Urban governance invaded by viruses
It is the season of the raging dengue, the viral fever, and chikungunya. The virus is lethal and does not discriminate between the rich or poor. Take your pick of illness, anywhere if you are a resident in a city in India. The searing temperatures of a north Indian summer give way to much anticipated and divinely invoked monsoons. The relief is as short lived as the first showers arrive to overflowing drains, chaotic traffic scenes, and flooding of inhabited areas. Stagnant water pools, poor civic responses to city’s water flow systems, roads looking like mini canals, makes us wonder if we have the basic wherewithal to manage cities and their needs. Or is it simply, that we don’t give a damn. After all, a life here or there in our country does not mean much. We have great hopes of the great demographic dividend and its everlasting and endless reserves.
The imperative of a management system is that it has to function. Its mere presence or existence does not secure functionality. In city after city, there is a semblance of a civic authority that exists in name but does not and cannot perform its obligated tasks. The lack of resources combined with a broken political leadership, whose accountability is unenforceable, makes the form lifeless and beyond redemption. If so be the case, then what hope for us, fellow citizens of ever getting a remotely performing city management system.
Sure, lamentable is the state of our civic services. But what is giving hopelessness is the fact that the pursuit of power has become an end in itself. Leadership positions are sought and contested, fair means or foul, only to acquire the pelf and the prestige that comes with it. There is no obligation to lead and sustain initiatives, programs, campaigns and enthuse citizen participation in the affairs of the city. Every city corporation has been negligent in establishing cultural profiles and identities to pave the way for ethnic bonding among the city residents. On the contrary, there is a conscious effort to sharpen cultural roles in hierarchical perspectives to underline superior and subordinate positions in a civil societal order. In this day and age, when all the state energies and resources need to be spent in creating opportunities for economic benefit, we are focusing on caste and gender distinctions. All these must be declared as non-issues and not worthy of our moment’s attention if prosperity for our people is our goal.
In 2014, the Prime Minister of India launched a Clean India campaign, a ringing call on our Independence Day. Two years and counting, right in the capital of our country, civic cleanliness is a mess, indeed a sordid mess. Does the call to Clean India mean only a series of photo-ops for the aspiring neta hierarchy or is it the serious business of municipal responsibility to be diligently and regularly discharged without any heroics. It is a sad commentary on the municipal leadership that their jurisdictions are full of filth, disease, and pestilence of every kind and yet they go home to sleep peacefully nursing ambitions of state or national political roles. The irony is that they will probably get them too.
No surprise then that the Delhi municipal bodies rank 398 in Swachh Bharat rankings of 478 cities. Other cities are bad as well. The knowledge of this state of things gives no solace, particularly when we are certain that nothing is being done to get the solutions going. Any number of reasons is ascribed as to why things cannot be made better. Everything said and done, the prime reason is the total absence of leadership and lack of political will. As Peggy Noonan, a political analyst said in the context of the western political interplay, “those in power see people at the bottom as aliens whose bizarre emotions they must try and manage”. Yes, politics is about managing tempers, emotions and wants not letting them spilling over the brim. We have no public records of the numbers affected in our season of viral epidemics, no system of data collection of people being treated in private and public medical facilities. So the best response is to belittle the size of the problem. Somehow assuage the pains of the moment and evil times will pass. People forget the virals, the dengue etc, relieved that they have lived to tell the tale. The story will, for sure, be repeated, pain for pain and illness for illness, when the next monsoon comes around.
This Independence Day hopefully will augur the change we all desperately want and yearn for. “Reform, Perform, and Transform” goes the ringing call from the Red Fort. The citizens would be happy and willing to settle for less. Only perform. Reform will happen if performance is consistent and done with speed. And transformation, it is the natural consequence of performance. Sakshi Malik has performed, Sindhu has done it. Can our leaders also do it? Just Perform.
(The writer is a former Director, India Habitat Centre. The views expressed are strictly personal.)