Critiques on Governance

Talk Point: Section 498-A is sometimes misused, implement July 2017 apex court order

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Shailaja Chandra

Gavel (picture for representational purposes.). | Source: Joe Gratz/Flickr

Senior bureaucrat Aruna Sharma has lashed out at what she calls the “narrow approach in the name of women’s rights”. She believes this has led to a rampant misuse of law by women, asserting that such “activism” is resulting in men losing faith in the judiciary and the institution of marriage.

Is the call to revisit some of our gender laws and their implementation valid or exaggerated?

What steel secretary Aruna Sharma wrote about the misuse of Section 498-A, and protecting men from baseless complaints were her personal views. But she has highlighted a truism which is almost never discussed, but ought to be. Section 498-A is sometimes misused and rather that helping women, sexual harassment laws are being used for extortion.

In July 2017, the apex court wrote a 20-page order explaining how the provision was being misused, and set out a detailed process to be followed before any arrest could be made. Anyone interested should first read the order.

I have personally known parents of a boy charged under 498-A cowering on a bench outside the office of the Crime Against Women cell of Delhi Police.The daughter-in-law in question had a mental condition which was not revealed when the marriage was arranged. But within a few days, the new bride ripped her trousseau and her husband’s suits with a pair of scissors. Her parents slapped a case under 498-A against a decent family whom I can safely vouch for, including their son whom I had known from infancy. The hapless family became victims of extortion and had to buy their way out as nothing else (including my clout) could work.

Another real life story: a strict no-nonsense principal of a Delhi University college was hugely resented by a highly politicised faculty. Unable to bully him with threats and gheraos, they cooked up a sexual harassment charge against him, and got a pliable college complaints committee to hold him guilty.The principal still retains his job after 5 years because an independent inquiry revealed he had been framed.

On women taking advantage of female predicaments to skirt office discipline, Aruna is right. Many women officials take full advantage of their gender to parry late sitting, working over crisis-ridden weekends, and accepting traveling assignments. Most men silently curse, but are scared to confront women (or overlook their promotions) for fear of complaints.

As a woman officer who has seen it all, here’s my advice: restore a sense of balance: men and women related complaints aren’t always black and white affairs. The 2017 two-judge order is sound and sensible. Just implement it!

Shailaja Chandra is former secretary to the government of India and former chief secretary, Delhi


Vote-Bank Politics & Vested Interests Trying to Save Kathputli

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Shailaja Chandra

The case of Kathputli colony is the first-of-its-kind public-private partnership attempted by the DDA.(Photo: The Quint)

The future of India’s capital appears dismal, but some efforts to contain the growth of slums have actually started. Kathputli colony in West Delhi is a good case study. It has been in the news lately for a spate of demolitions conducted by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).

As one of the oldest slums in Delhi it has been home to some 4,000 families and their progeny who have spread themselves over government-owned land for decades.

Settlers of Kathputli colony sit beside their belongings after their houses were demolished on 30 October.
(Photo: Kshitij Kumar/The Quint)

All slums, without exception, are the result of big players embracing the slum dwellers, as they offer prospects of capturing a captive vote bank. Whenever a new group of migrants seeks a place to basso (squat) – plenty of money passes hands.

The key players are always the same – a local gang lord who projects himself as benefactor-cum-protector who could be from any political party or even a fence-sitter. He is already hand-in-glove with pliant officials from the DDA, MCD and the police who all connive and share the earnings obtained for the right to squat.

Local politicians – MCD Councilors and MLAs – regardless of party affiliation, join hands (covertly). They provide the officials insurance against transfers and some take a share too. This has been the modus operandi for decades.

DDA Needs Kathputli to Be a Success

Kathputli colony is just one slum in Delhi out of a total of 750 slum clusters, spanning across 70 locations in the city, inhabited by over 3.3 lakh households. But Kathputli can be a case study because it has some unique features.

It is the first of its kind public-private partnership attempted by the DDA, where the developer gets commercial use of the land after first building a transit camp, followed by high rise tenements for rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers.

Women cooking on clay stoves outside their houses in the transit camp near the Ramjas Grounds, which has been accommodating residents of the Kathputli Colony since 2014.
(Photo: The Quint)

DDA partnered with a developer (Raheja), through an agreement signed in 2009, whereby the builder was to get access to a share of the land for commercial use once he completes the rehabilitation related work.

