In 2008, before Delhi’s assembly elections, influential leaders of the BJP wanted to field a highly respected city-based MP from their party as the CM candidate and challenge Congress’s Sheila Dikshit, who was eyeing a third successive term. The BJP MP (now a powerful minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet) refused, remarking that he didn’t want the job of a “glorified mayor”. That story isn’t apocryphal. Nor is that job description an exaggeration.
Delhi, the state that Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and Ajay Maken are fighting to become chief minister of, is really a quasi state, not a full-blooded one. Of Delhi’s five municipal agencies, four — the three corporations and New Delhi Municipal Council — administratively report to the Union home ministry — and the fifth, Delhi Cantonment Board, reports to the defence ministry. Delhi’s police force reports to the home ministry. And all matters relating to land in the nearly 1,500-sq km metropolitan (urban and non-urban Delhi) come under the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which reports to the Union urban development ministry.
For a CM, running Delhi can be tricky business. First, owing to the limited jurisdiction of the state government but also because the reporting manager for all the civic agencies, the police and the DDA is the lieutenant-governor (L-G), who is appointed by the President but chosen by the Centre. If a CM and the L-G don’t see eye to eye (that can happen if the same party isn’t in charge at the Centre and the state), things can get quite sticky.
Yet Delhi is a trophy state for any party to win and its CM’s job is a coveted one. As the centre of political power and India’s second-most populous metropolis with 16.7 million people, it is both emblematic and iconic for other Indian cities. It is also a mess.
Start with things that we don’t immediately think about. Of the 14,000 parks in Delhi, only 126 have any facilities for children, with the rest either turned into ornamental gardens where playing is forbidden, or encroached upon by cars, garbage stations or power transformers. Last month a five-year-old girl died when a faulty swing came crashing down on her in a park where she was playing. And last week a lawyer and his dog died when they were electrocuted by a live wire hanging from a lamppost in a park — the lampposts were newly installed fancy ones but from whose electrical boxes loose wires dangle.
Delhi’s civic amenities are in a shambles. Women make up half of Delhi’s population but there are only 269 public toilets for them (for men there are 3,712); more people walk and cycle in the city but it’s the vehicle users that call the shots — in 2014, of the 1,671 who died in road mishaps, 989 were pedestrians; pavements are routinely taken over by vendors, parking or even religious assemblies; and, as everyone is aware, the city’s record regarding crime against women is shameful.
One of the PM’s pet projects is to create 100 smart cities in India where the quality of life would be comparable to any developed European city — affordable housing; 24x7 power and water; clean air; good healthcare and education; an efficient public transport system; IT-enabled on-demand public services; and so on. By those standards, Delhi is woefully un-smart.
In the works is a plan, borrowed from former New York City mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, which will have Indian cities compete to be selected for smartening up. We aren’t yet sure whether Delhi will make the grade. But for whoever gets to become Delhi’s new CM, the priority cannot be anything other than cleaning up the mess that the city-state is in. It won’t be easy. A few months back, in response to a Hindustan Times campaign to unclog Delhi’s roads, when the Union urban development minister asked for a working group to be set up, he found to his chagrin that 17 different government agencies were involved!