Saturday, June 3, 2000

Cry, the Capital
By Prem Prakash

THE city that is the capital of India has been built time and time again. From the ancient Indraprastha to Mughal Shahjehanabad to the New Delhi of Edwin Lutyens, it has attracted the eyes of the world. Each ruling dynasty or empire has strived to outdo its predecessors. Indraprastha was fabled as a dream come true. Shahjehanabad in its days was considered the most beautiful capital city in the world. New Delhi set standards that many cities have tried to emulate.

Without doubt the citizens of modern Delhi can revel in a glorious heritage ,which makes it all the more distressing for them to suffer the degradation that has marked the city in the last 50 years. They hear the city administration put the blame on an ever-growing population, but they know that the real cause is a crisis of management, a failure to cope with the problems of modern development the way every major city in the world has had to do.

Connaught Place was once the world’s most beautiful shopping centre, now it has been reduced to a vast maelstrom of confusion. Mercifully, Lutyens built verandahs in front of the shops, where today’s shoppers can at least walk without having to dodge between parked cars. Effective car parking is beyond our city planners. As the vehicles multiply year by year, modern car park buildings are denied. If they build one, they add shopping arcades to it , thereby causing still greater confusion. The builders’ lobby seems to have the last word on all these issues.

  Lutyens’ New Delhi had running water on tap for 24 hours a day, as did old Delhi. The power never failed. The river Yamuna was dotted with boat clubs, run and managed by the colleges of the University of Delhi. The only polluting factor of that period was the dhobi ghat near the old railway bridge over the river. Chandni Chowk was sprinkled with water during summer afternoons and Connaught Place washed every morning. All this could be seen even after Independence, but it all seems a distant dream now.

Agreed, the city has had to absorb a huge influx of population.Agreed, it has had to serve a resurgent new India which dwarfs the nation that was born in August, 1947. But it has not risen to the challenge—it has been let down by its administrators. A city that in 1947 was managed by a Deputy Commissioner and a Commissioner, now has a Lieutenant Governor, a Chief Minister, an Assembly, a Mayor, a Municipal Committee in New Delhi, a Delhi Development Authority—the list goes on. Their achievement has been to produce a living hell for the city’s residents. They also produce an unending list of corrupt officials who amass crores out of the plight of hapless citizens.

It is the bankruptcy of management and rampant corruption among the politicians and administrators of the city that has led to the present state of affairs. If the situation is allowed to drift further into chaos, Delhi will be doomed—there will be no escape from building a new city. Perhaps that is already happening beyond the present city’s borders to the south, in the environs of Gurgaon.

Responding to popular demand, the politicians have regularised slums and allowed developers to build four storeys over properties designed for only two. It is not as simple. Slums are the vote banks for politicians of all the parties and builders’ lobby the financial support. But no one has considered how such outrageous and ill-conceived political decisions can be matched by the provision of civic services.

Is it impossible to provide running water for 24 hours to the residents of a city that stands on the banks of a mighty river? Given the will and determination, the Yamuna could be rehabilitated as a source of potable water. Nor does one have to dig very deep to find a subterranean water level, or look very far in the Aravalli Hills for a site to store monsoon rains. Rain harvesting is something that the Indian politician or the city administrator does not wish to know.

The municipalities of Delhi and New Delhi have failed in their duty to provide running potable water for the residents they serve, yet they have never been prosecuted for delivering water that carried disease—water for which the residents have to pay. One wonders whether these honourable bodies are in league with the suppliers of bottled water? Certainly one has yet to hear of any plans to restore a 24-hour running water supply, which the colonial masters did without any problem. No wonder senior citizens never tire of letting the youngsters know of the efficient services that the colonial masters provided to the ruled.

We are told that the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB), an organisation that is supposed to supply electricity to the residents of the city, makes losses of Rs.2 crore every day. We are also told repeatedly by chief ministers of this city state that anything between 30 and 40 per cent of generated electricity is not paid for —it is stolen. Taken together, are these statements not an admission of sheer inefficiency? Why have the thieves not been brought to book? Perhaps it is a matter of political convenience for both ruling and opposition parties not to pursue the issue. It involves ‘vote banks’ and the financial backers of the politicians.

