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Get past the potholes

Get past the potholes

Tweeting can be risky business in the age of the Senas as celebrity author Shobhaa Dé has just found out. Her comment suggesting that Mumbai could be carved out as a separate state from Maharashtra has had the rabble-rousing brigade at her doorstep. Since I don’t live in Mumbai, distance gives me a certain sanctuary to suggest that Dé’s off-the-cuff remark deserves a less noisy debate on the evolution of the city state. Yes, Mumbai has strong emotional and historical bonds with Maharashtra. Yes, it doesn’t need statehood, but it does need a stronger, more accountable political authority to address its serious governance deficit.

Nineteen years ago, I left Mumbai for Delhi. Then, Delhi was a nightmare for the urban middle class: long and endless power and water cuts, a primeval transport system, horrific air pollution and a Wild West law and order situation. Today, an improved power distribution system, a spankingly good Metro, better roads, and a court-driven CNG environment have made Delhi a more liveable city. Yes, it still has worryingly high crime rates, but few will deny that Delhi is better off today than it was two decades ago.

Just the opposite can be said of Mumbai. Its cosmopolitan ethos has been shaken by the competitive politics of exclusion. Its public transport service — once its great pride — is now groaning under the weight of sheer numbers. Spiralling land costs and archaic laws have meant that finding a home in Mumbai is now a privilege of a few. During summers, the city is faced with unprecedented water cuts. Lack of urban renewal has seen collapsing buildings and crumbling infrastructure. Vote-bank politics has seen the regularisation of unauthorised slum colonies. Yes, a woman is still safer on the roads than she would ever be in Delhi. But it would again be fair to say that Mumbai is a less liveable city today than it was 20 years ago.

Nothing perhaps exemplifies the collapse of Mumbai more than the ubiquitous pothole. As of last week, Mumbai’s roads ‘officially’ had 14,098 potholes. Travel on almost any Mumbai road this monsoon season and be prepared for a truly back-breaking ride. The Mumbai municipal corporation claims to have spent Rs. 3,800 crore for the reconstruction of roads and Rs. 336 crore for filling the potholes, money that seems to have literally gone down the drain. There has been a 50% increase in vehicular traffic in Mumbai since 2005 — about 2 million vehicles ply every day on Mumbai’s roads — but no corresponding increase in the road network.

The Bombay High Court has asked some relevant questions on the pothole mess, all linked to a corrupt politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus. For example, why are the road works contracts given to the lowest bid rather than the best quality option; what is the process for examining the competence and credentials in selecting contractors; why are contracts given out just ahead of the monsoon with the result that the work is rarely complete before the rains set in; and importantly, just which agency is responsible for road construction and repair.

The last question is perhaps the most relevant. Mumbai, a city of almost 20 million people, has no mai-baap. Apart from the city corporation, there are at least three other agencies responsible for road maintenance, each with its own chain of command. The Shiv Sena controls the municipal corporation, as it has for much of the last 25 years. The Congress-NCP runs the state government. For a majority of the ministers and councillors, Mumbai is one large, real estate milch cow. Divided by politics but united by greed, the netas with the assistance of their babus have systematically looted Mumbai.

Contrast that with Delhi. Yes, Delhi’s local politicians are second to none when it comes to wealth accumulation. At the same time, it is no coincidence that the rise of Delhi began with it getting an elected legislative assembly and a chief minister in the 1990s. Delhi may still not have got full statehood, but the creation of a city state did empower its leadership to a far greater extent than before. Sheila Dikshit may today be suffering from a growing anti-incumbency after 14 years in power, but few can deny that she has been able to stamp her presence on the city’s landscape. She may have limited powers, but at least she cannot escape accountability. She is the ‘face’ of the city, good, bad and ugly.

Mumbai has no such face. Most Mumbaikars don’t even know who their mayor is. The Shiv Sena may like us to believe that the Thackerays are Mumbai’s political bosses, but the fact is that the Sena’s writ stops at the state secretariat. Yes, the Shiv Sena could still try and organise a bandh in their pocket borough, but do they really have a governance plan for the city apart from catchy ‘Mee Mumbaikar’ slogans? In the state assembly, Mumbai has just 36 MLAs in a 294-member assembly. The state ministers have their base in their home districts: they really have no emotional connect with the city.

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What is true of Mumbai is relevant to any sprawling megapolis in the country. Who is accountable for Bangalore’s traffic mess? Who should be held responsible for Kolkata’s decay? Who should take decisions for Chennai? A creation of a robust local self-government model, which could evolve into a city state, is a way forward. But how many state governments will actually loosen their control over the big cities which are their primary source of capital accumulation? Shobhaa Dé is right, there are ‘endless possibilities’. Exploring them will require a change in mindset, not just a new urban leadership.

Post-script: In 2004, Manmohan Singh promised to make Mumbai like Shanghai. Forget China, Mumbai’s potholes are ensuring that the city’s residents are given a firsthand experience of the moon!

The views expressed by the author are personal

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