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Municipal mess

It’s a fairly common scene no matter what part of urban India you are in: it rains for a few hours and the city comes to a grinding halt. Waterlogged and potholed roads hold up traffic, backing up cars for miles.

Print Edition: September 7, 2008

It’s a fairly common scene no matter what part of urban India you are in: it rains for a few hours and the city comes to a grinding halt. Waterlogged and potholed roads hold up traffic, backing up cars for miles.

Worli-Bandra sea link: Crucial to the growth of Mumbai
Worli-Bandra sea link: Crucial to the growth of Mumbai
Narrow streets in neighbourhoods get clogged, and if the water doesn’t get into your living room, there’s good chance that the road-corner garbage dump has been washed up to your doorstep. The point: urban governance in India is in a shambles and the debate over it has been focussed, justifiably but impractically for the common man, on structural changes. How about, instead, building public pressure on what the municipalities are supposed to do anyway—which is to keep the city drainage system unclogged, clean roads and neighbourhoods, ensure water in taps and run schools and hospitals for the poor people.

By now, we know what’s wrong with our municipalities. Apart from being largely corrupt and sclerotic, they are caught up in a maze of rules and regulations that blur responsibilities. For example, state governments often have authority that supersedes that of the municipality, and politicians and bureaucrats often use that to their advantage.

Most municipalities are also broke. They just don’t have the money needed to create the sort of infrastructure their growing cities need. For example, in Haryana’s so-called “Millennium City”, few of the fancy apartments that sell for a few crores of rupees have municipal water connections.

Most of them make do with groundwater, which is fast depleting. The city of high-rises also has just a few fire tenders, and street lighting is scarce. The irony is that the state has earned thousands of crores of rupees from the real estate boom that has taken place in Gurgaon.

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Yet, India’s municipalities don’t have to wait for sweeping changes in their existing structures to start doing their everyday work. They have enough power and funds already to do that. Take Surat, for example.

Arguably one of the best-run municipalities in the country, the Surat municipality (the oldest in the country), has created a city development plan that looks as far ahead as 2031. It is already upgrading its infrastructure keeping in mind the growth in population in the years ahead.

Why can’t other municipalities follow Surat’s example? After all, what’s required is a hardcharging municipal commissioner who can rally the support not just of his political masters in the state but also other stakeholders in his or her city. Unless the municipalities learn to work within their systemic constraints, there’s little hope for our cities.

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