Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Mumbai Syndrome

The Mumbai Syndrome
By Narendra Luther

What had happened in Mumbai on July 26-27 and on subsequent days this year is symptomatic of a deeper and recurrent malaise in our civic situation and in our administrative system a whole. It rained heavily for four days and the utter inadequacy of its entire civic infrastructure was exposed thoroughly. Nothing functioned. People were stuck in all sorts of situations. Business magnates used to commuting in swanky cars had either to trudge out with those used to walking to and fro their workplace on foot. Some who tarried a while were forced to spend the whole night and day in their offices. Roads became canals. Houses were submerged, slums were washed away. People were killed by the hundred. Water mixed with sewerage freely and people in humbler lodgings could not boil the lethal mixture to make it potable. There were no electricity and phones. Civic authorities could not reach many places because even in normal times they were inaccessible. There was no possibility of helping them even if the municipal officials themselves could come out of their own traps. Statistics have been purveyed to you for days by the media. The authorities have offered mitigating reasons for their lack or insufficiency of action. Of the annual average rainfall of 2300 mm, 1000 mm fell in one day! The high tide in the Arabian Sea compounded the situation. The abnormality of the natural disaster is conceded. But was the response system prepared to cope with even a quarter of the scale of impact? This sort of spectacle occurs every year in varying degrees. People pray for rains. When the prayers are answered, the civic services collapse. People wade through highways of water. The suburban trains are cancelled. We are only amused by pictures we see in the media; we are not roused to action. Ministers and chief ministers promise action against delinquent officials and declare solemnly that situation will not be allowed to recur. Next year is another year and sometime another government. This is Godsend for the new ministers. It gives them an opportunity to blame their predecessors and say that the problem was a part of the legacy that they inherited.

National problem

For Mumbai, substitute any metro, any city, any town of any size. You will see the same scenario replicated on varying scale. In fact, Delhi has just undergone a similar experience on a smaller scale. In Hyderabad in August, some people were sucked away through the topless drainage pipes and pictures of stranded people have started appearing again as I write this. In 2001 Hyderabad suffered a huge loss in life and property because of the flooding of the city in its most modern parts. It is an occurrence that can take place in any monsoon any where in India – and it does.

By classifying such disasters as natural in contrast with human, the authorities cannot escape their responsibility. As Marx put it, ‘philosophers have explained history; the nee however is to change it.’ The authorities are supposed to be ready to meet both types of situations.

The chief secretary of Maharashtra admitted candidly that the drainage system was outmoded and inadequate. He was not the first to make that sort of statement, and he won’t be the last. It is the echo of words we hear every year in every city and town. When the question is raised as to why such a situation is allowed to develop, the reason given is lack of funds.

Laxity & Corruption

As is usual with every state in such situations, Mumbai has asked for a grant of Rs 1200 crores from the Union Government to update the drainage system and to complete the project taken up in 1993 which was originally estimated to cost Rs. 616.3 crores

It is not only the outdated and inadequate drainage system. It is the haphazard constructions -- some of them in the open drains both old and new -- that compound the problem. Such constructions are made by encroachers with the connivance of politicians and the municipal staff. Some are made by land mafias and then let out to the poor for their residences. Local residents also use drains and nallahs for dumping refuse. That reduces the carrying capacity of the drains – and sometimes completely blocks it. This was noted in Hyderabad in 2001. It was announced that all those encroachments would be removed. Some frenzy of action was noted for some time. Today the situation is back to ‘normal’. So, laxity in supervision, and corruption are a part of the problem.

Need for Infrastructure

However, we must not be bogged down by municipal affairs. The point is that our infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Infrastructure includes, transport, power, water, communications, and other utilities. It is one of the points in the Common Minimum Programme. Briefly, we need the development of infrastructure at the national, state and local levels for which the responsibility should lie with respective authorities.

However, given our resources the required quantum of infrastructure in diverse sectors cannot be provided entirely through our own resources. Various models for mobilizing resources through private internal and foreign sources have been worked out in different countries and they need not be spelt out here.

The root problem is that there is hardly anything in India which could be called local or municipal government. Water supply, drainage and sewerage, electricity, education, health, local transport -- are all not in the hands of the Municipal Corporation, but other departments of the government. In spite of the 74th amendment to the Constitution, the municipalities have not been empowered as envisaged in the aforesaid amendment. Apart from the 18 functions entrusted to them in the 12th schedule, nothing has been entrusted to them. Even those functions cannot be discharged for lack of funds which are not provided by the respective State governments. Ironically, on the other hand the State government of AP has taken some of the existing sources of taxation away from the Corporation. For example, the collection of Motor Vehicle Tax was taken over by the state government in lieu of a fixed compensation. That frozen amount is only a fraction of the actual tax collected today. Municipalities function not as the third tier of the Government, as was envisaged by the amendment quoted above, but as departments of state governments. Their scope for action is severely curtailed.

We therefore need to vitalize the local authorities and hold them responsible for the provision of adequate facilities. The funds for discharging their responsibility should be determined not by the whims and fancy of the state government, but by a formula determined by the Finance Commission. Their sources of taxation should not be tempered with by the state governments. The 73rd and 74th amendments should be implemented according to the spirit which inspired them.

But we have a tradition of sucking up power, not delegating it. That is the big challenge.

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