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Why do we accept bad civic services?

July 06, 2011 15:43 IST

Unless the citizens demand and secure in each sector a citizens' charter setting out the minimum standards of provisioning and performance, things will not improve, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

The other day, the water purifier in a home in my neighbourhood went on the blink and the family was panic-stricken. They organised to have some water from the neighbour's for about a week, the time taken for the delivery and installation of the water purifier. Until done, there was no level of comfort.

The question is why should a household in a city, with a municipal corporation in place, which is supposed to deliver potable drinking water, be forced to depend on purifying the water by spending close to Rs 10,000? Especially, when the householder is paying his dues to the corporation, which includes water rates?

The injustice of it all is striking but most households have taken it as a given -- the city governments cannot be relied on to supply clean drinking water. God knows from the tankers ferry water to several buildings, which despite paying property tax and every other levy, do not get enough of that life-sustaining fluid.

In places like Hyderabad, the city government itself supplies water in tankers and there are none asking questions for some water is better than no water. There are places where civic bodies provide a tap but not the water and dependence is on bore wells, most of the time, the water turning out to be saline. I know of a person who bought 10 litres of bottled water every day to survive in Ahmadabad. This seems to be an urban malice.

Take the case of Mumbai. It officially states every year the percentage of water samples found unfit for consumption. In 2008-09, 13.08 per cent was. In 2009-10, it spiked to 26.10 per cent. And the point is, little changes year after year.

But hold it -- urban malice? Rural areas in large slices do not have piped water. Such of those arrangements in place claiming to provide it do not function well. Come summer, and especially during droughts, water from sources unknown to the consumers and supplied by the government is the order. There never has been a whisper about if the government even checks the quality of water supplied.

However, this country has seen huge debate -- and perhaps, merited -- about pesticide in soft drinks. A lot more ordinary folk who drink poor quality water than they do the soft drinks. Soft drinks are only an option. Surely, after liquor, perhaps soft drinks and bottled water are big businesses while supplying efficiently the liquid of life ought to be the main concern. Here, the governing mechanism, said to be the last mile in the decentralised arrangement, has woefully failed.

Let us move to electricity. There is some covenant between the consumer and the provider and it appears there is no performance standards to which the supplier can be held accountable. The power can go off anytime; it can be of poor quality, indifferently supplied. It is as if the consumer has no rights despite paying for the service. Computers, refrigerators and other equipment need protection with the use of voltage stabilisers.

Let us look at a host of other issues that we seem to take in our stride.

One, our children have to go to free civic schools of poor quality or expensive, even unaffordable private schools. Cities like Navi Mumbai provide cheap land to trusts to start and run unaided colleges -- permanent unaided status is a precondition imposed by the government -- with poor faculties and run them on such low standards and with huge capitation fees but have the property tax levied on par with lower residential rates.

Two, pregnant women avoid, as they do in Kalyan, for instance, the government hospitals when the time comes for the deliveries of their babies.

Three, footpaths are few and which narrow over time, and such as there are, are taken up by hawkers. One needs to have the nimble skills of an athlete, equipped to run a steeplechase. It is hop-skip-and-jump all the time. The kerb height is so designed a person with an arthritic knee cannot even negotiate, first to climb and then to walk on the uneven surface.

Four, on ill-lit roads, potential shocks and surprises wait because of open manholes, even drains attended. Imagine falling in one.

Five, pedestrian crossing which are not respected by motorists, just as other users don't the footpaths -- it is everything except for walking.

Six, buses not stopping at the kerb, but way off, at bus stands, which have no shelter from rain, wind and sun, and waiting for one, people risk being run over by any vehicle.

The point is should it be so?

I am afraid it would be so unless the citizens demand and secure in each sector a citizens' charter setting out the minimum standards of provisioning and performance.

But are we game to seek and get them? I am afraid not.

Mahesh Vijapurkar