The rainwater in the streets of Patna has dried up, leaving horrible memories. It has left behind mosquitoes, dengue and the risk of infectious diseases. It was not the only reflection of the pathetic condition of our cities. Earlier, Mumbai has also suffered similar bruises. Those of our cities that are situated on the banks of rivers or on the sea coast are prone to waterlogging when it rains a lot and face severe water scarcity when there is a little heat.

The ironies arising out of such contradictions have become a part of our lives. After every such natural disaster, we start cursing the government. We reveal the drawbacks of the municipal corporation, find faults with the municipal bodies and vent our anger on social media. As a result, there is a lot of noise about them but the solution is completely missing. It’s high time we reviewed the conditions of our cities.

Let’s first talk about city administration. Right since independence, our leaders have been talking about local self-government. Rajiv Gandhi introduced the 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha in 1989 to give constitutional status to Panchayati Raj. One speech he gave during that time is still discussed. Emphasizing the decentralization of power he said that if the Centre spends one rupee, it comes down to 15 paise by the time it reaches villages. His dream could not be fulfilled in his lifetime, and the bill got stuck in the Rajya Sabha. Later in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s time, through the 73rd Constitution Amendment Bill, it was made a reality. It’s right that this bill was brought with the aim of empowering villages, particularly gram sabhas, but decentralization of power was its ultimate aim. Much before that, during the British rule, corporate bodies were established with the same intention.

I remember when in the 1990s the BJP government decided to hold municipal elections once again, doubts were raised; what will, after all, the mayor do in metropolitan cities? Will the things which so many legislators, MPs and government machinery are not able to do, be fulfilled? Are we not going to impose another white elephant on our already decrepit system? If you want to know the answers to these questions, have a look at the plight of Patna. Today, the posts of mayor, municipal corporation chairman, etc., have been reduced to mere decorative ones. And with this, the dream of decentralization of power has been shattered.

Here I am compelled to give an example of America. On 11 September 2001 when the world trade towers were destroyed, mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge of the situation to keep up people’s spirits and morale. At that time, he himself was suffering from cancer but he worked tirelessly day and night. He was always seen near the site of the explosion and took decisions from there. Needless to say, the stumbling New York once again stood up stronger.

The mayor of New York proved with his remarkable work during that hour of need that the mayor is the “first citizen" of a city. Unfortunately in India, the role has been restricted to one of mere protocol. Not only this, in areas where people from different parties are posted in the state government and bodies, often they are engaged in quibbles. The three municipal corporations of Delhi are examples of this. It is not that municipal corporations are short of resources. The Mumbai Municipal Corporation presented a budget of 30,692 crore this year. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has an income-expenditure account of 4,100 crore, while the budget of Patna Municipal Corporation is 4,065 crore. If so much money is spent honestly, shouldn’t the situation improve?

I would also like to give an example of utilization of resources by administrators and city dwellers in India. Plague broke out in Surat in 1994 killing more than 50 people. As a result, panic ensued and lakhs of people left the city. The entire business collapsed. In such a situation, municipal commissioner Suryadevara Ramachandra Rao came forward. Under his leadership, the work of cleaning the city was started. The city was divided into several zones. The report on everyday work was prepared and presented. Heavy fines were imposed on people who littered. In less than three years, Surat became one of the cleanest cities in the country. Today there are plants for ‘recycling’ the waste separately. Hundreds of vehicles collect garbage from millions of houses every day, which is then disposed of with the help of scientific methods. Indore, Bhopal, Visakhapatnam have the same story to tell. Unfortunately, most of the cities of UP and Bihar are still waiting for such positive efforts.

Here I also want to shake the intentions of the citizens. Whether it is cleanliness or encroachment, maintenance of the resources provided by the corporation or the general ‘civic sense’, the role of the public is always more important than that of the government in power. Please look within and ask yourself—are we and our neighbours following the duties of citizens?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin

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