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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Out of my Mind: Power failures

Urban governments in India are abject failures. The elected representatives jostle to control access to land as a surefire way of looting the gullible.

Written by Meghnad Desai |
Updated: December 13, 2015 12:18:54 am
chennai floods, chennai rains, chennai news, chennai monsoon, mumbai rains, mumbai monsoon, arvind kejriwal, india news, latest news, chennai floods news, chennai latest news File photo from Chennai floods. (Source: PTI)

What happened in Chennai is just a dramatic multiplication of what happens in Mumbai at the start of every monsoon and what happened in Srinagar with the floods. No one should be surprised if Bengaluru, Kolkata and Lucknow have similar crises.

Urban governments in India are abject failures. The elected representatives jostle to control access to land as a surefire way of looting the gullible. They can certify and permit change of use, increase habitation percentage in any scheme as each change of use is lucrative. The stalwarts defending this daylight robbery have got away with, literally in some cases, murders. Urban governance has stagnated between the levels of the state and the panchayats. Some city governments are more than a century old and have been led by great men such as Jawaharlal Nehru or Subhas Bose. They are now weak and irresolute. One reason for this is that there is no elected executive leader, a mayor as London or New York has. Urban politics does not attract the able and the ambitious. The result is the sort of tragedy which Chennai suffered. In what is normally a well-run state with a good CEO /Chief Minister, there was no long-range thinking, no renewal of an old infrastructure, no stress testing of the rescue systems. For a country known for its engineering talents and a city with two hundred years of history, the tragedy was unnecessary and entirely due to a failure of political leadership.

This is why Arvind Kejriwal needs to be praised for his radical even-odd move. Having visited Delhi regularly over the last 11 years, I have been appalled by the deterioration in the quality of life as much as by the gross neglect shown by all levels of political authorities. The best one can say is that change happens with a 10-year delay at the very least. The Metro was needed already by the 1990s. Some control on car ownership and use was overdue for even longer. Illegal parking should have been curbed ages ago. But the reasons for inaction are always more politically palatable than initiating change.

Kejriwal has done much that was juvenile and egotistical. Now he has for the first time shown a capacity for radical reform, willing to court unpopularity for the sake of a change he believes necessary. As usual, car owners will cry doom and forecast disaster. In London, the same happened before the introduction of the congestion charge. Chaos was forecast which never arrived. London has managed the congestion charge with smart technology and tough implementation. Kejriwal should ignore all objections. He should leave no room for compromise, no slack for laggards. People will adapt only if they know there is no alternative. He is the elected Chief Minister of Delhi, a city/ state. No other urban leader has that legitimacy. He has to show that Indian political leadership is capable of taking decisions with a long-run horizon. He can use his enormous majority to bear the unpopularity.

A good leader uses power for the public good even when the public may not approve. Kejriwal failed in his first term. He better succeed in his second term or there won’t be a third. If he wins, the alternative leader slot can be filled.

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