Damn India's cities, running them is not glamourous enough for our politicians

Our political masters are interested only in things that are exciting, and not doing things right.

Every year, the monsoon season wreaks havoc in big cities. Mumbai is the worst sufferer, but others - Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi - are little better. The increasingly awful events in the National Capital Region (NCR) in the wake of recent rains are symptomatic of not just the incompetence of and corruption in local bodies but something more fundamental - urban decay.

One never came across the collapse of so many buildings. On Thursday morning, a three-storey building crashed at Mubarakpur, Greater Noida, because of heavy rains. A couple of weeks earlier, two of them, both under-construction, collapsed in a Greater Noida village. Many lives were lost when a six-floor under-construction building fell on a five-story building next at Shahberi, another village in Greater Noida. Many people lost their lives.

Ghaziabad is not much better. The collapse of a five-story building killed two persons and injured eight. Similar cases have been reported from Noida and other parts also. 

Ghaziabad's Vasundhara also had the now-infamous 30-foot-deep cave-in. The situation was so bad that the residents of around 80 apartments of a nearby housing society were forced to move out because of safety concerns. The heavy rainfall loosened the soil below the metalled road; eventually it got washed away, as a result of which the road sank.

The water-logging and traffic snarls triggered by even a brief shower have become a headache for the people of the NCR. If this is the situation in the areas not far from the Prime Minister's Office, Parliament, etc., one wonders what would be the conditions in remote areas. And, by the way, whatever happened to the smart cities project?

At the heart of the issues lies a deep-seated malaise that involves us all but pertains mostly to administration - or the lack of it. The entire political class is so occupied with welfare schemes, theatrics, and rhetoric that it has lost almost all interest in administration. 

To be sure, administration is not something that can be called sexy; it is a process involving a great deal of honesty, hard work, and even drudgery. It calls for rationalisation of rules and regulations, their proper implementation, endless file work, and serious interaction with all the stakeholders. It is certainly not as exciting as, say, announcing the food security law or some awe-inspiring infrastructure project. And our political masters are interested in things that are exciting.

The urban decay that Delhi-NCR and other metropolitan areas are suffering from is compounded by lawless urbanization. There is the phenomenon of unauthorized colonies; most of them are actually built haphazardly on the land owned by farmers. They sell it to unscrupulous colonisers and builders who construct cheap houses; the people who lack the financial muscle (and they are a legion) buy these dwellings which offer them a roof but little else; basic civic amenities are lacking, because these are not part of the deal. 

Water supply, sewerage, waste disposal, etc., are unheard of in these localities. The result is not just the subhuman existence of the people living there but also excessive burden on the environment. Water bodies are encroached upon; natural aquifers get disturbed and polluted; water-logging becomes a perennial problem.

Unauthorized colonies, shanty townships, and encroachments have badly hurt the urban environment. Meaningful change is predicated upon political will and administrative acumen, both of which are practically absent. Quite the contrary, lawless urbanization enjoys political protection.

Equally bad is the role of activists, who are more interested in pursuing their agendas than in making things better. As it is, the local authorities are not keen on cleaning up the mess. And in the rare cases when they show some resolve to, say, remove squatters, activists accuse them of being heartless. The media joins in the fun, presenting the encroachers on government or public land as the poor victims of the 'system.'

The denouement is ungovernable cities. Even small matters get embroiled in the red tape. Consider the cave-in at Vasundhara. The builder of the plot had dug up for the construction of basement parking, but some legal issues stopped that five years ago. The issues remained unresolved all these years, and dug-up would become a pond every rainy season. It is only now, after the problem became spectacular that the authorities have woken up. Typically, action has been announced against the builder.

What is needed, however, is concerted action at all levels - the national, state, and local levels. Unfortunately, that is nowhere to be seen.

(Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He has spent around 25 years in the media. As a freelance journalist, Kapoor has written for a number of leading publications. He has written four books on Indian politics and its associated institutions.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)


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