x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

All pumped up

Feature New Delhi is a city in progress. The incessant pace of development determines life in the metropolis: new building, new roads, new transportation.

A clean, shiny petrol station in New Delhi enjoys brisk business in both fuel sales and its associated convenience shop.
A clean, shiny petrol station in New Delhi enjoys brisk business in both fuel sales and its associated convenience shop.

New Delhi is a city in progress. The incessant pace of development determines life in the metropolis: new building, new roads, new transportation. The streets of the Indian capital are filled with new cars, works are on every main road, and the hand-painted signs saying "work in progress - inconvenience regretted" are the leitmotif of any journey through the city. The renovation movement has been going on for the past few years, yet there is still a long way to go before the infrastructures and appearance of the Indian capital reach international standards. Even in the most prestigious neighbourhood, communal areas are broken, dirty and neglected; new buildings are raised next to the other with no respect of any consistency and often look drab. It is not always, or not only, a matter of negligence, as everything in Delhi needs to deal with an all-consuming force: dust.

The city is cursed by dust. Combined with humidity, dense fog, incredibly hot summers and rigid winter and pollution, it creates an environment that tarnishes everything in no time. Keeping something clean and shiny requires significant efforts, which cannot be undertaken everywhere, so colours loses their shine as if looked at through a pale filter. In such a crumbling environment, proper buildings, shopping malls, and even palaces can become invisible: covered in dust and dirt, they camouflage themselves in the dull surroundings.

There are, though, at least three items of urban equipment which stand out, as shiny and modern as possible, catching the attention of passers-by and anticipating the future of the city: the state-of-the-art subway stations and trains, the new bus stops and, much more common and visible than the previous two, petrol pumps. Petrol stations are probably the most global-looking element that citizens encounter in their daily life in New Delhi. They are spacious and sleek and they shine at night - well lit in a city where public lighting is still quite scarce. Some of them are also home to the new frontier of grocery shopping: 24/7 convenience shops.

The polished look of petrol pumps in New Delhi is due to a renovation wave that hit them about five years ago: Bharat Petroleum was the first company to start, looking for a new and more international brand look. The other companies followed, and in about three years, the renovation has dramatically changed the appearance of all petrol stations in town, making pumps the urban counterpart to the thousands of shiny new cars filling the streets every day.

"Our petrol pump was renewed by the company about three years ago", says P Balasubramanian, manager of an Indian Oil petrol station in Rama Krishna Puram. "As soon as the renovation was finished, the customers became more numerous: everybody here is attracted by any new, beautiful things. We gave our contribution to beautify Delhi". Hemant Kirolikar, PR executive from Bharat Petroleum, says that when his company undertook the renovation of petrol pumps, it decided to include other facilities such as cafes, ATMs and In&Out convenience shops, where the location of the station would make such a decision profitable.

"This kind of petrol station has been common in the western world for a long time, and after malls opened in Indian cities," he explained, "we realised that we needed to give our customer better experience and service. The old, rotten petrol pumps were not appealing any more, and without a restyling we would have lost customers." The number of petrol stations offering other facilities next to tank filling and car services is increasing due to competition: often, petrol pumps of different companies are one next to the other and, since fuel prices are controlled by the government, the battle to get more customers is all fought with enhanced looks and extra facilities.

"The gas stations look much better after the renovation. Everything is new, and they are a convenient one-stop shopping place", says V.J. Kumar, a travel agent, while he waited for his car's tank to be filled. In a country that loves its malls and food chains, there should be no doubt about the success of petrol station convenience shops. But surprisingly, the numbers of the petrol pump customers that enter the attached shop is still quite limited and, especially during the day, it's easy to find those shops completely empty.

Jaibir Kakar, who owns two Bharat Petroleum stations in Hemkunt Colony and Vasant Vihar, both with annexed In&Out shops, says less than 20 per cent of the petrol pump customers buy items at the adjacent shop. He thinks that the reason of the reduced interest in convenience shop is the very same that makes his petrol pump so attractive: the look. "In the western world", he explained, "these kind of shops have been a part of daily life for a long time: people have breakfast there, they buy groceries there and consider them just a convenient shop that is always open. Here instead, people still associate a shiny look with an expensive shop, so they don't even enter the In&Out to check prices, they are intimidated".

It seems quite a paradox: customers are attracted by the most sleek-looking gas stations, but they wouldn't use the very facilities that make them look so cutting edge. "Unlike other parts of the world", explains Mr Kakar, who also runs petrol pump business in the United States, "the clientele [in the shops] still belongs mostly to the upper-middle or middle class. It might take even 15 more years before the rest of society gets used to this kind of shops".

But between 8pm and 2am, when most of the other shops are closed, the In&Out gets brisk business with businessmen, families, youngsters and tourists. "I come to the petrol pump shop to do the family shopping: it's convenient because it's opened at night", says Minu Kapoor, a housewife in Delhi. The appearance of these 24/7 shops next to the petrol pumps changed Mrs. Kapoor's family habits. "Now my husband doesn't send the driver to fill the tank any more, but we come here together and do both fuel and shopping".

Tushar Sood, a young customer of a petrol pump in Nehru Place, remembers coming to the same gas station eight years ago along with his parents, before it was renewed: "Petrol stations are a different and much more attractive place now," he says, "I always choose the ones with convenience stores: I enjoy nightlife and I often stop here for a snack, or a drink. I think this is quite an happening place for new generations". It is difficult to imagine how New Delhi will look in 2010, when all the ongoing renovation works for the long-awaited Commonwealth Games will be completed. The city might become completely renewed, or simply keep looking like a discontinued juxtaposition of brand new constructions and old, decaying, ones. One thing is sure, New Delhi is entering modernity, and it's doing it by car. The sleek and shiny petrol stations, constellating the city's disjointed roadsides, now look like a good preview, or at least a reminder of the direction that the city, and its citizens, want to take. motoring@thenational.ae