europe, for example, and they will tell you that most Indian fare is bland by comparison with what they get back home.
For the Western expat moving to New Delhi, be prepared for a culinary culture shock. Delicious, fascinating, tasty yes. But dangerous too because you are simply not used to it. This is just one of many expat experiences that include a bout of gastric discomfort...
Of course it’s not just about the curries. Most expats advise against drinking tap water. Again – you’re not used to it, and waterborne ailments such as typhoid are a real risk, with hygiene levels in some areas below standards expected by most expats.
Pro: history and culture
From the mixed Moslem and Hindu architecture of the Purana Qila to the wonderful Humayan’s Tomb (apparently the inspiration for the Taj Mahal), history is everywhere in Delhi. The more recent influence of the British Raj is also noticeable whether in the national passion for cricket or the colonial architecture. From 1912 to 1931, British architects Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker were responsible for creating the new imperial capital of India in New Delhi. Their work and the legacy of the architects before them provide a sense of history that contrasts with the forward-looking economic vibrancy of the country and which will delight modern-day expats.
New Delhi also brings together people and cultures from all across India. The wide variety of food, dress and language is testament to the rich cultural variety of the country and the importance of New Delhi as its capital.
Expats report that locals are friendly and always keen to help. But also note that this friendliness can be intrusive as they enquire more readily about your personal life than Western decorum might permit.
Con: unsafe for women
A recent survey conducted by UN Women showed that 95% of female New Delhi residents feel ‘unsafe’ in the city’s public spaces. A Thomson Reuters study found that India was the world’s least safe place for women. And yet Indian society is not as male-centric as many others.
The equal rights of women are enshrined in the country’s constitution. Nonetheless, as some infamous events have highlighted over the last few years, New Delhi’s streets are not safe for women to walk alone. For some great advice on staying safe, see these 14 tips for staying safe as a solo female traveller in India.
New Delhi is very well connected with direct flights to most major cities. The Delhi Metro is modern, clean and efficient; it connects the city with all major suburbs including Gurugram, Noida and Faridabad, sparing commuters and tourists from the choking traffic.
Delhi is also full of shopping malls, museums and other attractions, and has a reputation for the best service in the hospitality industry. It is also home to some of India’s best education establishments including University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, IIT, and NIFT. A beautiful traditional city with a beautifully modern infrastructure.
New Delhi is a city on the up. There are lots of opportunities for everyone – and lots of things to do and experiences to enjoy. With a relatively low cost of living, expats can enjoy a life of convenience and plenty.
Now is a great time to go, but expats – particularly female expats – should be aware of the dangers.