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HindustanTimes Wed,20 Aug 2014

Shaping a new poll agenda for Chandigarh

Dr Pramod Kumar, Hindustan Times  Chandigarh, April 10, 2014
First Published: 13:00 IST(10/4/2014) | Last Updated: 13:09 IST(10/4/2014)

Elections are about winning and, for some, to ensure others lose. They are shorn of any ideological persuasions and, more recently, have even ceased to be political. Therefore, it is essential to decode the claims and counterclaims made by the various poll contestants in the fray for Chandigarh.

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Elections in the city have to be decoded at three levels. Firstly, as to what extent do the political parties represent national concerns — like decisive leadership to free the country from the grip of land speculators, shady businessmen and crony capitalists as well rid it of plunder of the exchequer, unbridled inflation, soaring unemployment, unrelieved poverty and income and social inequality.

However, politicians will definitely be tempted to go in for occasional handouts ostensibly to alleviate people’s misery. Political parties have made provision for safety nets to the poor and the aspiring middle class a major election issue.

Voters now have a choice between parties giving these entitlements as a right and those for whom it is just another populist measure.

The key feature of an economic reforms agenda is an increase in the quantum of corruption, and political parties never tire of making corruption a poll issue but they never address the core issues like the massive misappropriation of public funds.

Further, poverty, discrimination and inequality have multiplied over the years.

In the background of the huge gap between performance and promises, the style of governance and local issues have become the principal concern in these elections.

Those contesting the Chandigarh parliamentary seat appear to have covered every possible concern of city residents, ranging from creation of new jobs, improved living standards and increased safety for women to better civic infrastructure.

Amid all the noise let us remind these netas of some of the pressing issues facing the locals today. Though the city has commendable educational facilities, it cannot boast a single college or other institute (even architectural) of excellence.

It has broadbased healthcare services but not even one first rate specialty institution. It has a sprawling shopping complex but has failed to emerge as a major commercial hub.

The city has a large sports complex but major facility dedicated to a particular sport. It has a large number of newspapers but no centre of excellence in communications and media education.

Why hasn’t Chandigarh emerged as a city striving for excellence? As an island model, it is a unique experiment in urban governance where bureaucrats without any stakes and roots have been given almost unquestioned power without being hindered by significant political interference.

It has all kinds of distortions such as encroachments, pollution, traffic snarls and parking congestion, and the quality of civic services like sanitation, power and water drainage has been steadily deteriorating.

People’s participation in governance has been discouraged by the bureaucratic setup.

Excellence is sought to be achieved primarily through control over the use of the limited land in the city; as a consequence violation of prescribed land use regulations has become a convenient governance tool. Who among the current poll contestants will take a call to liberate this city from the bureaucrats’ grip and ensure community participation?

In fact, Chandigarh has become a symbol of inequality and injustice perpetuated by a regulated pattern of land use. The sectoral demarcations - the northern sectors on the foothills of the Shivaliks that are inhabited by the elite - are well demarcated from the southern sectors where the middle class lives, along with the periphery inhabited by the poor.

We notice a noticeable policy bias in favour of the northern sectors, for which huge resources are spent to make life comfortable for the residents at the expense of those living in the southern sectors and the fringes.

The city has virtually been reduced to a tourist resort for the affluent and a refuge for hopeless migrants and helpless retired people. Chandigarh has started decaying before it could bloom.

Will the political parties gather the courage and have the vision to transform the city? The immediate need is to reorient the existing plans based on land use, which are turning out to be a source of profit, to one that is flexible and allows scope for organic growth.

The standards for attaining excellence have to be worked out for each sphere of activity in the city. The slums have to be rid of the land grabbing “mafia”. It is also necessary to remove the north-south and ensure all residents enjoy the same standard of public utilities and civic infrastructure.

(Dr Pramod Kumar is director of the institute for Development & Communication (IDC), Chandigarh)

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