In the last 8 years, umpteen tug-of-wars have taken place, but this time the demolition has gone through because it had a green flag from the top.

DDA is keen to showcase at least one example of PPP success and has turned somersaults to placate the developer who was ready to abscond, given the delay.

The colony inmates have been surveyed, resurveyed and each time more families have been added to accommodate elastic policy changes. Besides the transit camp, the authority has allotted the slum dwellers flats in Narela (a tehsil bordering Haryana) at a cost of over one lakh rupees and even facilitated everything by arranging bank finance. (The flats, reportedly, fetch a price of Rs 15 lakh in open sale).

Pulling at Heart Strings to Save Loyal Voters

Strong vested interests have fanned the ongoing mayhem every time a demolition was planned. It is said that powerful NGOs who defend the Kathputliwallahs are in fact the front face of local leaders who have nurtured this constituency for years and now fear losing their vote nest.

Pulling at heart strings is also used to make those in authority squirm. Huffington Post had dramatised the situation, three years ago, with a tear-jerking headline: “The World’s Largest Artist Colony is about to be Bulldozed”. Heart-rending descriptions of “the world’s largest collective of performers – puppeteers, drummers, monkey tamers, snake charmer’s, singers, acrobats” were guaranteed to pull heart strings.

That all slum dwellers live in extreme squalor, where the dividing line between sewage and potable water is non-existent and where eight human beings routinely squash into a single tenement does not bother the do-gooders.

For DDA it is a high stake situation. If rehabilitation succeeds in Kathputli colony, it could become a model to be applied to other city slums.

Delhi has a population nearing 18 million, more by some estimates. The city attracts lakhs of people, each year, who largely settle down in the slums or unauthorised colonies. Together both these groups have the power to swing elections.

The old Punjabi and Baniya families, that dominated Delhi’s politics until the late nineties, have faded away. Their place has been taken by Biharis, Poorvanchalis and migrants from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – mostly the lower economic strata of the city.

The once “organised” colonies with smooth roads, elegant houses and green spaces have been replaced by congested and unwalkable agglomerations with the better-off residents becoming increasingly weary of all government promises. They often vote out of pique, if they vote at all. They can be safely ignored by vote seekers.

“Robbing Peter to Pay Paul”

Shiela Dikshit won three elections in a row by wooing these organised colonies through her citizen-government partnership called Bhagidari, which was showcased by cleaning and greening Delhi, converting the entire public transport system to CNG and privatising a corrupt electricity board.

Delhi was then at her feet. When she she lost the 2013 election, Delhi went under President’s rule. Enter the new chief minister in 2015 backed by a mind boggling majority. The first group to receive attention were the three million slum dwellers–politically the most important. He won them over permanently by straightaway putting a moratorium on demolitions.

A banner listing the amenities provided by DDA at the transit camp.
(Photo: The Quint)

Another illegality that every political party has espoused with extraordinary zeal has been the regularisation of thousands of unauthorised colonies. These clusters have always been disproportionately important to them because they constitute another large and predictable vote bank.

Years ago, the occupants bought agricultural land cheaply and converted it to residential land use, illegally.

“Every government has fallen backwards to regularise these illegal colonies, even changing the law for them. As the High Courtonce remarked “by robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The organised colonies that constitute the bulk of Delhi’s taxpayers have become the new have-nots with little voice and no bargaining power.

Unless political parties mature beyond voter appeasement and policies and laws show zero tolerance for squatting on government land, Delhi’s unplanned and frenzied ghettoisation will be its ruination.

Far from being the shining capital of India, the city is destined to remain dirty, smog filled and unruly. Just to win elections!

(Shailaja Chandra is former Chief Secretary Delhi and one-time Secretary Government of India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

A half cure

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New National Health Policy checks some boxes but sidesteps basic concerns. It leaves too much to the states on maintaining standards
indian expressWritten by Shailaja Chandra | Published: March 23, 2017 1:04 am

The fourth good idea is piggy-backing medical and paramedical education on service delivery.

