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Should Kejriwal Be Held Accountable For Delhi's Monsoon Mess?

15/09/2016 6:59 PM IST | Updated 16/09/2016 8:20 AM IST
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Cathal McNaughton / Reuters

On 31 August this year, the capital received its highest rainfall of the season yet. Even as he navigated the heavy downpour and flooded streets, the driver of the auto-rickshaw I was travelling in chastised Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal for the grinding halt the city comes to each time it rains. We were in Chanakyapuri -- an NDMC area! On the same day Justice Markandey Katju in a blog post demanded that "the minister responsible for the water logging in Delhi along with the senior officials concerned should be dismissed immediately by Arvind Kejriwal".

To put the blame with the government for the incompetence of municipal governance in Delhi is not only erroneous but immoral.

One of the cornerstones of governance is fixing accountability -- the government fixing accountability with its officials and the public fixing accountability with their leaders. However, equally important is fixing accountability with the right authority. Unfortunately, public perception over who is responsible for the lacunae in governance is built on primetime news debates which are neither structured to accommodate constructive suggestions nor offer any space for nuanced arguments. When the Indian Express in an editorial posited on the multiplicity of governing authorities in Delhi, it was only taking a macro-level view of the complexity which though indeed is a bane for the national capital, is insufficient to explain its woes. To fix accountability, it is important to take a micro-level look at the ownership pattern of public assets(like roads and drains) and responsibility of the different agencies vis-à-vis providing civil amenities/public services(such as sanitation and fumigation) to the citizens of Delhi.

Roads and drains

One of most critical aspects to understand in Delhi is the ownership pattern of roads. This decides a plethora of other civic services, including drainage, installation of street lights and electric poles, installation of sign boards, dustbins and gates among others. Different stretches of roads in Delhi are owned and/or maintained by as many as seven different agencies namely the three Municipal Corporations, the Public Works Department(PWD), Irrigation and Flood Control (I&FC), Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board(DUSIB) and Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation(DSIIDC). Besides these, there is the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) area and the Delhi Cantonment Board (DCB) area, where construction and maintenance of all public assets, including roads, is under the exclusive purview of the two governing agencies. It is in turn the road-owning agency which is responsible for drainage, and thus directly responsible for the water logging that accompanies every downpour, small or big, in Delhi.

Therefore, to fix accountability it is important to understand who is in charge of these agencies, what are the areas in which these agencies are mandated to work and what percentage of the total length of roads in Delhi are each of these agencies responsible for. Unlike roads and drains, sanitation (and fumigation) across Delhi is the responsibility of the Municipal Corporations. Even where public assets are not owned by corporations, these functions are to be taken care of by these corporations with requisite transfer of assets taking place within a fixed period of time.

Fixing accountability

While sanitation and arresting the spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue and chikungunya (through measures such as fumigation) fall under the exclusive purview of Municipal Corporations, the responsibility of maintenance of roads and drains follows a more complex structure. Among the road-owning agencies in Delhi, PWD, DUSIB, DSIIDC and I&FC fall under the Government of NCT of Delhi. The rest of the roads are almost completely owned by the Municipal Corporations.

While the most effective way to ensure government institutions work is to build the pressure of public opinion, the purpose is defeated if pressure is constantly built on the wrong authority.

In fact, of the approximately 31000km of road in Delhi, around 27000km (a staggering 87%) is under the direct purview of the urban local bodies. These urban local bodies are ruled across Delhi by the BJP.

Insofar identifying which roads and drains come under the purview of the Delhi government, all it requires is just a basic level of understanding of the settlement type and the width of the road. The Public Works Department is only responsible for roads which are more than 60ft wide. DUSIB and DSIIDC both are responsible for roads and drains in specific settlement types. While DUSIB works in jhuggi-jhopri clusters or slums, DSIIDC is mandated to work in both unauthorized and industrial areas respectively. I&FC is mandated to provide drainage to the Delhi area through various trunk storm-water drains having more than 1000 cusecs capacity, and maintain roughly 200km of road (about 0.65%) that run along these drains.

The citizens of Delhi have every right to hold the government and the Chief Minister accountable for roads and drains that fall under the aforementioned agencies. But to put the blame with the government for the incompetence of municipal governance in Delhi is not only erroneous but immoral. To be sure, drainage is a holistic system on which no partial view can be taken. The interlinkages are such that even if one part of the drainage system falters, the ramifications are there to be seen on most other parts. Therefore, it is the need of the hour that all agencies responsible for drainage work in tandem to ensure an efficient network of drains across Delhi. But the prevailing political scenario where "cooperative federalism" has just been reduced to a catchy phrase reserved for news bytes and where institutions ruled by rival political parties show no inclination to collaborate, what we end up with is visiting foreign dignitaries mocking our civic services and the city witnessing an unprecedented growth in vector-borne diseases.

The importance of accurate information

The purpose of this article is not to suggest solutions to the waterlogging woes of Delhi, which is an exercise that would require much elaborate detailing. The purpose is to ensure that the next time a citizen of Delhi is stuck on a flooded street, is deprived of any civic amenity and is denied the most basic of public services, she can at the very least accurately identify whom to hold accountable for the state of affairs. It is important that citizens of Delhi are not misled by false perceptions created on television debates and social media platforms.

Unless we start ensuring the buck stops with the authority responsible for the mess, Delhi will keep coming to a grinding halt each time it rains.

While the most effective way to ensure government institutions work is to build the pressure of public opinion, the purpose is defeated if pressure is constantly built on the wrong authority. Public opinion must be built through accurate information. We cannot continue to hold Arvind Kejriwal responsible for waterlogging in an NDMC area, nor can we let him escape his responsibility where agencies of the Delhi government ought to work. Of course, fixing accountability with the right authority is only the first step towards ensuring a more holistic and coordinated effort to improve municipal governance in Delhi. But unless we start ensuring the buck stops with the authority responsible for the mess, Delhi will keep coming to a grinding halt each time it rains.

The author has been closely associated with framing the policy related to Mohalla Sabhas.

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