Time for lasting solutions for the uncivil disobedience of our untidy cities | Mint

Time for lasting solutions for the uncivil disobedience of our untidy cities

The pattern in Bengaluru is for public works contractors to discard building material—steel rods, battered metal panels and cement pipes that look like brutalist urban artworks—and then for residents to use these sites as landfills.
The pattern in Bengaluru is for public works contractors to discard building material—steel rods, battered metal panels and cement pipes that look like brutalist urban artworks—and then for residents to use these sites as landfills.

Summary

  • Falling air quality courtesy of vehicle exhaust and construction rubble-turned dumping spots alongside roads in metro cities need to change. Indian cities need powerful mayors and sufficient revenues of their own to fix the mess.

A recent fire at a shisha bar and restaurant in Bengaluru prompted the chef to jump off the building. This was captured in a horrific video; the chef remains in a coma. The building had not been inspected by the fire and emergency services department because it has no mandate to inspect buildings under 21 metres. These are the responsibility of the local municipal authorities, who are stretched because at every turn in our cities, jugaad is used to game the system and ignore sensible safety regulations. The tragedy threw a spotlight on the confusing web of government agencies involved in the planning and running of India’s cities. Aromar Revi, who heads the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru, describes the management structures of our cities as “deeply siloed". “Someone fixes the road, and five other agencies seem to compete to dig it up."

The past week has seen a concentrated distillation of bad news in India’s major metros. A recent series by The Indian Express highlighted the plummeting air quality of Mumbai, driven by multiplying gigantic construction projects across the city. The Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court on 31 October issued notices to the state and Union governments as well as the city’s civic body seeking explanations. In an only-in-India irony, the court’s action was on World Cities Day, which is themed around ‘financing a sustainable urban future for all’. Then it was the turn of the Supreme Court to issue directives about the worse than worst air quality in New Delhi. On Tuesday, unusually heavy rains in Bengaluru prompted headlines of “Nightmare for residents, small businesses in several areas of city" and “BBMP (the city’s civic management body) to appoint engineers for every ward for disaster management purpose."

While India was charting a new world order during its G20 presidency, a special session on the disorder of our metropolises might have had a beneficial effect at home and abroad. Air pollution is just an inescapable aspect of it, but even here, we understate the problem. Srinath Reddy, quoting a Swiss air quality index’s ranking in 2022, points out that 39 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Vehicular pollution deserves a large share of the blame as well as the fact that our public transport should have been expanded decades ago before our growing middle class developed a preference for cars and two-wheelers. While tom-tomming our digital infrastructure, we still do not seek to reduce traffic by imposing congestion charges on the use of cars, as Singapore and London do.

Another neglected problem is the governance of our cities, which require powerful mayors and greater sources of revenue. Instead, cities are (mis)managed as an afterthought by state governments. As IIHS’ Revi says, “State governments control everything. It’s threatening for a chief minister to have a powerful mayor." M.K. Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was mayor of Chennai between 1996 and 2002, but as a career path this is relatively rare. Chief ministers, meanwhile, are conscious that large metropolises may account for a large share of state GDP—in Bengaluru’s case, 45% of Karnataka’s—but residents are a small share of the voting population and anyway often use election day for short holidays. Karnataka’s assembly polling in May was held on a Wednesday, reportedly in part to get more Bengaluru residents voting. With the rollout of the goods and services tax, city governments have also lost local funding sources such as octroi. Property taxes need to be raised dramatically with the proviso that the money go to the city.

Apathy on the part of residents contributes to the dysfunctional sprawl. Speaking in Bengaluru on Saturday, Pakistani academic Ayesha Siddiqa used the lack of public concern about littering as a metaphor for Pakistan’s governance problems. On my way to her talk, I was driven past a line of metro pillars under construction that serve as housing for garbage dumps underneath. The pattern in Bengaluru is for public works contractors to discard building material—steel rods, battered metal panels and cement pipes that look like brutalist urban artworks—and then for residents to use these sites as landfills. Near affluent Koramangala, an uninterrupted view of garbage for a kilometre or two distracts from the heroics of the city’s kamikaze scooter riders. There is much more order in Mumbai’s public works (and traffic), but even in Mumbai, there has been little effort to use machines that would prevent construction detritus from creating a permanent haze around the city. With our governments setting a bad example, citizens are happy to follow. I am forced to hop, skip and jump over construction materials that take over sidewalks. Empowering a city authority to levy fines on government and private contractors that colonize pavements for building materials would make our cities more pedestrian-friendly. Having used public transport while living overseas, I don’t have a driver’s licence, but I shamefully duck the 10-minute obstacle course to the metro and summon Ubers instead.

The airports of both Mumbai and Bengaluru resemble a surreal oasis. Terminal 2 at both has art displays. I wander about in a daze, gasping at Christmas tree-styled chandeliers and outlets that serve “proper British food" and one that features photos of a foreign chef posing with Clint Eastwood and Madonna. If our airports resembled the uncivil disobedience of our untidy cities, change might finally come about.

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