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Going under can be a drain

Every time there is a little shower, our cities collapse. It's time to revamp our infrastructure.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2012 21:01 IST

In India, the more things change, the more they remain the same. So it was hardly surprising to see that the capital city, which arguably has the best infrastructure among all Indian cities, go down under once again after a brief spell of rain on Tuesday. It took only half-an-hour of rain to submerge parts of the city, bring traffic to a standstill and in many parts of the metro, residents found sewage water entering their homes. As expected, the web of municipal authorities that control Delhi and their political bosses came up with that old excuse that is trotted out to us every time it rains heavily: the city's drainage system is outdated. We can rightly ask, why has the system not been replaced or at least refurbished? This boils down to the fact that as a nation we refuse to learn the art of maintaining our existing infrastructure. No prizes for guessing why politicians and bureaucrats are always ready to spend public money on new projects and not on maintenance. They have no qualms about going in for expensive cosmetic changes in order to make a ready impression on their vote-banks. And it is no secret that there is good money to be made from 'development'. Even in areas of Delhi where the municipal authorities had done some repairs, the work has been shoddy to say the least. The workers did not clear the garbage after de-silting the drains. So the moment it rained, the muck went back inside the drains once again blocking them.

However, this is not a situation which affects Delhi alone. The same catastrophe visits Mumbai and Kolkata as well and smaller cities like Jaipur: the moment it rains, the cities' garbage-choked drains give up, leading to chaos. On Wednesday, six people died in a wall collapse and due to electrocution as heavy rains lashed Jaipur. This year Mumbai has been spared of the usual mess not because the civic authorities have done their work, but because the monsoon has been weak. The mayhem that takes place every monsoon is not the only problem that dogs cities: there are plenty of other infrastructure problems — power and water shortage, transportation — that need to be met on an urgent basis.

India is urbanising rapidly. According to a report in a business magazine, the number of cities with a population of over one million has gone up from 35 in 2001 to 59 in 2011 and is expected to touch 87 by 2031. Such growth is not bad: it opens ups vistas of growing knowledge, innovation and technology and can power the Indian economy. But unfortunately, as cities become specialised knowledge hubs and centres of excellence (for example, Bangalore for information technology), the decrepit infrastructure is running down the growth prospects for these places. While all this needs investments, the start has to be made with improving the municipal and urban local bodies which are badly governed and generate very little revenue, forcing them to depend on state governments for their expenses. It does us little good that every time there is a shower, we go under and productivity suffers so badly.