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For cities, small is not beautiful

February 20, 2013 14:38 IST

To make anything manageable, both the intent and the will to manage is important, not empty words. This is missing from all those involved in operating a city where budgets as they exist ought to provide good results only if politics and politicians’ objective of pelf do not lead to poor execution and large-scale drain of resources.  That is why even small is not beautiful, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Small is beautiful, E F Schumacher argued in his 1973 book by the same name. It was a case for smallness within bigness and a challenge to things gigantic which had a dehumanising impact. Smallness made for being people-centric. He argued his case just before the European Common Market, forerunner of the European Union came to be.

Smallness, if applied not just to economics, where scales determine profitability, but also to geographies, or areas, takes us to administrative units of a state. The demand for smaller states, whatever the initial triggers, becomes sustainable. Telangana may have cultural issues with rest of Andhra Pradesh, and Vidarbha feel neglected by western Maharashtra, but ultimately gain would be smallness.

Lower down, in the governance mechanism, it takes us to local bodies, from gram panchayats to civic corporations of major cities, which is all part of a larger concept called self-government. The various constitutional amendments have prescribed the process and levels of devolution. Since the bigger monster of a state is thus broken down into bits, have the smaller parts made a difference? Are they administered well?

A look at any urban civic body shows that in effect and in substance, the aspired for gains have not been ever realised. However, the idea that small is better does crop up with an occasional talk of splitting up major municipal corporations. This has been so with respect to greater Mumbai, the belief being that two smaller parts -- a civic body for the island city, another for the suburbs north of Sion and Mahim -- would be more viable.

But why should it, because the smaller satellite cities of Mumbai and which form the larger Mumbai Metropolitan Region, have utterly failed. Take Thane city -- it has a population of 1.8 million, just about a sixth of greater Mumbai’s and a geography of about a fourth. It seems as if it has no civic body is in place except the politicians claiming they are corporators of one with a commissioner being its administrator.

Take Navi Mumbai, the world’s largest city in the making, a fourth of its area being now  governed  by an elected body -- the word ‘governed’ is used loosely here -- by a city corporation. The parts thus administered are supposed to be the mint-fresh areas of a larger city later but behind the skyscrapers, just as in Mumbai, hide slums and woes perpetrated by the civic body itself by sheer mismanagement. Land and its exploitation, much as in Thane as well, seems the only concern.

A split-up Mumbai would have two parts dealing with bigger population sizes than Thane city and Navi Mumbai put together. Thus, Thane, for instance, ought to have been a well-managed city, the people and its presumed -- in the absence of pro-active people-oriented work, ‘presumed’ is mot juste here -- rulers. But these are in two different orbits with different planes and different apogees. There cannot be even an imaginary intersection except during elections.

Like Thane city, the others, Kalyan-Dombivli, Vasai-Virar, Bhiwandi-Nizampur, Ulhasnagar, Mira-Bhayander, are cities neglected by themselves despite being smaller than even Thane. Roads don’t get well-kept, water supply is poor, garbage does not get picked up, and infrastructure is poor on the plea of paucity of funds. The will to govern and govern well on behalf of the people is entirely missing making the idea of a local self-government entirely irrelevant.

In Thane city, the expenses budgeted for garbage removal and disposal was Rs 76.93 crore, and the assumed garbage generation some 500 tonnes per day. The bill for 2013-14 is, according to latest city budget, is Rs 152 crore. No one disputes increased expenditure with increased daily garbage generation, now estimated at 700 tonnes but the crucial point is the city has no dumping ground. It is picked from one place and dumped in another.

It is so because, as elsewhere among cities, the central preoccupation is with politics at the cost of the city and its residents. The smaller scales of cities like Thane have not ensured a desired minimum level harmony between the citizens’ human needs, and human relationships, between them and their elected guardians of the city. Politics, politicking, and the gains thereof are the only visible sign of an elected government. The politicking is so strong that even the commissioner has his activities curtailed to the extent he becomes as good as not being there.

Relative smallness has not helped one bit though it can be safely assumed that a corporator from one ward of a small city would know the needs of another and act in the general interest of the entire city. The elector-elected intimacy is entirely missing and the bureaucracy that operates is as insular as in a mega-city like Mumbai. And only gain, even a lawful entitlement, comes to a citizen by patronage or cronyism. Others only flounder.

To make anything manageable, both the intent and the will to manage is important, not empty words. This is missing from all those involved in operating a city where budgets as they exist ought to provide good results only if politics and politicians’ objective of pelf do not lead to poor execution and large-scale drain of resources.  That is why even small is not beautiful.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator who plugs the common man’s views.

Mahesh Vijapurkar