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View: City-zens must put their money where their carping mouth is

With polls right around the corner, the infrastructure of cities is coming into the limelight, from Delhi to Mumbai and a Modi-less Ahmedabad, India's cities are not in great shape. Urban India needs to own the cliche ‘Be the change you want to see’.

, TOI Contributor|
Updated: Oct 18, 2019, 11.28 AM IST
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Everywhere the daily commute is a ‘chaar (or more)-jam pilgrimage’, a parikrama around omnipresent potholes, omni-absent public transport/traffic regulation, and ongoing ‘improvement’ projects.
In 2015, Jawaharlal Nehru was replaced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Not in political chronology or significance, but in urban renewal. AMRUT, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation ousted the 2005 JNNURM. Unfortunately, no nectar is in sight; and the urban churn has acquired cosmic proportions.

The upcoming assembly elections, some as early as next Monday, have forced manifesto attention on their cities. Once the victory cries have faded, can we afford to lapse into the same inefficiency, indifference and corruption? No. Being a citizen isn’t just a flashy poll-time rite, it’s a mundane everyday obligation – not just to blame, but responsibly to play the game. So, first let’s see where civic accountability needs to be demanded, and then how we fail to contribute civic mindedness.

Drumbeat renewal projects, with money rivalling that of any self-respecting scam, keep being trumpeted. But urban discord continues. Swaggering metros have crumbled into mofussil squalor.

Delhi itself isn’t spared the usual afflictions: congestion, encroachment, garbage, illegal construction; and beats everyone on air pollution. Urbs Primus in Indis is now akin to a burst stove; Mumbai’s minders don’t ‘turn a blind eye’, they upturn an open palm. Surprisingly, Mamata seems to have cleaned up the terminal metaphor of urban decay. But it’s Tier II and even III that’s raising standards and eyebrows. Ahmedabad has started slacking without Narendra Modi’s whip, but Bhopal, Jaipur even Patna have metamorphosed.

Some great opportunities are squandered. The new tech persona of Bangalore could have transformed this soporific pensioners’ town but rogue growth and the usual political cynicism/ cluelessness have made it unlivable – despite some proactive, high-profile residents. It struggles with 6,000 tonnes of waste per day (Mumbai has 11,000 – a 105% decadal increase). Its perma-gridlock is aggravated by the ratio of its burgeoning vehicles: 15.7 lakh cars to rules-averse 57.3 lakh two wheelers.

Indeed, everywhere the daily commute is a ‘chaar (or more)-jam pilgrimage’, a parikrama around omnipresent potholes, omni-absent public transport/traffic regulation, and ongoing ‘improvement’ projects. The classical urban development marker, public health, has been replaced worldwide by transport. On that index, our prognosis is hopeless.

BJP MP Gautam Gambhir mocked the Delhi CM’s tweet on tackling potholes with the Geeta Dutt oldie-goldie, ‘Babuji Dheerey Chalna’, but his own party’s record is equally scratchy; Kejriwal could justifiably have responded with ‘Zara hatke, zara bachke, yeh hai Bombay, meri jaan’. The monsoon turns the whole city into a horrific ‘Dodge ’em’ video game. They are a pan-India hazard. Last December, an SC bench called unacceptable the “almost 15,000 (pothole-related) deaths in five years, probably more than those killed on the border or by terrorists”, adding, “These are (just) official figures.”

In the scrum for most needed, worst addressed urban issues, transport may emerge on top, but is given a fight by other basics as affordable housing and health. The latter is posited a great deal on water and sanitation, and toilets are built under the tom-tommed Swachh Bharat – and selfies taken by grooms to garner 51K for the bride under the Madhya Pradesh CM, Kamal Nath’s ‘vivah/nikah’ project – but they are useless without a reliable source of water. PM Modi boasted on Gandhi Jayanti that rural India was now open defecation free. Ironically one can’t say that about the many squats of urban India.

Sadly green spaces find themselves pitted against AMRUT’s other vital pillars. The most recent and high profile example was Mumbai’s Aarey trees vs the Metro car shed, and more regularly everywhere the rapacious eye on eco-friendly salt pans and parks for vote friendly affordable housing. To say nothing of the covert land/ forest/ mangrove grab for the mutual benefit of developers and politicians.

This brings me to the white hot core of urban distress: essential transparency vs officialdom’s divine right to opacity. Resolving this conflict could be the answer. If official agencies claim to be working for the public good, they must accept that the public must be included. We need to move from patronage to partnership.

For its part, we the people must accept that only the harlot of yore could claim power without responsibility (however much and mistakenly the neta abrogates this right). Mumbai’s Advanced Locality Management and Delhi’s Residents Welfare Associations have shown how much civic services and security improve when direct stakeholders share the burden, oversee projects and demand accountability.

But accountability isn’t a one way street. Our big problem is that personal convenience always tramples over the larger public good. Who encroaches on public spaces (or a housing complex’s common areas)? Who makes massive illegal renovations, endangering the property of all the building’s owners? Who chokes the sewers? Who is cavalier about traffic rules and other road users? Who gives a hoot for No Honking Zones, or for decibel levels and deadlines at festival time? If corruption has become all consuming, who feeds the beast in exchange for regularising irregularity or simply making life simpler?

In the season of Handy Gandhi, we need to own the cliche ‘Be the change you want to see’. A citizens’ charter of responsibilities must append that of rights if we are to get cities in which it’s great to live, work and play.
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