Every monsoon it is the same old story of Indian megacities coming apart at the seams. If heavy rainfall and high tide drowned Mumbai this week and killed people, even an average burst of rainfall can throw life out of gear in New Delhi, the capital city of the country. Similar are the cases with Kolkata and Chennai, the latter yet to recover from the memories of the flood that wreaked havoc in 2015. The tragedy is that most of these are man-made calamities, with nature’s fury adding its bit to aggravate an already-bad situation. In fact, why just monsoons? Our cities can be urban nightmares at any time of the year, with the regular outbreak of infectious diseases—from dengue to swine flu—being a case in point. Add the unruly traffic, the pollution, the choked drains, the pockmarked roads, the crumbling buildings, the dirt and the filth, and Indian cities can prove to be living hellholes, in spite of all the scrubbing they get in the form of flyways, sea-links, elevated roads and metro lines. While these infrastructure developments are more than necessary, their efficacy is often lost for the lack of adequate planning. The purpose of ensuring commuters a smooth ride on an elevated road is lost when approach roads are narrow, choked with traffic or have been encroached upon. And this is just one example. As the population of the cities surge, with migrants from different parts of the country thronging to these “bright” spots of economic activity, the infrastructure and resources of the cities come under strain. It is not that the municipalities are without money. As has been reported by a leading newspaper, a cash-rich Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has fixed deposits worth over Rs 61,100 crore alone. In spite of this, Mumbai continues to suffer from potholed roads and choked drains because there is no accountability on how BMC spends its funds for the upkeep of the city’s infrastructure. If the political parties responsible for running the municipalities gave as much stress on doing their job as they do in winning the civic elections, our urban conglomerates would have been well-managed centres of cleanliness and efficiency. With the stress being winning elections than governing, is it a wonder that it is generally status quo on the ground, with no attempt being made to loosen the hold that corrupt politicians, officials and contractors have on a moth-eaten system? The need of the hour is modernising our cities’ rickety drainage systems, removing encroachments, disallowing unplanned growth, inculcating a sense of discipline and cleanliness among citizens, and putting in place a system of deterrence so that habitual offenders are wary of taking the system for granted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Swachh Bharat is commendable. But in the cities, the work for this has to start at the level of the municipalities and other civic bodies. Unless these bodies get their work together and unless there is accountability, “Clean India” will stay a mere slogan.