Column in Business Standard, August 27, 2016
A friend landing recently in Delhi from Chennai and driving through streets piled high with mounds of stinking garbage, with cows foraging in overflowing municipal dumps, and the damp monsoon air unleashing a wave of viral fever that afflicts the populace remarked: “Why don’t they put up signs saying ‘Welcome to Jharoostan’.”
The sting in the joke rings true. In the 18 months since Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to power there’s been a palpable deterioration in most aspects of running the city. Conditions in government hospitals and municipal clinics are at breaking point, the roads are more potholed and waterlogged than before, and for a broom-wielding party that promised a clean sweep, not implementing basic waste management is beyond the pale.
Visiting a government medical facility recently – the 100-bed Madan Mohan Malviya hospital in south Delhi – was evidence of the chaotic conditions. The Emergency heaved like a war zone: Two patients to a bed, some laid on the floor, intravenous stands skittering dangerously, syringes being flung in bursting trash cans. Mercifully, the doctors were young and trying. With two dozen admission slips thrust into his face, one said, “It’s like an epidemic. Most come in with high fever and severe joint pains. It’s difficult to cope.”
An almost pathological malaise afflicts the AAP government. It is continually, vociferously at loggerheads with one or another authority. When the All India Institute of Medical Sciences this week reported a surge in chikungunya cases (391), AAP’s health minister said there were only “30-40… nothing to worry about”. And when the auditor general slammed AAP for blowing up crores in adverts to celebrate its first anniversary – Rs 16 lakh a day according to an RTI inquiry with Hindi ads in English dailies and in media far beyond Delhi – its spokesman Ashutosh penned a piece on how AAP is too broke to fight the Punjab election. “On one hand we don’t have money to pay safai karmacharis’ salaries or pensions. On the other hand, they spend more than the previous year on self-publicity,” lambasted Delhi’s Congress chief Ajay Maken.
This is partly true. The revenues of East Delhi – the financially worst-off of the city’s three main municipalities – are so precarious, nurses and sanitation workers’ salaries are being paid from their provident funds (a possibly criminal act).
In many states, the face of any city is an elected mayor with a five-year term or a strong commissioner; in Mr Kejriwal’s “jharoostan” no one recognises the municipality mayors or commissioners – the first are revolving door figures, the second are appointed by the Union government. Both have scarce authority. The noisy overreaching man running Delhi is “Jharoo King” Kejriwal: As a professional protester, he’s a stick-in-the-mud negotiator. As such he argues that he can’t accomplish his task so long as he’s hobbled by lack of functional or financial powers. By this he means taking charge of land use and the police, which are firmly under the Centre’s thumb. However, his own intransigence is the cause for the city’s decay.
Take the case of Delhi’s debt-laden municipalities that have suffered budgetary cuts for health care, sanitation and other services under his rule. AAP has withheld allocations citing, among other things, that bodies such as Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which are under the Union government, should pay. The DDA is the city’s richest landowner, with revenues of Rs 25,000 crore, but contributes a pittance. Mr Kejriwal could raise money elsewhere: By raising property tax (a major source of revenue) or introducing car parking fees or a host of other measures but he’s afraid to do so for losing popular support in municipal elections due in 2017.
Delhi being the only place in the country with a Lieutenant Governor (L-G) as constitutional head with executive powers and a chief minister, Mr Kejriwal has gone for him like a battering ram, calling L-G Najeeb Jung an “aristocratic overlord”. But the silky-smooth Mr Jung, an ex-bureaucrat, has run rings around him. This awful daily battle between two mastodons, halted recently by the high court which upheld the L-G’s authority, has taken a fearful toll: It has divided the bureaucracy with contested appointments and a backlog of paperwork. AAP’s health minister, due to accompany the CM to Rome for Mother Teresa’s canonisation, complained this week that his travel permission was held up by the L-G’s office.
Meanwhile, “Jharoo King” Kejriwal is girding his loins to take over Punjab next year. The rumour is that he will put himself forward as Punjab’s chief minister and leave Delhi in the hands of his number two, Manish Sisodia. It may be the classic trick of misdirection perfected by conjurors: They make you look at the wrong hand.
Delhi’s decline from national capital to “jharoostan” has at least exploded one dearly-held middle-class myth: That IIT engineers make successful administrators.