It could soon be a question for those appearing in the Union Public Service Commission exams. What do you do when there is a drinking water crisis? Impose Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Case study: Latur, Maharashtra, March 2016. What do you do when there are floods? Impose Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Case study: Gurugram alias Millennium City alias Gurgaon, July 2016. Dark humour, frequently, is the only escape from frustration and jugaad governance.
Pick any of the many failures urban Indians live with. India, it is apparent, is stranded between systemic inertia and the kinetics of karma, between what Haas and Hirschman called “thinkful wishing” or simply, thought-through-action and wishful thinking. The degradation of urban India (Nightmare in Urbania http://bit.ly/MYqQpP; Dysfunctional Dystopia http://bit.ly/1IMRecQ) is an unattended cause.
Governance is marred by the riveting, wait-for-the-eleventh-hour approach. Take the case of Latur and the drinking water crisis. The failure of monsoon was not unknown, depletion of water levels was recorded, the need for drinking water supplies was felt as early as in July and the solution of water trains existed since it was deployed in 2002 during the Vajpayee era. Yet the water trains didn’t roll in till nearly a month after Section 144 was first imposed.
This week, Gurgaon and Bengaluru — the anointed capitals of information technology businesses — were caught in floods. The residents in the national capital region were left stranded on roads and denizens of Bengaluru got the opportunity to fish on the arterial roads. What was the rainfall in Bengaluru and Gurgaon on the fateful day? It was 48.9 mm or less than 5 cm in Bengaluru and 17.3 mm or 1.8 cm in Gurgaon. Assuming that the rainfall was higher than normal, the question to be asked is if the quantum justified the magnitude of misery.
Mind you, it is not just Gurgaon and Bengaluru that were impacted by floods. The past week saw millions hit by floods in Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Citizens in towns and cities across these states and many others, including Mumbai, have been impacted. The point is that if this is the state of affairs in cities like Bengaluru and Gurgaon — touted as investment destinations — then one can only imagine the depths of distress elsewhere. A drinking water crisis or floods are not unique to India. What is unique is the capacity that governments have to passively stare at problems disregarding the catalogue of prescribed solutions. Take, for instance, the state of roads in Mumbai riddled with potholes — not just inside the city but on arterial roads too. The year-on-year cycle of potholes and repairs qualifies for a probe at the level of organised crime. Yet it rolls on every season like a horror serial.
The world over, governments leverage technology and deploy data to plan for contingencies so as to level the spikes of suffering. Governments are using sensors to detect and fix potholes. Authorities are harnessing behavioural studies lessons to fix problems. Civic bodies are opening up competitions for consultants and tech companies to come up with solutions — civic tech is an upcoming sector. Local and national governments are increasingly creating data banks — dredging and analysing bytes to devise and improve solutions. It is often argued, rightly, that the process of decision-making in India is hampered by the poor quality and availability of data. It is just as undeniable that whatever data is available, is scarcely leveraged by government agencies to arrive at solutions.
Soon after the Mumbai floods of July 2005, the government scrambled to put up Doppler radars and installed weather warning systems. The Met Department lists 14 cities with Doppler radars. Have they been useful? Has there been a study? Last December, Chennai was hit by floods that left the city crippled. What were the lessons learnt? It is no secret that the major cause was post-facto ratification of violation and urbanisation, that the bulk of urban India lacks a sewage plan. Has the government/governments designed new protocols?
Globally, discourse on governance is founded around resolution and mitigation — ideas of risk reduction, efficiency measures, formal planning and defined responsibilities and accountability dot the landscape of phraseology. The discourse in India is stranded at the roundabouts of Lutyens’ Delhi. Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu tweeted that “unplanned urbanisation, lack of timely action against encroachments, politicking at lower levels has led to this situation”. Question is who will fix this? The Congress meanwhile is lost in “Whataboutery”, the blame-game item song sung at every event. The tragedy is that urban India is not on the political app of any political party. It seems to scarcely matter that urban population today at 377 million as per the Census is larger than that of India at Independence. Indeed, as per UN studies, which put urban population at over 497 million, and if the 3,894 Census towns — the euphemism for unplanned and unrecognised urbanisation — are included, at least half of India is already urbanised. It is no secret that urbanisation is and will be the driver of future growth.
The economic output of cities like Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Seoul, Chicago, London, Sao Paolo, Toronto and Sydney are larger than the GDP of many countries. Just Greater Tokyo boasts of a GDP of over $1.9 trillion. The population of India’s top five metros — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai — is larger than that of many countries. Between them, the cities account for a substantial part of India’s gross domestic output. More to the point, they could — if empowered — realise their potential and be drivers of growth.
The Modi Sarkar had rightly identified urbanisation as one focus area. Fact is, intent has been executed but the political and economic empowerment of local bodies that must follow is stalled. Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for transformational — not incremental — change. Fixing the stalled project of urbanisation would be a good place to start at.
Author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change Email: firstname.lastname@example.org