Garbage Wars in Delhi – Time to Reimagine Urban Governance in India

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Rivers of Garbage Swamp Delhi (Courtesy NewsNation and Press Trust of India)

In the midst of the usual political mud-slinging that India’s jestful democracy entails, we have seen a major problem burst out on the national capital’s Swaraj scene. No, it is not Mr Arvind Kejriwal launching another odd-even scheme; rather is the alacrity with which a court battle is being fought in Delhi to determine just who is responsible for the garbage wars round III in Delhi (it happened twice last year for those who remain blissfully unaware).

A distraught Delhi watches on, stunned into silence by a horde of sanitation workers who are hell-bent into pushing Delhi administration and Municipal Corporations towards a permanent resolution of their problems through their trashy behavior (refer the garbage toss into Delhi’s Tourism Minister’s house and outside the Deputy Chief Minister’s residence). Even Central Government Ministers have not been spared. Meanwhile, all political parties are either busy with photo-ops or finger pointing in some way or the other.

The challenge is not unique to Delhi’s political corridors. We have seen the garbage problem spiral out of mess in Bengaluru a few years back, where the whole city was swamped by a sea of its own waste. Thiruvanthapuram saw protests involving very tense stand-offs, leading to litter being strewn everywhere in the city. Even as we speak, a horror of a site called Deonar has a mountain of garbage that is burning, choking the whole of Mumbai due to its location within the city’s geography and the merciless climatic conditions, and is even visible from outer space.

What is common to this and all other such examples is the absence of basic urban governance structures in India. The problem is, in fact, a symbol of a larger neglect of urban India that we have witnessed since Independence. Now many may take offense to my claim and say that life in cities is much better; rural areas have far many problems and bring up a list of objections. Truth of the matter is that urban India is perhaps even more of a harrowing lifestyle experience than rural India for a large section of India’s population. By 2030, McKinsey India has estimated that 500 million Indians will live in cities and towns of India. This is a conservative estimate at best, and with burgeoning population and the development of city economies, it would be higher. All romanticism for rural areas is frankly misplaced – world history was always about city based civilizations, not village based civilizations. Let me give you some statistics to create a perspective of the urgency behind my assertion:

1. At least half of Bengaluru’s slums do not have any electricity connections; this means that at least 7 lakh people or 140,000 families in Bengaluru alone (assuming a family count of five) do not have electricity. contrast this with a 100,000 villages across the nation.

2. Malnutrition in urban India is perhaps even more acute than rural India. 3.5% of Greater Mumbai’s slum children under six die every year because of poor nutrition and increased risk of infections against a national mortality rate of 3.7% as per 2016’s National Family Health Survey.

3. Number of people who die of road accidents in India is the highest in the world – over 100,000 a year. An overwhelming number of them are in cities. Five people die everyday due to road accidents in Delhi – that is a sobering number, considering it translates into 1825 die every year for certain in Delhi alone.

Now, the solution set that we have are known to everyone. To be fair, it is nobody’s case that no city in the world has gotten the formula right. However, the cities and city-states that do work have a strong local government that can manage its own finances pretty well. They collect taxes and charge fees for all essential services in order to not just pay salaries of employees, but also allocate budgets for meaningful urban improvement and development projects. These city governments have a flexible master development plan that is reviewed on a five year basis, has an excellent public transportation system that works on a for-profit basis, and has housing needs of people catered to directly by the city government among other things. Of course, the functionality of all cities go back to one basic thing – finances of the city, i.e. their budget.

What can be done in Indian cities? One of the crucial things that can be done by governments in India is to give more powers to cities. It is nobody’s case that decentralizing governance and making it participatory as per the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution of India is crucial. But to not do the same within cities is exactly the problem. a Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM – silly acronym to say the least) or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Smart Cities Mission is no different from providing a fig leaf to a naked person unless the basic problem of making city budgets balanced is not done. A major issue in this regards is to get people to pay for essential services like garbage collection, which can help finance the management woes to quite an extent. Cities like Ludhiana in India have in the past issued bonds to borrow from the market, but such efforts shall continue to remain flop shows because local governments continually fail to balance their budgets – heck, in many cities they do not even know how much money is spent to begin with.

Another layer to the problem is the multitude of governance layers. In certain cities like Delhi and Pondicherry, the multitude of layers of governance has translated into the national pastime of passing the buck as even understanding the basic structure of responsibility can take years. Contrast this with the El Dorado of our politicians, Shanghai and Singapore – a single government controls everything. Unless one agency is given all the authority to control urban issues for a city, the gashes will fester on without any degree of success to heal them. One added problem is the inability to penalize people for violating urban management rules or provide effective deterrents. The municipal authorities of India cannot fine anyone for not segregating waste as states explicitly within the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules of India. Mosquito control fines are a joke in India, and people can be easily intimidated into not practicing their authority. Unless this kind of authority and strong deterrence is provided to an agency and held culpable, the problems shall continue to persist. It was only recently that municipal authorities were given the power to issue such basic licenses as food safety inspection and fire safety, but the path to traverse is much longer.

If Mr Arvind Kejriwal is a smart politician that he and his supporters claim he is, he could perhaps take a pause in form, stop his spit and run politics for a change and reflect on what he can really do. If need be, the Municipal Corporations of Delhi could be altogether scrapped with the help of the Constitution. Alternatively, the Central government should revoke the Constitutional amendment that gave Delhi and Pondicherry Chief Ministers and legislative assemblies and re-empower the municipal corporations. In any case, time has come to reimagine the paradigm of urban governance in India. The sooner we do it, the better we can get at it.

The writer tweets at @HoldsASharpPen

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