Wanted: A new urban mission

S. Madhusudhana Rao

The south-west monsoon has set in across the country with full fury. Mumbaikars felt it more than anybody else last weekend. Torrential rain in 24 hours between Thursday and Friday followed by heavy downpour next day brought the bustling metropolis to a standstill. For some time, most of the city localities looked like floating and a few posh areas wore an uncanny look of Venice.

The season’s first heavy rain was not just skies opening with vengeance but plunge Mumbai into chaos. From rail and road transport going out of gear to heavy water-logging and essential supplies disappearing, Mumbaikars had the worst experience. Or, was it the first of the season?

Mumbai is not alone. Every other city and town in the country shares the plight of the commercial capital of India during the rainy season: clogged drains, water-logged roads and breakdown of civic services and administration. Why does this happen year after year in every metropolitan and big city?  Normally, it begins with Mumbai because it will be the first to be hit by rains after the south-east monsoon makes its debut in Kerala.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

Then onwards, as the monsoon traverses across different states, their capitals will face the same problems as Mumbai has in varying degrees. And, strangely, the excuses and answers given by the civic administrations for not tackling the rain-related problems and emergencies in an effective manner would be similar: We haven’t expected so much rain; we are caught unawares; weather personnel have not warned us about a deluge in advance, etc. People know, as well as the authorities, that these official statements are made for the time being with an expiry date. Until the beginning of next rainy season, none needs to bother about monsoon blues.

This happened in Mumbai this time also. The deluge was described as the worst in a decade. When the mega city went through a similar –may be worse — nightmare way back in 2005, the civic authorities had promised to do many things. A decade later, however, Mumbaikars’ troubles have ebbed little. The reason for the sad state of affairs is not necessarily the funds crunch, at least in Mumbai case. It is said to be the richest civic administration in the country with an annual budget of over 33,500 crores. It is simply official apathy, failure to improve local infrastructure and a lack of planning for the future.

In the coming days, we can read reports of Mumbai woes repeating themself in Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and many other cities, including Hyderabad. Hyderabadis know how even a light shower turns arterial roads in the twin cities turn into water canals and if heavy rain lashes the city, how traffic comes to a standstill for hours. In fact, with every monsoon, the situation has been worsening despite civic authorities’ assurance of making the city rain-prepared before the onset of monsoon. Bad roads, overflowing drains, water-logged housing colonies and pools of water in low-lying areas are common sights.

Now, Indian urbanites have tired of hearing civic authorities’ lame excuses and tepid explanations for not able to complete the planned projects on time. They will never be completed; even if they are completed, they will be of little use for the next rainy season. In other words, the situation and the problems will be back to square one.

The inability and unpreparedness to tackle yearly predicted phenomenon surely calls for a rethink at states’ and national level. Our raining woes during every monsoon can’t be allowed to continue forever and test people’s patience and resilience. A comprehensive plan –urban mission – to deal with civic problems not only during the rainy season but throughout the year has to be formulated and implemented.

Now, of course, every municipality and civic corporation has plans and budgets, implemented with state and central assistance. But how far these funds are going in the right direction and spent in proper manner stand to question. There are also loopholes in execution of projects, leading to corruption allegations.

Another grey area is the functioning of local elected representatives who are more interested in strengthening their respective parties than addressing the civic problems in their wards. What is needed is the local leaders should be made fully responsible for their civic council wards and their interactions with people and periodical visits should be made mandatory. In other words, the working of civic bodies needs to be strengthened so as to address the citizens’ issues more effectively. How and in what manner I leave it to experts.

We have various missions for improving living standards in rural and urban areas. For example, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM).  Launched by the central government in 2005, the seven-year scheme had envisaged improving living standards and infrastructure, particularly civic services, in urban areas. It was extended for two more years in 2012.  After it ended in March last year, a similar programme “100 Smart Cities” was launched by the Modi government with a digital edge.

The cities that don’t qualify for “Smart City” tag, could be brought under Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), another urban renewal effort.

The million dollar question is – actually billions will be spent on improving the quality of urban life – whether these missions will breathe new life into our cities and towns or remain the government’s grandiose plans and dreams of urbanites.

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