A New Delhi newspaper reported last Thursday that local authorities received 117 complaints of waterlogging, five of falling trees and six of building collapses, in one of which a four-year-old boy was killed. A school bus carrying 35 children became so deeply ’embedded’ in a road that a crane had to be called in, but it, too, got stuck. There was another report of a road caving in. Since it was in an area where several embassies are located, the incident will not send a flattering image of India abroad.
If this is the situation in the national capital, it is not difficult to imagine how dismal the conditions are in the other cities and smaller towns. Mumbai and Bangalore citizens have their own dismal tales to tell. The monsoon is undoubtedly the worst time because it aggravates the numerous existing problems, which include both overflowing drains and the accumulation of stagnant water, breeding mosquitoes.
Such pools near the unfinished construction sites for the Commonwealth Games have been blamed by Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad for the spread of dengue in Delhi, which has also highlighted the paucity of hospital beds. However, Urban (non?)Development Minister Jaipal Reddy wants the news to be kept under wraps lest it scare away the athletes. Reddy, however, was quick to blame the delay in Commonwealth Games preparations to the rains as well.
In Mumbai, the outbreak of malaria has given a fresh boost to parochial politics with Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader Raj Thackeray blaming the immigrants, who are mostly from Bihar, for the problem.
[ReviewAZON asin=”0312612370″ display=”inlinepost”]What these reports show is that the urban scene in India is one of unrelieved gloom. A citizen steps out every morning to contend with potholed roads, endless traffic snarls, unannounced diversions, beggars at every crossing, the unavailability of a sufficient number of public transport vehicles and their not infrequent breakdowns and general urban chaos.
For instance, on Raksha Bandhan day, Delhi Metro’s promise to run more trains was blighted by a two-hour breakdown of a train near Connaught Place, causing breathing problems to passengers because of inadequate ventilation, and disrupting the entire system.
Delhi, of course, is the most pampered of all cities, with a massive amount of funds being spent for upgrading its infrastructure in preparation for the Games. Roads are being widened, flyovers being built and saplings being planted. Yet, there is hardly any lessening of the average citizen’s plight.
It has always been a feature of Indian metropolises that except for the small areas where the affluent and the rulers live, the rest of the city bears the scars of persistent neglect. The reason is the almost total absence of urban planning due to lack of funds and lack of interest on the part of the so-called city fathers, whose proverbial corruption and incompetence made a Kolkata newspaper call them ‘city duds’ in the 1960s.
The Calcutta Corporation was usually called ‘Chor-poration’ by the disgruntled citizens just as another name for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is ‘most corrupt department’.
There is little doubt that it is the conversion of these municipal bodies into political playgrounds which is partly responsible for their fecklessness. Since the elected councillors regard their entry into the municipalities as the first step (or the second, if they had also contested student union elections) towards the larger political field, they have little time or inclination to look after the crumbling urban infrastructure and city improvement that is their primary charge.
Considering that the urban population has gone up from 79 million in 1961 to 285 million in 2001, and is expected to reach 400 million in 2011, the municipal failures – or the failure of local governments – have become more and more glaring. All the towns and cities are marked by housing and water shortage, leading to the proliferation of slums that stand out festering eyesores all over Indian cities.
One reason why the civic bodies are unable to cope with the problems is their limited funds due to a restricted revenue base, based mainly on property taxes, while the user charges are either low or non-existent. Hence the proposals for increasing non-property taxes and opting for commercially viable infrastructure services. But the general reluctance of citizens to pay their dues, along with the siphoning off of the funds by the staff, not to speak of the city fathers, ineptiwill continue to be responsible for the ineptitude and bankruptcy of these bodies.
The urban development ministry, whose contribution towards improving the scene has been minimal, has called for greater private investment in view of the gradual reduction and, ultimately, the withdrawal of plan and budgetary allocations, and the rationalisation of subsidies. Considering, however, that the annual investment for water, sanitation and roads has been estimated to be Rs.28,036 crore (about 6,000 USD), the ministry has had to admit that the ‘funds to that extent are not available’.
[ReviewAZON asin=”1741791510″ display=”inlinepost”]Private investors may have shown greater interest in the urban sector if the town planners could come up with innovative and viable schemes. However, there is a shortage in this field, too, for the total number of planners registered with the Institute of Town Planners is 3,000. In a country of 300 million urban dwellers, this means one planner for every 100,000 people. In the US, there is one planner for every 5,000 people.
Since urbanisation is a global trend, the problem in India is bound to get worse as no one from the urban development minister down to the mayors and councillors seems interested in giving focussed attention to the challenges of the urban scene. While the politicians play partisan games, or as in the case of present minister Jaipal Reddy plainly not interested, the bureaucrats are mostly time-servers, who regard their postings in the urban development department as a point of transition to more consequential (in their view) assignments. There is no respite in sight for the hapless citizens.
(28.08.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com)