Tuesday, November 13, 2012

They solve problems, make life easier; Why can’t we do what others do?

At a  businessmen’s conclave in Delhi the other day, Javed Akhtar described what he saw in a tiny village in Europe. It was at the back of nowhere, with no more than 50  households. Yet, the road was well tarred and everything was spick and span. There were  nice little lawns and flower patches, a small store and other conveniences. Peace and happiness filled the air.

But the visitor from India felt sad. He was burdened by the thought that there was not a village in India that was so neat and orderly, so good-looking and satisfying. Javed Akhtar is a poet,  so he was sensitive to the civilisational  contrast between what he saw in Europe and what he knew of India. We may take pride in the ancientness of our culture, but we have been irresponsible about our surroundings.

Look at what we have done to places like Shimla and Ooty, Darjeeling and Munnar. Land mafia and sarkar mafia combined to turn these beauty spots of nature into unplanned, unappealing commercial conglomerates.  Villages? How many are there with basic latrine facilities, let alone tarred roads and footpaths and garden patches? Many of our rivers are in their death throes thanks to the sand mafia. Many lakes have been filled up for their land value, many others have become  receptacles  for factory effluents and other poisons. Even the holiness of the Ganga does not inspire the authorities to clean it up.

Accident rates on Indian roads are among the highest in the world. While cars and bikes are liberally promoted, road development plans are in the hands of racketeers. In many cities there are major roads with no footpaths. How can speeding buses be blamed if they knock down pedestrians? There are roads with dividers that are invisible at night. How can oil tankers be blamed if they hit the dividers, turn turtle and set nearby houses aflame?

Cities in other countries also face serious traffic problems. But they take effective remedial measures. The footpaths in  boulevards  like New York’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’ Champ Elysees are the envy of the world. The current trend is to take city traffic underground, along with high-footfall activities like mall shopping. Montreal and Boston have already done this and Singapore and Beijing are going ahead with their plans.
In other words, there are doable solutions to modern traffic and transport  problems. The will to do it is what makes the difference. Central and state authorities in India lack the will. They find it easier to ape others. Cities like Singapore and London levy special fees on cars that enter the central business district. So Bangalore said it would do likewise. But Singapore and London imposed the fee after making public transport pleasurable as well as convenient. In Bangalore the bus service is a pain while the metro is at best an exercise in minimalism.

But it is Bangalore’s garbage politics that exposes the shame of our urban governance. The Garden City is today a Garbage City. Not because the system broke down, but because the mafia put its foot down. Landfill, being part of the land-construction business, was a subject close to the mafia. Garbage lorry operators constituted another mafia. All of them have close links and working arrangements with corporators, MLAs and ministers. The rest is obvious.

In all cities garbage is dumped in areas where the poor live. But sometimes the poor revolt. That was what happened near Trivandrum when the entire population of a locality objected to garbage trucks entering the area. The way they protested, the police was unable to move. Even orders by the court could not be carried out. The Government is now looking for alternate dumping grounds.

Actually household garbage is a small problem (compared to industrial waste). There are localities where it is converted to biogas for heating purposes. Garbage does not have to rot on roadsides causing dengue and worse if there are authorities with a  modicum of responsibility. Difficulties arise only when seats of power are occupied by political garbage.