The ministry of urban development has reportedly asked the ministry of home affairs to transfer the powers it has over Delhi’s municipal bodies, currently under MHA control. If this is followed through, the civic affairs of the capital might finally get some traction. For more than six decades, the MHA has been the first port of call for Delhi affairs. This is a ministry whose top priorities include the control of terrorism, maintaining internal security, Centre-state relations, paramilitary forces and much more. The sooner responsibility for Delhi’s municipal matters changes hands, the better. Here is why.
Delhi is the second most populated city in the world, beaten only by Tokyo. But the similarity between the two cities ends there. Delhi fails on almost every parameter by which a city’s quality of life is judged. Since the Yamuna is highly polluted, Delhi depends entirely on water released by neighbouring states — resulting in shortages that reach alarming proportions each summer. Its water table remains among the most deficient in the country, even though it does not have to meet irrigation demands. A sewage system built nearly 80 years ago is now on its last legs, even as open defecation along the river continues. Delhi’s roads carry the highest number of vehicles among cities in India — three times more than even Mumbai, the country’s financial capital. Nine different modes of transport jostle for space, burning innumerable man hours and earning Delhi WHO ratings as the most polluted city in the world.
Most visitors are impressed by the relatively pristine New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) area, but this accounts for just 2 per cent of the city sprawl. The NDMC is a rich body with surpluses that can maintain the greenery and the relative cleanliness that is so striking. But beyond that pampered enclave, Delhi houses a dozen different cities in its fold. Urban villages, rural villages, six different echelons of organised colonies as well as the walled city around Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid are bordered or interspersed with hundreds of unauthorised colonies, slums and resettlement colonies, the designated abode of former slum dwellers. Three municipal corporations are clearly unequal to the task of meeting such colossal challenges, which expand with each passing year.
Perpetually beset by the lack of resources, the local bodies are now stretched to breaking point. Only a fraction of the city’s filth gets processed and it is said that entreaties to the Delhi Development Authority for a dozen more processing sites have not been met with a response.
Elected municipal councillors, no matter which party they belong to, have always privileged political expediency over urban reform. Concepts like segregation and recycling of waste, solar photovoltaics on rooftops and the use of technology-based solutions are not part of their vocabulary. Of greater importance to the 272 elected councillors, 70 MLAs (when they are actually functioning as members of the assembly, that is) and MPs is the chance to woo the six lakh new migrants who settle in Delhi each year. Regularising unauthorised colonies also remains a priority for every city government, always at the cost of bona fide taxpayers as well as land- and house-owners.
Although every conceivable civic nuisance has been described in vivid detail in the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, fines are never imposed, on the grounds that they are too paltry to make any difference. Municipal magistrates are neither seen nor heard. The draconian penalties that made Singapore the world’s shining example of civic rectitude are extolled. But Delhi’s corporations have continued for decades with a maximum fine of Rs 50 for piling building debris on colony streets, to name just one of the terrible public nuisances.
But all this could change. Unknown to most, a Delhi Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2014, has finally been prepared. It seeks to introduce an omnibus provision raising the existing paltry fines to Rs 10,000 per transgression. But the bill, which makes eminent sense, has a long way to go. First, it has to be passed by the Delhi assembly, whenever its state of suspension is revoked or a new state legislature is elected. Even if the new chief minister has the conviction and the numbers to push it through, it would need presidential assent, since a Central act is sought to be modified.
Even if the existing or new MLAs are persuaded to bat for the bill, it remains to be seen whether the MHA finds it expedient to take it forward to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Raising fines for creating a public nuisance is hardly germane to the MHA’s concerns. Its control over Delhi affairs has its roots in a system that became obsolete more than half a century ago. Back then, Delhi was administered by a chief commissioner reporting directly to the MHA. Although the city has grown into a megapolis, the MHA’s mindset is based on command and control. A single officer in charge of the Union Territories, who does not necessarily have institutional conversance with city planning, is the conduit through which the legislative matters of Delhi are processed.
Given this irrational situation, it is of utmost importance that the municipal bodies are placed under the supervisory umbrella of the ministry of urban development, which at least has domain knowledge of civic matters. If swachhata is to become visible, the capital must show the way by following examples of progressive city management. One can only hope that if a Union minister for urban development has been convinced of the need to effect change, the MHA will concede to his sensible and justified request.
The writer is a former secretary to the government of India and former chief secretary, Delhi