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Friday, February 28, 2020

Sheila Dikshit: Chief Minister, capital change agent

From drawing on personal experiences to reaching out across political divides — how Sheila Dikshit transformed Delhi in the 15 years she spent as Chief Minister.

Written by Somya Lakhani , Mallica Joshi , Astha Saxena | New Delhi | Updated: July 21, 2019 2:28:19 am
During her 15-year tenure as Delhi Chief Minister, Dikshit has been credited with changing the landscape of the city — from flyovers that criss-cross the metropolis to the Metro that ferries lakhs daily. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

When Sheila Dikshit first proposed the Barapullah flyover, which now extends from East Delhi’s Mayur Vihar to AIIMS Hospital, opposition from senior Congress leaders was strong, Rakesh Mehta, who served as chief secretary from 2007-11, recalled. But she persevered. “This is the sign of a bold, decisive leader, one who can convince those who oppose, and bring them on board. Can you imagine Delhi without the Barapullah flyover now?” he said, hours after her death.

During her 15-year tenure as Delhi Chief Minister, Dikshit has been credited with changing the landscape of the city — from flyovers that criss-cross the metropolis to the Metro that ferries lakhs daily.

“The AIIMS flyover, the Dhaula Kuan roundabout, Signature Bridge and 155 other flyovers in the city can be credited to her. It came from her personal experience… whenever she would get stuck at a bottleneck in the city, she would wonder how to decongest it, call meetings and begin work,” Pawan Khera, her political secretary from 1998 to 2013, said.

Congress leader Arvinder Singh Lovely recalled her work in the education sector: “When I took a decision to define admission norms in public schools and reserve 20% seats for the poor, Sheila ji was the only one who supported the decision. Her public connect was unmatched and I remember she would call up the PWD Minister whenever she saw potholes.”

Lovely, the Delhi transport minister during Dikshit’s term, recalled receiving calls from the CM inquiring about stationary buses on roads: “She would say, ‘Beta, yeh bus kharab kyun hai?’ This was her style of functioning.”

It was during Dikshit’s term that Delhi made a shift from petrol and diesel-based public transport to CNG, after a Supreme Court directive. At the time, Ajay Maken was transport minister. “The SC directive was one of the biggest challenges as it meant we needed uninterrupted CNG supply and gas pipelines. Instead of blaming the Centre, she told me, ‘Supreme Court ke orders aaye hain, so let us clean Delhi’,” he said.

EPCA chairman Bhure Lal recalled his frequent breakfast meetings with Dikshit over environmental issues: “Even though the CNG bit was an SC order, she did the execution to the best of her ability. She didn’t delay or interrupt the process. She would often reach out for advice.”

Sunita Narain from Centre for Science and Environment too found herself on the breakfast table across Dikshit often. “I once woke up to a very agitated call by her after she saw a polluting vehicle, asking, ‘What can we do about this?’ She brought cluster buses to Delhi and manoeuvred past various agencies easily. When we fought for public transport fund, she backed us and negotiated with the L-G at the time.”

The Delhi Metro, too, made its debut under her. “Three days before it was inaugurated, the Centre appointed Madan Lal Khurana as DMRC Chairman for political reasons. I told her we should protest but she took a bigger step and called to congratulate him. Then she said that since Delhi is a Union Territory, we can’t do anything without Centre’s coordination. Let us try to improve our relationship. This is how she was able to get so many things done in Delhi,” said Maken.

While many credit her with world-class infrastructure development for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, it was also purchases during this time that brought allegations of corruption. The CAG, in a 2011 report, had said the Dikshit-led Delhi government granted favours to ineligible vendors and caused loss to the public exchequer. Dikshit had denied the allegations and said her government had followed all procedures.

In the crucial sector of power, Dikshit has been credited with privatisation of electricity distribution, which began on July 1, 2002, onward. “It was a bold decision which faced opposition but she managed to pull it off,” said Mehta. He also spoke about the introduction of “low-floor buses” by Dikshit, which eased mobility for the “elderly, children and the differently abled”.

Sarvagya Srivastava, former PWD engineer in chief and project coordinator for the first phase of Barapullah flyover project, recalled several meetings with Dikshit when work was going on in 2009. He told The Indian Express, “Whenever she would see me, she would ask, ‘Beta, bana doge na?’ A day before her birthday, she came to the project site at 2 am when a crucial part of the flyover was being constructed. She climbed on to the temporary bridge and spoke to workers. They were so excited to see her. She asked them if they will be able to finish on time and they told her that now that she had come, they would work with twice the enthusiasm. The next day, on her birthday, she sent sweets for them. Once she was convinced about a project, she didn’t allow any interference — political or otherwise.”

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