It’s high time we took Delhi to a more livable state | columns | Hindustan Times
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It’s high time we took Delhi to a more livable state

The average Delhiite puts up with a lot: unsafe roads; harassment and rape; traffic jams; disease outbreaks; bad air; and, also helplessness arising sometimes from not knowing who to hold responsible for all this. It is time to put an end to this.

columns Updated: Nov 25, 2017 18:41 IST
Chanakya
A man wears a pollution mask as he walks on a cold morning in  east Delhi. Despite the winter air pollution crisis being an annual affair, the state government seemed entirely unprepared for it
A man wears a pollution mask as he walks on a cold morning in east Delhi. Despite the winter air pollution crisis being an annual affair, the state government seemed entirely unprepared for it(HT Photo)

Why is Delhi a state? That isn’t a facile question. It is also a question that merits repeating. Why is Delhi a state?

India’s capital was a beautiful city (before it became a beautiful-but-unlivable city-state) in the 1970s and part of the 1980s. The traffic was still manageable (the tricked-out-Maruti-800 revolution was a few years away), as was the population. It was still safe, although city-historians would later point to the horrific Sanjay and Geeta Chopra murders in 1978 as a tipping point. It had wide tree-lined avenues, beautiful parks, and a certain old-world feel. Gurugram and Ghaziabad were yet to become the heaving satellite-towns they would become, and NOIDA was a small and immaculately planned suburb.

Truth is, you can get nostalgic about almost any Indian city. Bengaluru in the 1970s, 1980s, even part of the 1990s, was one of the best places to live in India. Mumbai, almost till the late 1990s, was still a perfectly functioning metropolis. Kolkata was an important cultural and business centre in the 1980s. Of the lot, only Chennai (Madras in the old days), which received and still gets a bad rap for weather, has managed to keep some bit of its old self alive, although, like Kolkata, it has become a city of parents. Still, Delhi’s case is particularly unique and not the least because it is a city-state that is home to the central government.

Part of this has to perhaps do with its success. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, Mumbai was the country’s commercial capital and Delhi, its political capital. That has changed. Today, the centre of gravity of business in India hovers somewhere between Mumbai and Delhi and Bengaluru (although it is still slightly polarised towards the first). Today, Delhi and its environs, called the National Capital Region, and including bits of Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad, and Ghaziabad, are home to as many, if not more, multinational corporations, than Mumbai or Bengaluru. Gurugram is the largest automobile manufacturing hub in the country. This has also changed the profile of the region’s population.

That success has translated into a greater demand on the city’s and the region’s hard and soft infrastructure. For instance, Delhi is woefully short of power and dependant on power from other regions. It also has its water piped in from elsewhere. Its roads are unable to cope with its huge volume of traffic, the result of it having more vehicles than Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Kolkata combined. It has become unsafe for women. Every year, it has at least one major outbreak of dengue, or chikungunya, or some other disease. It has a perennial garbage problem. And, over the past few years, every winter, it has the worst air quality in the country.

These are the kind of issues that would tax even the most efficient administrations. Only, in Delhi, it isn’t clear who is in charge. The city itself is divided into three local bodies, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation that comes under the central government; the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (which is divided into three corporations, each elected); and the Delhi Cantonment Board which falls under the union defence ministry. On top of these are Delhi’s elected government or the Lieutenant Governor, an appointee of the union government. Then there are satellites such as Gurugram, Faridabad, Noida, and Ghaziabad. The first two fall under the Haryana government and the last two under Uttar Pradesh.

The number of bodies and individuals and governments responsible for Delhi puts the city-state in a uniquely piquant position. One, people do not know who is accountable for what. Indeed, ahead of this year’s election to the three corporations that make up the MCD, the Bharatiya Janata Party fought at least part of its campaign on the platform of change despite having been in charge of all three corporations for the past 10 years. Two, it is easy for the people in charge to pass the buck. Indeed, this is the standard response of Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government.

This was evident during the recent air pollution crisis that the city-state experienced. Despite this being an annual affair, the state government seemed entirely unprepared for it. It had not implemented many of the measures it promised to last year. Worse, it had not bought more buses despite sitting on a green fund that had more than enough money. When this was pointed out, it pointed a finger at the Delhi Development Authority, which reports to the Lieutenant Governor, saying the agency had not given it enough land to park the buses it wanted to buy.

To be fair to the Delhi state government, there are areas such as law and order, for instance, where it can do little because the Delhi Police doesn’t report to it. But there are several areas where it can do a lot. In some, such as education (schools), it has achieved a lot. In others, it hasn’t, and the reason for this underachievement and underperformance isn’t always its limited powers, although it is a good excuse for the same.

There is an ideal solution. As India’s capital, the location of the central government, the most important vertex in the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur golden triangle in tourism, and an important cultural and commercial hub, the city-state deserves better. If this means carving out a larger region (the satellite towns and suburbs, for instance), and putting an administrative authority reporting to the union government in charge, then so be it. For one, this would immediately clarify who is in charge. For another, it would remove centre-state relations from the equation. And it would create an authority responsible for a geographical area that is already contiguous in all aspects except governance.

Sure, it would help to have such a body. Just as it would help if Delhi’s state government had more powers, or had better relations with the union government. But there is also a more pragmatic and simple solution: there is much the AAP government in Delhi could have done and can still do to make the city more livable.

The average Delhiite puts up with a lot: unsafe roads; harassment and rape; traffic jams; disease outbreaks; bad air; and, also helplessness arising sometimes from not knowing who to hold responsible for all this. It is time to put an end to this. It is time for the state government to step up (however limited it may feel its powers are).