The visible aspect of the prolonged fracas between the three BJP-led municipal corporations in Delhi and the AAP-led state government has been the piling up of garbage in parts of the city-state after 60,000 sanitation workers struck work because their salaries and arrears have not been paid.
Delhi’s denizens produce 10,000 tonnes of garbage every day so even a strike by its sanitation workers for a couple of days can make things odorous and messy. The less visible aspect has been its impact on people. The three corporations run 1,860 schools, which are attended by 1.2 million children, mostly poor. The strike by the corporation workers, which includes 18,000 teachers, has meant no school for those kids. And no school for these kids, many of whom come from severely under-privileged and under-nourished families, also means they get no free mid-day meal, often their only source of daily nutrition.
The strike also affects badly Delhi’s poor and the very poor, whose need for healthcare and medical emergencies is met by six hospitals and 500 polyclinics and dispensaries run by the corporations, and whose 20,000 workers, including doctors, nurses and consultants, were also on strike for seven days before resuming work on the weekend. The average monthly salary of a corporation schoolteacher is Rs 30,000; that of a sanitation worker is Rs 20,000. When those salaries or arrears aren’t paid for three or four months it is easy to understand why you see poignant images of workers blocking traffic by lying on Delhi’s streets.
The spat with the corporations is all about funds — the BJP-ruled bodies blame the AAP-led state government for not releasing money to be able to meet their expenditure, including paying their workers salaries; and the state government says it has released funds but the corporations have mismanaged and misused those funds.
Unsurprisingly, this has got quickly politicised and has become another chapter in the ongoing (and often sordid) war between the Delhi government and the Centre. The state says the Centre doesn’t allow it to function; the Centre says the state is trying to exceed its brief and get into areas that are beyond its legal domain. Unlike other states, the Delhi government is not empowered to deal with issues of law and order, land, and the appointment of civil servants — areas that are the preserve of either the Centre or the lieutenant governor.
It isn’t merely adversarial politics that is at the root of the current spat over Delhi’s civic upkeep. After all, during the 15 years of a Congress-led regime in the state before AAP came to power, the civic bodies had been led by the BJP and although friction between the two wasn’t uncommon, a crisis of the current proportion never occurred. There could be other reasons.
Till 2011, Delhi had three statutory municipal bodies — the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Delhi Cantonment Board (DCB). The NDMC, funded by the Centre, runs what is commonly known as Lutyens’ Delhi; and the DCB, in charge of the cantonment area, is under the purview of the defence ministry. In 2011, when the Congress was in power, the MCD was trifurcated into three — north, south and east — in a move that many think had political motives.
After the split, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation emerged as the wealthiest (the revenue is from property taxes, parking lot collections, hoarding space rentals and so on), while the East and North Municipal Corporations weren’t so lucky. The inability to pay salaries and other dues has hit them the hardest. No longer able to dip into a common pool of revenue, both bodies have been feeling the pinch.
What has sharpened the current spat is the fact that elections to the corporations are scheduled for 2017 and both, AAP and the BJP, may be trying to leverage as much political capital out of the crisis. The problem is that the cost of that capital is being borne by Delhi and its citizens. Not so long ago Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal earned plaudits from Delhiites when he piloted an odd-even scheme to manage the city’s traffic. Now he could receive their wrath. In a state where India’s capital sits, it may be in the interests of both AAP and the BJP to eschew politics and restore normalcy. For the sake of its citizens.
The author is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times, and tweets as @sanjoynarayan
Views expressed are personal.