Then take the case of street lighting. That we do not have daily tragedies due to the manner in which naked wires dangle at the foot of each lamp-post is a wonder. It seems that when the bosses of DVB drive through the streets of Delhi , they keep their eyes closed and therefore do not see that nine out of ten street lamp-posts have no safety locking or protection from naked wires in their base. They might also notice that many lights fail because of loose wires.

No observer can say that today’s Delhi is friendly to pedestrians—of all the world’s great cities it is the most unfriendly. Those who protest at this sweeping statement should take a walk through the heart of New Delhi from Jan Path to Windsor Place and see how the footpaths have been totally usurped by taxi stands, shacks, shop stalls, and the rest. Pedestrians have to move on to the main road, taking the risk of injury, or worse, from the frightening traffic. Surely the Lt Governor and other city notables must drive along that route from time to time. Don’t they see the plight of the pedestrians?

It is not just in the centre of New Delhi but all over the city, that the culture of providing clean and well-maintained footpaths has gone. The rulers drive around the city, using their ‘red light’ to force a right of the way, but they do not seem to realise that a properly run city needs footpaths. Perhaps they and their families never take a walk.

The law and order situation is no better off. The turnout of the Delhi police is extremely poor, to say the least. Officers who move around in pomp and glory fail to see the plight of the rank and file police men and women. Uniforms are crumpled and shoes mostly torn. Few traffic police have reflective uniforms at night and as a result many become accident casualties. The blame must rest with the senior officers for failing to ensure that their men are put on duty on the road properly equipped and uniformed. They should tell the political bosses and the administration that it is wrong to put a policeman on night duty without a reflective jacket to go over his uniform.

Take a visit to any police station. It is a study in dirt and squalor that offers no comfort for the overworked constabulary in their rest periods. The city cannot expect better results from its police unless it is able to look after the force in a proper manner. This again, is the responsibility of the officers. It is a tragedy that over the years they have become more considerate about politicians than their force. It is a malaise throughout India, not just in Delhi.

The municipalities collect vast sums as house tax. This is a contribution that the residents make to secure the civic amenities needed for their everyday life and they have a right to expect their elected councillors and the mayor to ensure diligent use of such funds. Instead the vast sum of money seems only to pay for the salaries and perquisites of the municipal staff. The city would be much better off in getting private contractors to do the job. Chennai is among those Indian cities that have started this trend. Let Delhi follow suit.

Certainly, there seems to be little spent on maintaining open spaces and parks. Gardeners are seldom seen at work. Huge sums are said to be spent on manure, but there is little sign of it on the ground. It is time that there was some form of transparency in such expenditure. The residents of each area must be told which staff are deployed to look after their area, and the budget for the provision of such items as manure, flower beds etc. That way the residents may be able to get some work out of errant employees. Alternatively, taxes should be reduced and the maintenance of open spaces transferred to the residents in each area.

The residents of the city are forced to take the path of Public Interest Litigation at the Supreme Court of India to force the administration to get on with its job. Thank God for that great institution. Who else could get action on such tasks as removing polluting industries from within the city, or setting up additional sewage treatment plants, or getting hospital waste disposed off in a scientific manner? It is an indictment of the city administrators that they have had to be forced by the Supreme Court to meet their responsibilities for these and many other services.

The time has come for the city to take a critical look at the manner in which it is being managed. The outdated way the institutions of municipality are run is failing to serve the needs of the modern city. No one gets value for the money spent or paid as municipal taxes. If there is a need to get advice on civic management from abroad, it should be got without hesitation. There is also a need to privatise or ‘outsource’ as many services as possible to make them more efficient; the in-house facilities have clearly failed.

The question must be asked—can Delhi go on in the present manner? Apart from the water supply, the power cuts, the dangerous street lighting, the lack of parking facilities, the pedestrians’ nightmare, the unkempt and demoralised police force and the run-down parks, the city is polluted, its hospitals in terrible shape, its municipal and government schools in disarray at a time when better education is the need of the hour. Look around anywhere and you see apparently insurmountable problems. But given good management the problems can be managed. Given the will, the city can still be saved.