the city planners and rulers have bungled for decades. Until
now, most Mumbaikars were not even aware that river Meithi
flows through the city! The heavy floods had washed off
the filth and sewage for the first time in decades, and
the river started flowing. With 63 percent of the people
living in appalling conditions in slums and mass migration,
criminal neglect of city planning and regulation allowing
choking of drains and water courses led to the wholly preventable
many ways Mumbai's challenges are a reflection of India's
crisis. Abject poverty and despair in remote rural areas
are forcing people to flee to Mumbai. Now the problems of
land management, housing, drainage, transport and civic
amenities are so gargantuan that sometimes it is easy to
give up all hope. Politicians who see people as vote banks,
and not as living, pulsating human beings with dreams and
aspirations, are always ready to resort to cheap populism.
Problems become crises, and eventually end up in disasters.
Mumbai faces probably the greatest urban challenge east
of Suez, the problem is not unique. Most of our cities are
bursting at the seams. Despite the cliche that India lives
in her villages, a quiet demographic revolution is transforming
the urban landscape. Over 300 million people - larger than
US population - live in our cities and towns. In states
like Tamil Nadu, where in situ urbanization (villages and
small towns growing, instead of large migration to big cities)
is predominant, urbanization now is close to 50%. The whole
Kerala state is urbanized. Elsewhere cities are growing
fast, some small and medium towns recording 8 - 10% annual
population growth. We can no longer ignore our cities. The
villages and towns are organically connected, and have to
be seen as a whole.
answers to our urban challenges are self-evident. The need
for massive investments in infrastructure - transport, water,
drainage, sewerage, housing - is well-recognized. President
Kalam rightly talks of creating urban amenities in rural
areas to promote value addition, wealth creation and employment
generation locally. Technocrats like Himanshu Parikh have
been advocating comprehensive survey of natural water courses,
and redesigning water supply, sewerage, drainage and roads
to follow them. Biman Patel and his colleagues argue for
better urban planning and low cost transport solutions.
Konkan railways has been developing better technologies
for urban mass transport. Swathi and Ramesh Ramanathan of
Janaagraha have been championing people's participation
and urban governance reform. All these approaches are
vital and need to be integrated.
heart of the matter, however, lies in governance. Take
Shanghai city. The local government controls everything
from transport and water supply to policing and the international
airport. London city Mayor Livingstone, elected as an independent
when Tony Blair denied him Labour nomination, controls all
facets of the city including fire services and police. The
awesome power and responsibilities of Mayor Giuliani or
his successor Bloomberg in New York are well-known. Even
in Pakistan, not a day passes without the national papers
reporting decisions of the Nazim of a city and his council.
All across the world, in countries rich or poor, democracies
or authoritarian states, urban governments are empowered
this with our cities. How many of us know the names of the
Mayors of any of our cities? Who in our cities stands for
the whole city, instead of a small territory? Which agency
really is responsible for the whole city's future. Each
activity - water supply, sewerage, transport, housing, roads,
urban planning etc - is parceled out to a separate parastatal
in most of our great cities. There results are predictable.
The right hand does not know what the left hand does, and
we have a classic system of alibis, with everybody having
power to make our lives miserable, and none being accountable.
And where are the tax payers and citizens in all this, except
as victims of extortion and long-suffering subjects.
July devastation of Mumbai should serve as a wake-up call,
and lead to urban governance reforms. First, let us have
direct election of Mayors to represent all and exercise
the authority derived from the whole city. And such
elected Mayor and the city council should be truly empowered
to take all decisions, not the unelected officials. Second,
ensure the creation of the elected Metropolitican Planning
Committees in each city, with Mayor as chairperson and effective
powers and responsibilities now exercised by myriad agencies.
Article 243-ZE of the Constitution mandates it, but
is observed in the breach. Third, create a ward committee
for each corporator's division under the corporator's chairmanship,
with members elected from each polling station area. Entrust
the ward committee with local tasks - garbage clearance,
street lighting, local roads and drains, schools and health
centers, and transfer the relevant personnel and a share
of the local taxes collected. The poorer areas can get all
the local taxes, and the richer localities will share a
part of the revenue, thus establishing a link between taxes
and services, and giving power to stake-holders. Finally,
create instruments of accountability including an independent
ombudsman, citizen's charters with penalties for non-delivery,
effective right to information, and a fund-based accounting
system. Our cities will then be transformed into glorious
centers of civilization and prosperity.
status quoism, fatalism, feigned shock and horror when disaster
strikes, and business as usual after public attention shifts
have become our natural responses. It is time we actually
woke up and acted to save our cities.