The National Health Policy 2017 was notified last week. Coming 15 years after its predecessor, it presented an opportunity to do things differently. First, the recognition that strong state intervention is needed to control the surge of diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases hasn’t come a day too soon. With early screening and diagnosis becoming a public responsibility, the lives of millions of Indians could be saved from debilitating illness and premature death. This shift in emphasis is noteworthy.

Second, establishing a professionally-managed state public healthcare cadre makes eminent sense. A dedicated cadre of healthcare professionals can detect state-specific health hazards and contain them before they spread. The inclusion of professionals from sociology, economics, anthropology, nursing, hospital management and communication is a recognition of a multi-disciplinary approach and an acknowledgment that cultural attitudes must be understood if public health strategies are to gain community acceptance.

The third takeaway is the goal of pushing up male sterilisation “by 30 per cent and, if possible, much higher”. After Sanjay Gandhi’s blighted nasbandi programme, even the mention of male sterilisation made political parties, particularly in North India, squirm. Even after four decades, no politician was prepared to listen, leave alone act. Putting male sterilisation upfront also exhibits concern for the plight of women, who, after dealing with unwanted pregnancies and repeated childbirths, also undergo harrowing tubectomies. Thailand successfully made vasectomies into a routine affair more than 25 years ago. If six Indian states that account for almost half of India’s population and its annual growth, can incentivise (not coerce) men to limit family size by sterilisation, it could be a game changer.

The fourth good idea is piggy-backing medical and paramedical education on service delivery. Generations of health planners have been telling the Medical Council of India to factor in the ground realities that reduce the relevance of even the best medical curriculum. Indeed, students and patients would gain vastly if such facility-based training gets implemented.

The fifth half-positive takeaway is the recognition that AYUSH needs to be integrated into the research, teaching and therapeutic components of health systems; stressing that traditional systems need to back their claims with evidence is equally positive. But by repeating the unsuccessful strategy of appointing contractual AYUSH doctors in primary health facilities, the policy goes into reverse gear. AYUSH practitioners posted in PHCs do precious little traditional medicine and simply function as spare wheels or substitutes for allopathic doctors. That pads up manpower shortfalls but devalues the strength of AYUSH. Had the policy supported recognition of approved district specialty AYUSH centers for a host of chronic problems, lakhs of patients in search of reliable AYUSH treatment could have benefited.

The policy has neatly sidestepped some basic concerns. The Clinical Establishments Act 2010 was passed by Parliament with the aim of regulating clinical standards, both in the private and public health sector, and ending quackery. It has received scant backing from the state governments and was rejected by the Indian Medical Association. Instead of emphasising the importance of oversight of all medical establishments, the policy has soft-peddled by recommending mere “advocacy”.That leaves a hapless public at the receiving end of much care, malpractice and exorbitant treatment costs with no protection. Leaving health regulation up in the air with talk of yet another standard-setting organisation will not insulate consumers from exploitation.

The policy is also hazy about generating resources. One wonders whether the reference to medical tourism earnings and “a high degree of associated hospitality arrangements” implies a desire to tax hospitals that offer frills. This sounds egalitarian but could drive away the relative advantages that Indian medical tourism presents.

The policy places enormous reliance on the eighth standard-pass female volunteer, ASHA — the lynchpin of the National Rural Health Mission. But it does not even allude to how the poor, both in rural and urban areas, are driven by a desperation to overcome acute illnesses (that result in a loss of wages) to seek medical treatment from quacks, RMPs or self-styled doctors with no medical qualifications. Fluff about upgrading sub-centres or providing additional multipurpose workers does not confront the pervasiveness of RMPs or jhola chaap doctors who administer IV fluids, antibiotics and steroid injections with impunity. The policy shows no recognition of the magnitude of what is happening on the ground, even when a WHO report shows that unqualified medical practitioners constitute more than half the “doctors” in India. The WHO’s report is based on data provided by the Census office and the erstwhile Planning Commission. Recognising that they cannot be wished away, the West Bengal government has even embarked on training quacks “to cause less harm”. This problem is too pervasive to be ignored. The policy should have confronted it.

