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Thursday, January 13, 2011

American Life 9

Let It Snow…

New York: Since yesterday, the weather service forecast, picked up in the local media, was a blizzard would dump up to 18 inches of snow on the city.

The last time a blizzard struck was over the Christmas holiday and left the city reeling under the devastating impact of more than two feet of the white stuff.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his city administration attracted a lot of criticism for the responsiveness of municipal agencies in the crisis.

That’s why, two weeks later, the mayor was upfront in the media, outlining plans to handle the upcoming snowfall. In the event, the blizzard turned out to be a non-story; it was nowhere in magnitude anywhere near the great Christmas whiteout.

Though some of the outlying boroughs like Long Island reported accumulations of up to two feet, Manhattan was spared the savagery.

Even so the mayor was out there, giving citizens a ball-by-ball account of the response by civic agencies early this morning.

He was out there, holding a press conference with his senior officials, urging citizens to lend a hand as the civic crews cleaned up the 8 to twelve inches of snow that fell.

As the day progressed and a sunny cold morning slipped into a cold, blustery and partly cloudy afternoon, the mayor’s efforts were given the thumbs up by citizens and the media.

It was an eye-opener for me; over the past couple of decades as a keen observer of the state of civic services in Delhi, I’ve been severely critical, dismissing all the main agencies as corrupt and inept.

Most of Delhi’s agencies are leaderless because in its wisdom the federal government, which is based there, created an incredibly complex chain of command.

Consequently, the agencies have had pretty much a field day over the past six decades; opaque and incompetent, they created neither civic services nor infrastructure; instead they feathered their own nests, appropriating funds and delivering nothing.

Since 1998, the capital has had a chief minister, a leader with a vision to grow Delhi into world-class city.

Despite the obstructive and corrupt bureaucrats who man the various civic agencies, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has managed to deliver significantly in terms of public goods; the mendacity of the city’s bureaucrats can be seen in the shoddy work and corners cut as a way of embezzling public funds.

These thoughts clouded my head as I watched with admiration the huge effort, both before and after the snowfall, by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.

What’s the difference in the two situations, I asked myself; in the Delhi one, we have morally challenged officials and goal-oriented ones in New York?

The more I think about it though I am convinced that morality and ethics are at the root of the two different approaches of civic agencies in New York and Delhi.

Delhi’s civic authorities seem to treat their jobs as a way to enhance both their social standing and their bank accounts; their counterparts in New York City see their positions as a public trust and work to make things better for the citizens they serve.

It may sound simplistic and naïve but that is the essential difference between two worldviews and is manifest in the incredible difference in standards of civic services and infrastructure between New York and Delhi.

But there’s more to it than just the contrast between the two cities; the issue is about the fundamentally different approach to government in the US and in India.

In India, government has more to do with privilege and perks than public service; it offers the well connected an opportunity to garner position and wealth; in the US, citizens of position and wealth are inducted to public service.

To be sure, just as in India, there is corruption here too in America; difference is that crooked public servants here are by and large brought to book and jailed; in India, usually they go scot free and seek protection from the law by becoming members of Parliament or state assemblies or patients in hospitals.

The noticeable lack of “development” that hits you between the eyes when you land in India is a direct outcome of these two startlingly different views of government: in the US, the government seeks to empower citizens whereas in India, the government actually disenfranchises them.

For instance, over the past few decades, the Indian establishment has talked ceaselessly about “sustainable development” and actually turned it into a weapon against industrialization, urbanization and economic growth.

Meanwhile in recent years, restaurants in major American cities have promoted a “hundred mile menu” that involves sourcing ingredients from within that radius; this simple marketing strategy saw the rapid growth of sustainable farms across the country.

This recent development underlines the fundamental difference in government in the two democracies: between empowerment and disenfranchisement.

It’s a sobering train of thought on the eve of my departure to Delhi, India.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011