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The abject failure of our civic bodies

August 18, 2010 17:04 IST

Why are we proud that India is a rapidly urbanising country when we do not know how to handle our cities, asks Mahesh Vijapurkar

A friend from Pune took down my complete postal address, down to the pin code and mailed a letter some ten days ago. That letter is yet to reach my home in Thane, not 200 km from where it was posted, stamps and all. Often, letters from Mumbai take a month to reach me and so do letters sent from other destinations.

Obviously my dependence on the courier companies, which for deliveries with the metropolitan region charge me Rs 15 with a proof of delivery the third day, has increased and mails to destination beyond the region costs me much more, up to Rs 70 per letter. But then, the India Post has left me with no choice though once it fought tooth and nail to ward off the strengthening of the private couriers.  Obviously, despite some changes, most things have remained just what they were -- the precipitous fall from being an efficient to an inefficient organisation.

The other week, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, whose actions -- or lack of it -- influences the lives of 1.3 crore people in the city and it too has cited inefficiency of the postal system as a reason for wanting to switch to four courier companies to mail approximately 13 lakh correspondences every year. One can understand its anxieties.

But is it not the case of a kettle calling the pot black?

There cannot be a defence against the India Post.  Ask the postman why the letter was being delivered, the pat answer is 'there are not enough men' and the same response when you seek out the reasons in a post office. There are very few new post boxes, there are instances of post men themselves clearing post boxes because the other guy is not on duty or enough of them. Nothing can absolve the India Post of its sloth.

But the MCGM? It seems not to know that it is living in a glass house and has cast a stone in the direction of the India Post. Ask a Mumbai citizen what he thinks of the civic body and the outpourings would be laced with disgust, contempt and even helplessness. It is a den of corruption, comprising of men who are unfeeling of the distress of its citizens, that it cares too hoot about efficiencies and outcomes. You are likely to hear abuses about the country's largest civic body -- largest because it hosts the largest population -- with the largest budget supplemented with investments from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority.

Here is a short list of what ails the city -- everyone knows it but one may as well reiterate them in one lot:

  • It cannot keep its streets clean -- heaped garbage is common sight.
  • It cannot keep its roads motorable -- there are pot holes where smooth surfaces ought to help vehicles drive on.
  • It cannot repair the potholes properly and that is asking for too much because it does not know how to lay the roads in the first place; they vanish into potholes after the first couple of showers.
  • It cannot build concrete roads as well because they crack, develop the washboard surface and makes driving on them a nightmare.
  • It cannot keep the footpaths free of encroachments and allows slums to proliferate on them.
  • Where possible, the already constricted sidewalks are further narrowed down by building strip gardens to prevent hutments coming up on the -- so what price the footpath in the first place?
  • It has approved buildings which even today depend on tankers to supply the most essential commodity -- drinking water.
  • It forces people to purify water by installing purifiers because the city's water is unsafe; one should read the annual status of environment report of the civic body to understand how serious this issue is.
  • It cannot prevent builders-developers from building illegal structures, including parking slots being converted into flats and sold at usurious prices.
  • It cannot ensure that the builders stick to the approved plans, do not raise more floors than allowed and play havoc with the ever-changing building code.
  • It cannot stop its political masters from eyeing the open lands of the civic body from being taken over for building gymnasiums and private clubs for the rich.
  • It cannot even keep track of the increasing slums in the city.
  • It cannot collect all entitled octroi at the checkposts but allow the staff to soak the leakages which means the trucks are inordinately delayed from entering the city and the city is robbed of its revenues.
  • It cannot run its schools, a statutory duty; the children drop off, the girls stay away on puberty because they have no privacy to change their sanitary pads.
  • While it thus allows dropout rates to sustain, it does not add enough schools to soak up those who pass out of its elementary schools; there are far too few to absorb them and they end up in dead-end jobs which pay meagre wages.
  • So much so, it cannot keep the toilets within the precincts of its own several offices -- one can find the way to them without asking for directions; the nose is your guide so it is better one talks less about the public toilets.
  • It cannot even protect its own drain cleaners from death when they enter the sewers to clean them.
  • It cannot keep its hospitals clean, the best place to catch opportunistic infection because minimum sanitary rules are not observed.
  • In fact, there is one thing it can do: turn a blind to everything that it should be preventing from happening because such inaction yields more revenue to the personnel than does the salaries they are entitled to.

This list can go on endlessly. In fact, as a process of catharsis, readers may add to this list and feel good about pointing an accusing finger at the city fathers and civic officials who have only one pursuit -- make their own hay.

It would be better before the civic body casts its stones so recklessly, deserved or undeserved, before it gets its own act in place.  But I do not let the India Post off the hook. It too needs to be pilloried. But you at least have an alternative to the poorly performing India Post. Do you have at least one alternative for the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai?

Let me add a post script: the other civic bodies in the periphery of the city of Mumbai, once proudly touted as Urbs Prima in Indis, also suffer from much of the same malice. And we are proud that India is a rapidly urbanising country when we do not know how to handle our cities.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

Mahesh Vijapurkar