The policy has rightly explained why the time is not ripe to make health into a justiciable right. It is good that symbolism hasn’t held sway as it did with the impractical Right to Education Act. What is more important, however, is for the states to accept the policy and implement the law. It is time that registration, accreditation and regulation of clinical establishments and standards is put in the Constitution’s concurrent list in much the same way as drugs, food and medical education. Too much is at stake to be left to the states that often look the other way when it comes to maintaining critical health standards — this is something that ought to be non-negotiable.

The challenge now is to translate the policy’s stated noble intentions into schemes and programmes supported by the requisite financial backing. It is accountability that needs early deliverance.

The writer is former secretary, Department of AYUSH, government of India, and former chief secretary, government of Delhi

To take on big tobacco, ‘lobbying’ is crucial

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Didn’t the health ministry speak to the home ministry before scrapping the foreign contribution licence of PHFI?
HT logoShailaja Chandra | Updated: May 01, 2017 10:20 IST

Cigarette butts discarded in ashtray. The Indian Council of Medical Research data shows that 50% of cancers in men and 20% in women is due to tobacco use.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The recent decision to scrap the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI)’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licence has stunned the public health community. Although the Foundation has had its share of detractors, it received patronage from the government, some of India’s richest industrialist-philanthropists and foreign organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Over the years, PHFI has also benefited from allotment of vast tracts of land and government support to establish state chapters.

The denial of FCRA permission to PHFI signifies a sudden fall from grace. While it is curtains for future foreign funding, it is important to examine what soured the milk. If, as has been reported, PHFI was cutting corners on FCRA conditions, it must get just deserts. However it seems that was not the primary reason for the retribution meted out by the ministry of home affairs, which grants FCRA clearances. The objection was: “[PHFI] used the contributions to lobby parliamentarians, the media and the government on tobacco control issues.”

How can doing tobacco control advocacy and that too at the behest of the ministry of health invite reprisal? Didn’t the MHA talk to the ministry of health before taking the step? Interdepartmental co-ordination is sacrosanct in the functioning of the government. Unfortunately, the fallout of PHFI’s FCRA cancellation has been an all-round perception that big tobacco has won. This exposes us to international criticism.
For decades the anti-tobacco movement has been spearheaded by the ministry of health and the World Health Organization (WHO). India is a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Despite incremental gains, India’s track record of controlling tobacco consumption has been abysmal. Tobacco deaths are rising and the sad part is that around half of those dying are among the illiterate.

The Indian Council of Medical Research data shows that 50% of cancers in men and 20% in women is due to tobacco use. India has another problem. Non-smoking tobacco is the greater cause of mortality and children and adolescents are falling prey to tobacco addiction. When every avenue should be pursued to build maximum awareness about tobacco use, we pride ourselves on being the second-largest consumer (275 million users) of tobacco products.

The government must clarify that it is dead against smoking and tobacco consumption by proactively encouraging anti-tobacco advocacy. And then to back it with fiscal and administrative measures that hurt enough to make a big difference.

Shailaja Chandra is former chief secretary, Delhi The views expressed are personal

Cultural diplomacy as instrument of soft power is underestimated

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ht-logoShailaja Chandra | Updated: Oct 21, 2016 23:21 IST

The Namaste India festival was launched I was in Paris in a French museum — at the Musee Guimet devoted to Asian culture (REUTERS)
The Namaste India festival was launched I was in Paris in a French museum — at the Musee Guimet devoted to Asian culture (REUTERS)

Last month when the Namaste India festival was launched I was in Paris in a French museum — at the Musee Guimet devoted to Asian culture. I joined a queue of people into the auditorium to find an intense discussion on new wave Indian cinema. The panellists and audience, all French, exhibited an deep interest in Indian cinema, an advantage we ought to have exploited long ago by creating a pool of film commentators to discuss the socio-political environment on which parallel Indian cinema is based.

Cultural diplomacy is accepted as a powerful instrument of soft power whose outreach is often underestimated. It has been found to be the most effective way of influencing foreign audiences. Other countries reach out to the youth, non-elite and other audiences outside the traditional embassy circuit because this form of diplomacy derives its credibility when it is seen as being independent of government institutions. Instead, our official cultural institutions are directly marketing culture in a way that is often hackneyed, stale and superficial — cardboard cut-outs of the real thing.

