Smart City and Swachh Bharat
by Sandhya Jain on 09 Feb 2016 8 Comments

The selection of the pampered New Delhi Municipal Council, merely 3 per cent of the area and population of the capital city, for upgradation under the Centre’s Smart Cities Mission, embarrassingly overlapped with the prolonged strike by municipal workers of the three Delhi Municipal Corporations and highlighted some problems that have long plagued this city.


The slug-fest between the Delhi Government led by the Aam Aadmi Party and the Corporations led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, their mutual recriminations and sins of commission or omission, are not the subject of this column. But the BJP would do well to concede that in street fighting and populist rhetoric, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is miles ahead. While there is an element of upper middle class disillusionment with him, his potential to damage the BJP should not be underestimated.


For the BJP, this is an opportune moment to introspect why it has lost five successive elections in the capital over 17 years, and why loss in the next round seems foretold, unless the leadership seriously gets its act together. The BJP must realise that when it lost the first round to Mrs Sheila Dikshit, it could not recover ground because it failed to serve the citizens as a vigilant opposition, which was its primary duty. The soft-spoken Ms Dikshit thereafter unleashed one wrong after the other upon the hapless citizenry (the corruption of the Commonwealth Games being just one glaring example), but won three successive terms on the strength of BJP acquiescence in her misdeeds.


Her first anti-citizen act was to sell 51 per cent stake in the Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking to two private firms (three discoms), opening the floodgates for domestic electricity bills to spiral out of control. The BJP, however, repulsed suggestions to protest against the unilateral privatisation of the power utility. Its indifference killed a nascent citizens’ protest against escalating bills, in Rajinder Nagar, and it was only when Ms Dikshit’s third term was ending in ignominy due to the dimensions of myriad scandals, that it talked of reducing bills by 30 per cent if it came to power. By then, the AAP had captured the imagination of the city, but Arvind Kejriwal’s first election in 2013 ended in stalemate because a sting operation dented his campaign for four critical days.


The tragedy, which BJP needs to introspect, is why the party failed to reconnect with voters in 2015, after coming to power at the Centre and winning all seven Lok Sabha seats in 2014. One reason is complete failure to understand how prices, particularly of electricity (a fundamental need in modern society), were hurting ordinary families. Nor was there any appreciation of how the intellectually agile Mr Kejriwal had apologised for his premature resignation and campaigned on all issues affecting people’s lives, much as Mr Modi did on all-India basis in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election. In contrast, the BJP, in 2015, quietly withdrew the pledge to reduce electricity prices by 30 per cent even as the AAP promised a 50 per cent reduction and forensic audit of the discoms.


The financial crisis in the municipal corporations had been building up for months, but the mayors and BJP municipal councillors have been content to sit back in the hope that the Centre can somehow bail them out directly, without them having exerted themselves in any way over the past five years, at the very least. The very first question that needs to be asked, therefore, is why the salaries of lowly karamcharis were withheld, while those of the elitist IAS and other officers, not to mention the mayors and councillors, were paid? Under Mr Modi, one expected to see the rise of a culture of taking care of the last rung first.


As enraged sanitation staff pile up garbage on crossroads across the city, the old punitive measures of invoking the Essential Services Maintenance Act will not work. For a start, the corporations must explain what they have done to improve revenues, if anything. For instance, several commercial offices have been waiting for years to get clearance to operate, with builders and investors losing lakhs of rupees in revenue daily. One such project that was cleared was declared ‘un-cleared’ after three months, and the lapsed demand drafts returned, without explanation or apology.


Garbage management is intrinsic to the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat mission. This writer has previously pointed out that the garbage trucks purchased by the Congress regime are defective and increase clutter on roads and pavements on a daily basis, as a result of which no road ever looks clean; the danger of disease-causing flies and mosquitos rises proportionately. The BJP has also not noticed that the manner in which garbage collection is done makes a mockery of garbage separation at household level, wherever this is done.


One solution is to make separation mandatory; transparent degradable plastic bags for non-biodegradable waste and black for wet kitchen waste. These should be collected separately and diverted directly to landfills or waste management systems. Regarding water shortages, rainwater harvesting is a complete failure due to excessive concretization of colony parks. Nor is there penalty for citizens who let treated water run into rainwater drains. 


Another crisis pertains to parking woes. If Councillors and officials were alert, they would realise that besides the growing number of large cars, road space is being misused by citizens who are planting trees indiscriminately on pavements, and even directly on the road along pavements, to prevent others from parking on the public road along their boundary walls. Others place large concrete pots or wiring to deny parking space. This land grab, not just reservation of one’s own spot, has assumed menacing proportions and calls for a crackdown.


Another atrocity is the SDMC’s penchant for killing local markets with punitive parking fees. The Aurobindo Market association had to struggle to recover footfalls lost to sudden imposition of parking fees. Now Yusuf Sarai is suffering. Worst is Hauz Khas where the underground parking had design defects, was unused for seven years, never repaired, and now declared operational. Citizens shopping for household necessities are being forced to shell out Rs 40/- for parking and shopkeepers are getting hurt. Yet, malls that need to pay attendants are being forced not to charge shoppers who can afford to pay!


Clearly, such corporations cannot build a smart or clean city.

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