New Delhi: Street lighting is supposed to act as a deterrent to crime and promote a sense of security among communities, but in India, city municipal corporations are so strapped for cash that they can’t even pay power distributors for the electricity they consume.
That’s the sorry state of affairs at a time when street crime, particularly that directed at women, has become a matter of grave concern and sparked nationwide protests following the brutal assault and rape of a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in the national capital on 16 December. The woman died in a Singapore hospital on 29 December.
Low tax collection by municipal bodies is one reason behind the lack of resource commitment towards civic amenities such as street lighting, experts say.
“Street lighting is a requirement for safety and is recognized as a necessity,” said Anil Razdan, a former Union power secretary. “Local municipal bodies need to find resources. The basic problem is that their finances are bad. Local governance should be improved. We adopted the Westminster model where local governance is strong. Sadly, that’s not the case here.”
State electricity distribution companies, or discoms, have piled up cumulative losses of around Rs.75,000 crore and if the present trend is not arrested, projected losses in 2014-15 will reach Rs.1.16 trillion, according to a study conducted by energy consulting firm Mercados EMI Asia for the 13th Finance Commission.
“Street lighting is the responsibility of the municipal bodies,” said P. Uma Shankar, India’s power secretary.
Corporations of bigger cities don’t usually face such problems, said Baljit Singh Birbehman, mayor of Bathinda in Punjab.
“It’s the councils of smaller cities which have population of less than three lakhs that are generally cash strapped,” he said over the phone. He said the municipal councils of Kot Fatta and Goniana in Punjab are facing problems in paying bills.
“It all boils down to money,” said Pramod Deo, chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), the country’s apex power sector regulator. “Providing street lighting is the responsibility of the municipal body. They have an arrangement with the discoms. However, apart from big cities, the municipal bodies are bankrupt.”
Activists are disappointed with the government’s urban planning approach. Gender wasn’t included as a factor in urban planning, said Kalpana Viswanath, an expert on women’s safety and gender-inclusive cities, who is associated with the New Delhi-based women’s empowerment group Jagori. “Lack of street lighting makes women feel unsafe. Through several studies and safety audits, it is evident that proper lighting is a (critical), if not the only necessary, condition for women’s safety. It is a clear misunderstanding of priorities—as cities are growing, we have not been able to provide matching services,” she said.
Women are also concerned about the lack of a serious approach to the problem of inadequate street lighting.
“Where there are lesser street lights, you would think twice before entering the lane,” said Aditi Saxena, a student of M.Phil at the Delhi School of Economics in New Delhi. “One would take another lane even if it is the longer route, but sometimes there is no alternative lane and a woman has to just be brave enough to walk through a badly lit lane on her own.”
Saxena, who frequently uses buses for transport, said dimly lit subways make the situation even more unsafe for women.
A senior government official involved in the urban planning process said India’s city planning was based on the concept of setback areas, as opposed to other big cities such as London and Paris. The setback area is the distance between a building and a street.
“We have huge setback areas in the country, particularly in cities like Delhi. This requires more number of street lights as opposed to planning without setback areas,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
In London and Paris, urban planning is such that a person steps directly onto a street or road after exiting a building, which reduces the need for street lighting, according to the official quoted above.
To be sure, there are states that are paying power distributors. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, municipal corporations are paying their dues to the Uttar Pradesh Power Corp. Ltd (UPPCL), one of the largest power distribution companies in the country.
“It is true that many local bodies don’t have the money for street lighting. They don’t have the resources,” said S.K. Agarwal, director of finance at UPPCL. Other states should follow the Uttar Pradesh model and “set aside some money for the payment of electricity bills”, he said.
To be sure, effective street lighting isn’t the only solution to crime against women.
“Even when you provide street lighting, lots of cases happen every day. The whole way of governance and societal norms should change,” said R.S. Pandey, a former chief secretary of Nagaland.