How big is big is a question of much debate in Delhi.
The Aam Aadmi Party promised in the manifesto that its MLAs, ministers or chief minister would not shift to a “big” government accommodation if elected to power. CM Arvind Kejriwal accepted two duplex houses — with five bedrooms each — in the heart of New Delhi on Friday. Those 9,000 square feet of real estate, he clarified, was below his entitlement and half the space would anyway be used for a home office. “If you want, take your cameras to the flat, see for yourself and compare with the earlier CM’s house,” he told reporters.
The media inspection of the two houses didn’t throw up a response the AAP had hoped for. The next day, Kejriwal dropped the idea of moving in there, saying the Aam Aadmi didn’t approve. As a result, the government is in the house hunting mode all over again, this time for “a smaller, modest” dwelling.
Meanwhile, all six ministers accepted sarkari cars for official use. This was not out of line with the AAP’s stated position. Their manifesto rejects use of beacons but not official cars if driven without VIP traffic privileges. The CM continues to use his WagonR but the ministers have taken the Toyota Innovas that the Congress cabinet left behind.
It wouldn’t have triggered a media scrutiny had the ministers not indulged in all the grandstanding. We certainly do not expect them to queue up at Metro stations or look for autos every time they need to get to meetings and conduct spot inspections across the city, particularly during peak or odd hours. An average Delhiite has more to worry about than the size of the CM’s house or how a minister commutes.
For example, she would be concerned if the CM stopped meeting the citizens at the janata darbar, meant for public grievance redress. Though declared an open house, the secretariat is still too walled in for the CM and his ministers to conduct daily public interactions. When he tries it in a housing society in Ghaziabad, swelling crowds become a nuisance for the neighbours.
VIP status is misused across India. It is not unusual to see ‘lal batti’ cars taking VIP wives shopping or gun-wielding bodyguards intimidating citizens. VIP takeover of public roads violates our fundamental right. But certain official privileges are necessary because these ensure security and maximize efficiency. With all the problems of the city waiting on their plate, do we want the ministers to spend most of their working hours crawling in autos or standing in metro queues? Similarly, a security cover for a CM is a must in a city that has seen political assassinations and an attack on Parliament.
Chief ministers are not judged for their homes and cars but for their governance agenda, which the AAP clearly doesn’t lack. If followed efficiently, its 50-page manifesto and 17-point agenda can bring about a sea change in Delhi. And if the new government really cares for the taxpayers’ money, it must focus on improving the delivery mechanisms.
For example, cleaning the Yamuna has been the biggest waste of public money in Delhi’s history. In the last 20 years, the government has spent more than Rs 1,500 crore to clean the river but ended up making a drain out of it. The signature bridge across the river to improve connectivity between central Delhi and the northeast district, the most ignored part of the capital, has seen a cost escalation of more than Rs 500 crore since it was commissioned in 2008.
The BRT project was abandoned by the previous government after an investment of more than Rs 300 crore. The never-ending Connaught Place revamp has already sucked up more than Rs 600 crore. But some sections still look war-ravaged. The façades and colonnades restored three years back look frayed and timeworn, and in some places literally falling apart.
Anxious to deliver on its key poll promises in the first 48 hours, the new government should relax and breathe easy now it has won the trust vote. It’s time to focus on governance instead of symbolism.