People are tired of the same old stuff and all the Indian stereotypes that have been done to death. Instead of a fresh approach to contemporary realities there is a bureaucratisation of culture and far from seeking inputs from artistes, intellectuals and professionals, government organisations and officials decide what to showcase and how. Sadly patronage often has its role in all this, resulting in the resurrection of individuals who have been around for decades. Repackaged content, which we have showcased for decades, no longer attracts audiences who can easily access the best productions at the touch of a button.

Professor Alain Supiot of the College de France and the founder of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Nantes in France feels that “there is a need for the intellectual horizons of culture to go beyond western ways of thinking to establish a dialogue between cultures. The focus of cultural exchange should embrace culture in its broadest sense of the term, by being attentive to the diversity of civilisations.”

For this to happen, there must be an understanding of what French people want. Discussions with Indian authors are big attractions but not two years after a book is released. Textiles are another. “French people are enthralled by Indian textiles and the art of embroidery, weaving and block printing from so many regions” commented an avid admirer of India and who has long been a leading light of the Parisian couture industry. Another comment I heard was “why do you not introduce veg/ non-veg express thalis as a diversion from those “sempiternelle” (French for eternal) pizzas? Or run a shopping arcade of Indian groceries next to Gare du Nord railway terminus?”

And that brings one to ask whatever happened to the Indian cultural centre in Paris? What is the story behind why premises purchased years ago are still lying unused even as Namaste India is launched with so much fanfare? The property bought by the embassy is beautifully located within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, the Qui de Bramley, and a host of cultural centres representing foreign countries. Possibly a critical CAG paragraph, lack of funds or simple apathy prevents the Centre from starting to function.

What is needed is an effort to refurbish our efforts at cultural diplomacy to demonstrate to a foreign audience that we have the ability to collect and interpret ourselves in a way that responds imaginatively to what people want. We need at the helm of affairs persons who have an understanding of local attitudes that transient embassy employees cannot possess. We also need some way of ensuring that the people who decide how to represent India abroad have the necessary gravitas and the intellectual bandwidth to do so.

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Goal is even but rule is odd

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Shailaja Chandra, January 10, 2016

Battling pollution: Turning Delhi into breathable city demands holistic and sustainable approach

dhnewsThe decision of the Delhi government to introduce temporarily the odd-even scheme for vehicles has received both bouquets and brickbats. No one will question the government when it comes to the need to reduce the national capital’s unbearable levels of air pollution but should introducing curbs on the way people travel be the way to do it? It is high time the administration explored other options such as reducing industrial pollution, construction activity, burning of wood etc and not cause inconvenience.

It was only when Delhi’s pollution levels became a public health emergency that the Delhi government announced that a 15 day experiment with the odd-even formula was to start from 2016 New Year’s Day. Every day after it was announced, those against the motion far out-voiced those in favour. It was seen as a flippant brain child of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government just looking for diversion from its reported failure to govern.

Though environment experts kept pleading “to give anything that might work a try,” their voices were drowned in the daily cacophony against the move. Everyone waited to see chaos on Delhi’s roads and an irate public baying for the government’s blood. But unexpectedly on New Year’s Day, there were far fewer vehicles on the road, parking was miraculously available at even the most sought-after shopping centres and the public seemed to be co-operating beyond belief. Cynics attributed this to slowness on the first day of the New Year and were quick to advice, “Wait for the weekend to be over and see what happens on Monday.” But surprisingly, the week passed uneventfully, with the number of supporters overtaking detractors.

Congestion on the roads had halved and sale of petrol and diesel reduced by 40 per cent. So how did Delhi achieve the impossible? Several things went in its favour. The Centre for Science and Environment and amicus curie Harish Salve had already pulled out hard data to show the apex court how people were living in a virtual gas chamber. It all boiled down to profligate and dangerous policies favouring diesel run cars and allowing trucks running on outdated technology entering Delhi to skirt toll booths.

Though besieged by a battery of lawyers representing vehicle manufacturers, the high court and Supreme Court granted no stay and their judges even volunteered to carpool in personal solidarity with the move. The Ministry of Home Affairs, under whom the Delhi police operates, and the Ministry of Environment which lays down emission norms and monitors air quality did not queer the pitch. The clear message to the police was to manage things, which indeed they did, with exemplary professionalism.

