When an old, dilapidated building collapsed in Bombay's Nagpada area, my mind floated back to the 1950s when I used to drive past it on my way to school. Even as I empathised with the unfortunate victims, I could also see that Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh only added to the chaos by rushing to the collapse spot like Batman would to a crime scene.
In the Nagpada tragedy, both the authorities and the people compounded the failure of the city’s civic regime.
Why was the chief minister out there? Perhaps he was stung by criticism that he waffled during the massive flood disruption a few weeks ago and so wanted to show that he cared about the city and its denizens. The fact they were mostly poor Muslims was an added political bonus.
As for the much-touted 'aam aadmi' (common man), he and she turned out to satisfy their morbid curiosity and, without the firm hand of civic authority to hold them in check, they got in the way of rescue efforts, adding to the tragedy.
South Bombay MP Milind Deora hit the nail on the head when he urged the chief minister to "let go." Deora articulated an opinion that is growing across the country. Urban renewal, which the Prime Minister has identified as a top priority in his policy agenda, is not just a matter of finance, technology and civic action by well-meaning citizens; it will succeed only when the political system permits cities to throw up their own political leadership.
Already in the last elections, we saw two highly regarded chief ministers, S M Krishna in Karnataka and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, swept out of power. They acted more like mayors of Bangalore and Hyderabad than as chief ministers.
Fortunately, there is a model that can be replicated. In Delhi, a strong civic leadership emerged and survived despite the fact the city has the powerful central government breathing down its neck. Sheila Dikshit managed to assert herself, even when the retrograde BJP was in power at the Centre. She pushed through many development initiatives including traffic management schemes such as flyovers and underpasses, mass transport projects like the Metro, pollution control programmes such as the introduction of unleaded fuel for private vehicles and compressed natural gas for public transport, and privatisation of the frayed power distribution network.
Most important, she challenged the widespread cynicism and imparted instead a hope for the future and pride in the city. Dikshit’s success in Delhi holds out an object lesson. She managed to throw up a popular and powerful political leadership despite the overbearing presence of the Central government and cynical Congress leaders with a one-point agenda: how to displace the chief minister.
So how did she beat back the cynics and power-grabbers? The story goes back to 1998 when the Congress came to power in the city after a long stay in the political wilderness. The party’s leadership decided that Delhi should set an example of governance. To accomplish that goal, it was important to deal with the bureaucracy and the elected leaders. A district commissioner or an MLA or an MP had no connection with specific neighbourhoods. They looked at the larger picture, not in terms of vision but for their own interests.
Neighbourhoods need civic leadership. In Delhi, the vacuum was filled by Resident Welfare Associations (RWA), voluntary bodies comprising concerned citizens who sought to ensure that their neighbourhoods had some amount of order in terms of basic civic needs such as security, garbage collection, water supply, sanitation and power supply.
The Delhi government, in a far reaching initiative, sought to empower these voluntary groups in a unique programme called Bhagidari (partnership). It has been spectacularly successful. In one fell swoop, Sheila Dikshit inducted civic-minded groups into her agenda of governance. Lots of good things have happened. But most important a dialogue has been established between the 'aam aadmi' and the government. Delhi has not become like London, Paris or New York. But the first steps have been taken as they were 150 years ago in these exemplary cities.
For Bombay, the message is clear. In the absence of enlightened civic leadership, the Shiv Sena will call the shots just as fascist political machines ruled the roost in 19th century western cities. The current Maharashtra government is an embattled coalition of opportunists and morons. The decay is there for everyone to see. The collapse is evident. It’s time for the Congress to extend its Bhagidari programme to Bombay while they still have a say in the state.
This column appeared in DNA, August 30, 2005