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Arvind Kejriwal's dream of making Delhi 'look like London' should involve all stakeholders and drastic changes

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will make Delhi “look like London”, if it wins the Delhi Municipal Corporation election that will be held in April.

No need to grudge him that dream, if it is his dream. But it is easier said than done. It took a long time for London to be what it is, from the slums of East London, to the stink of the Thames which stank so much that Parliament on its bank found it hard to function. The MPs preferred to leave the premises.

London today is not like the way it was described by Charles Dickens. In fact, the compilation of his newspaper columns, Sketches by Boz, should tell one what it was like, though his descriptions in his other books wouldn’t have encouraged any tourist.

But London has evolved and it took time.

File photo of Arvind Kejriwal. PTI

File photo of Arvind Kejriwal. PTI

Delhi has a long way to go to even “look” like London. Kejriwal realized it and a day after his announcement, he told the Delhi wallas that he had meant that “Delhi would be as clean as London”, and that is not a bad thing to aspire for. In fact, all Indian cities and towns need to be “as clean as London”.

But we need to have a prime minister to launch a Swachh Bharat Abhiyan which needs Amitabh Bachchan in the commercials after Vidya Balan has done her turn stating that a toilet at home was important. It is not anybody’s case that the programme has made much headway for we see people spitting and peeing on the roads and the civic bodies not collecting garbage regularly.

Delhi has slums and street-dwellers, the last segment of its citizenry even freezing to their bones in its cruel winters without shelters. The civic bodies are without the wherewithal to pay salaries to their conservancy staff who, in the AAP regime in Delhi, had twice let them rot in heaps on the roads.

Kejriwal needs to take lessons from two cities to make things better in Delhi. One is from Lee Kuan Yew, the builder of Singapore where you dare not drop a cigarette butt on the sidewalk. It was not just an economic policy which pulled it up from a poor place to a nation state. He ensured that Singapore had proper institutional set ups. He strengthened the rule of law, put in place efficient government structures, and fought corruption.

But it is precisely that efficient government structures that India and its cities lack and the local civic bodies are, by their functioning, antithetical to the very idea why they were conceived and created. It is not that municipal rule is new. India has had municipalities for a long time. Madras, now Chennai, had its charter for a municipality in September 1688. Exactly two centuries later, Mumbai had the Municipal Act.

Which brings us to Mumbai and its dreams, or precisely of Vilasrao Deshmukh, in 2005 of turning Mumbai into a Shanghai. That a city which once prided itself of being the urbs prima in Indis – the prime city of India – started dreaming of being another indicates how it had no faith in its own identity, or that over time, it found Mumbai as it was, was not good enough.

Becoming Mumbai is a long haul for it has to correct the shortcomings before it is poised to take off on the new trajectory and the city is woefully short on everything. Mumbai has to run at a rapid pace to even be in the place it is; much like being on a treadmill. Many who realized that Shanghai was not a possibility, began to seek an administrative efficiency which would keep Mumbai where it was, not worsen.
Teaming slums, with half the population in the urbs prima, with most of it unserviced, though that slice of the city sustains the service sector, with roads that are not built to withstand a single monsoon’s first month, with rivers that were never identified as rivers but treated as drains – Mithi, Bhoisar, for instant – which can become receptacles for garbage, makes the very idea of turning into Shanghai an impossibility.

If glass-fronted office towers in recycled land, which once belonged to textile mills and residential blocks on land, which were earlier colonised by slums are said to be the faces of Mumbai, then it amounts to gross misrepresentation. Mumbai is a dirty city choking on itself which has been 'Shanghai-ed' by politicians and builders who couldn’t care what the city wants to be. Shangha-ing is to force or trick others into doing something.

So Kejriwal would need to look at Lee Kuan Yew and how he built Singapore, and at Mumbai to understand how it cannot be done. It would help. Even if Delhi has to “look clean” like London, the work culture of each of the stakeholders, politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, and citizens has to change. And change drastically. For we Indians can spit on a Singapore, Shanghai or London street.

Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 15:30 PM

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