By far the most important reason for success was the realisation by the citizenry that irreversible dangers loomed ahead particularly for those with fragile lungs. With every third child showing signs of respiratory distress and the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) displaying severe pollution levels, it needed no further evidence to convince people. They were ready and willing to try anything that might help.

In addition to deploying the full fleet of over 4,500 Delhi Transport buses, another 1,250 private buses were brought in as reinforcements. Closure of schools met with no public criticism and enabled school buses to supplement the bus pool. More space meant no harrowing tales of overcrowding and misbehaviour, a welcome first for Delhi.

The Metro, which generally carries around 20 lakh commuters, saw a 12 per cent jump in footfall and coped magnificently by adding to frequency and coaches. Quite unexpectedly, the use of mobile apps for carpooling saw a 70 per cent surge. Even government employees ferried to office in individual staff cars joined the effort. Even women who had been exempted volunteered.

The AAP government enthused thousands of volunteers to get involved. On New Year’s Eve, 10,000 AAP volunteers were summoned to a sports stadium to hear Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in the presence of the traffic and transport authorities. Over 5,000 civil defence volunteers and NCC cadets were also placed at the disposal of the police.

As news of success began to permeate the city, there was a burst of citizen-pride and even greater joy when drivers fudging number plates and feigning illness were caught and fined, an unprecedented Rs 2,000.

Can the strategy work in other cities in India? Other cities are not living on the edge of a pollution precipice in the same way as Delhi is and public enthusiasm may be tepid. Finding thousands of volunteers may not be easy, this was available in plenty in Delhi. Public reaction, too, is unpredictable. In 2003, too, Delhi had made international news when the entire public transport was switched to CNG. That effort, too, was spurred by high pollution levels. Yet in less than five years, the rapid transport bus system called BRT which has met with relative success in cities like Ahmedabad and Pune became a stillborn child in Delhi. Car owners and the AAP government ensured its pre-term abortion without considering the positive impact on pollution.

The Metro which started in 2003 has provided a clean alternative but neither the Metro nor the Ring Railway, which runs parallel to Delhi’s ring-road and touches some 20 vantage points connecting NCR townships, have developed an integrated system to carry commuters seamlessly across public transport options. Neither offers last mile options. The ordeal of haggling with ill-mannered auto drivers is enough to deter most commuters from even trying the rail option.

The government’s policy towards pollution has also been short-sighted and lethargic. The eastern and western peripheral highways which were expected to prevent unnecessary heavy vehicular traffic crowding Delhi received scant attention from the Central government and the partner states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for over 12 years. Delhi bore the brunt until the Central government finally stepped in last Diwali. But years of avoidable pollution has been the price.

Over the last 10 years, successive governments both at the Centre and in Delhi gave free rein to registration of more cars while refusing to confront the logic of allowing diesel run high cc vehicles to swell pollution in Delhi. Well-knowing that the Bharat III and IV emission levels were two generations behind world standards and the quality of fuel was nowhere near what it should be to support the low speeds of city commutes, the authorities refused to even consider options like a congestion tax or making registration of more cars prohibitive.

The car population increased by 50 per cent over the last 8 years and reduced the average vehicular speed to just 7 kmph. Once more and more fancy cars became available, flaunting an expensive vehicle (albeit run on diesel) established one’s exclusiveness and social status, at the cost of Delhi’s air.

One hesitates to give unequivocal endorsement to the odd-even strategy because seen in context it is like the relief an asthmatic gets from a quick puff from an inhaler. Certainly it has started a dialogue about the paramount need for investment in public transport and brought the subject of cleaner fuel and emission norms into prominence, but the future depends on the weight of a much awaited judicial fiat and the seriousness of the governments to take charge.

(The writer was Chief Secretary, Delhi Government and Secretary, Health Ministry, Government of India)

Appeasement Politics of Delhi’s Urban Governance

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oecdBy Shailaja Chandra, Former Permanent Secretary of the Government of India and former Chief Secretary, Delhi; Former Executive Director, National Population Stabilisation Fund, India

5 January 2016

Delhi is among the world’s top ten most populous cities with 18 million people. United Nations projections for 2025 predict that it will rank third, overtaking Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Dhaka, New York and Shanghai. Colossal challenges confront the city’s development, and finding money is the least of those problems. Delhi garners more resources than any other city in India, has the highest per capita income and wages, and boasts more private vehicles than the three metropolitans of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai combined. In early 2015, the new city government slashed the power tariff in half and provided 20 000 litres of free water for all residents — clearly affordable measures.

Visitors are initially struck by Delhi’s pristine enclaves that house the President’s estate, foreign missions, government complexes and sprawling colonial bungalows set along avenues of shady trees and landscaped foliage. The residents of these exclusive enclaves account for less than 2% of Delhi’s population, while a cash-rich, non-elected municipal body maintains their wide, radial roads and lush greenery to perfection.

In the rest of Delhi, seven different kinds of vehicles — BMWs to hawkers’ carts — maintain an average speed of 7 kilometres per hour despite the construction of 50 flyovers and underpasses. Hundreds of planned colonies — ranging from the ultra-posh where residents live behind formidable iron gates with private security guards to middling housing communities — are managed by three elected municipal corporations that show erratic degrees of attentiveness to their obligatory functions. The two massive townships of Dwarka and Rohini, for example,each independently house around a million middle-class residents.

For the politician, these “organised” colonies taken collectively are unpredictable as voters. Instead, three unorganised clusters living in close proximity to one another possess the power to swing votes. That’s why seven members of Parliament, 70 members of Delhi’s legislative assembly and 272 municipal councillors – all elected representatives – rivet their attention on the other half of Delhi’s population. Bettering their lives has little to do with advancing clean air, reliable drinking water, drainage or sewerage — though scores of plans exist on paper. Rather, it has more to do with indulging existing and future voters.

Three disadvantaged citizens’ groups are important to political parties. These include some 500 slums and their successor resettlement colonies, over 1 000 unauthorised colonies and 135 urban villages. Compared to neighbouring planned colonies, the inequality in living standards is stark.

The first group comprises some 3 million slum dwellers — politically the most important. They are families of original or new migrants who squatted on publicly owned land, driven by poverty and lack of jobs in rural villages. Political parties have united in making sure they received immunity from removal, drinking water, a modicum of sewage, food subsidies and an election voting card. Come election time, the handing out of special incentives — including liquor and cash — is well-known, often seeing these citizens vote as a block. Once elected, all city governments announce populist policies as a reward. For example, the newly elected city government put a moratorium on demolitions, prompting dangerous construction in already congested spaces. Extreme squalor and regular breakdowns of public order are accepted as a way of life. Drunkenness, knife-wielding and assaults are daily occurrences.

Every political party has promised to build alternative accommodations for the slum dwellers or undertake in situ development. The communities are shrewd enough to realise that neither will happen, but with each passing year their adverse possession of tenure security grows. It is an astute investment despite living in sub-human conditions. Happily, the insatiable demands of the planned colonies next door for domestic and office staff as well as support services guarantee employment.

The second group consists of over 1 000 unauthorised colonies. They are disproportionately important to political parties. Years ago, the occupants bought agricultural land privately and cheaply, an illegal transaction since converting or subdividing agricultural land required a plethora of approvals that were never obtained. Without sale deeds or building plans, tens of thousands of shoddy structures burgeoned city-wide, mostly with weak foundations, deficient sewerage systems and insubstantial basic amenities. Initially, the municipal system shunned them, but with every election more and more colonies got “regularised”. The High Court of Delhi described this arrangement as robbing Peter (the honest taxpayer) to pay Paul (the dishonest coloniser), but regularisation has officially become a flagship programme even backed by a statute. Each time elections draw near, many more such ghettos spring up and are promised, and eventually granted regularisation. More than the promise of services, it is the protection from rent-seeking that matters. Living standards remain, however, sub-standard.

The third large group comprises 135 urban villages. Dotted all over Delhi and interspersed among planned residential and commercial complexes, these overcrowded villages pose health and fire hazards. Their precariously built structures stand amidst jungles of electric wires, gas fires, shanty eateries and garbage. Ironically, the elected Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is the custodian of public health and safety, exempted all urban villages from paying property tax or following any building regulations.

Given these present realities, the future of Delhi’s urban development appears doomed. Unless political parties mature beyond appeasement, citizens start valuing quality of life and migrants seek employment in smaller cities and towns, Delhi’s frenzied expansion is unlikely to change.