Municipal Level Inaction in India
GDP, Tourism and National Security at Stake
(Also read — India’s Air Pollution Crisis )
This post will argue that in spite of advances in federal infrastructure, India’s local infrastructure remains shockingly third world.
Regular loss of life, limb and GDP is a consequence of India’s dismal city infrastructure.
Some potential solutions, none of which are difficult to implement, are also proposed.
Recent rains in Bangalore brought the city to a standstill. There was nothing different about the rains this year, compared to other years. And yet — one night of rainfall is all it takes to bring an Indian metro to it’s knees (Bangalore, India’s I.T. hub, contributes close to $50 Billion to India’s coffers and over half of all of it’s state’s revenues)
Electric poles falling into rain water and electrocuting commuters, partially connected sewage lines spewing sewage onto main traffic roads, pedestrians falling into open manholes…These are just some of the every day occurrences in Indian cities.
Three decades after I left to pursue higher education in the U.S., not much has changed. As I spent most of the last year in India, certain things, such as air quality, have gotten worse, if that was even conceivable.
Closer to Home
As I write this, my home town in India (in the state of Haryana), experienced a thunderstorm, which lasted most of the night. As is the norm, most neighborhoods lost electrical power for hours thereafter.
India makes grandiose claims about it’s power generation capacity, with the state of Haryana being touted as a SURPLUS electricity state. Yet — a simple thunderstorm knocks out power in all major cities for hours. Villages could take days to get their power back.
It is to be noted that this was not a big thunderstorm.
And yet, transformers failed, electric lines fell (often in residential areas, killing residents) and everything in the power distribution network that could collapse, collapsed.
Bragging about National Infrastructure
At the national level, roads — airports, metro rail systems and road transport infrastructure is approaching world class levels. Transportation minister, Nandan Gadkari, is quick to brag about his accomplishments — on linkedin and other social media platforms. When confronted (on social media) about the lack of local roads and transportation, he has his assistant chime in ‘That’s not under our purview..’.
This is only partially true — there is a lot that can be done at all levels by an authority titled ‘Transportation Minister’ for over a billion people.
Local city and state infrastructure are largely ignored.
City Civic Bodies are actually sinking India to levels that anyone would refuse to call even third world levels.
The effect on India’s National Security — Resiliency
Countries are responsible for their own response to natural disasters and external threats. In the end, when a disaster strikes, although other countries may offer help, it is upon the local population to find their way back to normalcy. The same is true when an attack on our soil occurs.
As the Ukraine crisis has shown, no country is anyone’s friend — in the end, one has to be self-reliant — be it a country or a city within a country.
By that standard, India is far from being resilient.
The effect on India’s GDP
There is a direct effect on the nation’s productivity, and consequently, it’s GDP.
An economist will point to India’s GDP and highlight the high growth supply/demand side economics. That GDP number is meaningless, when your local infrastructure stinks.
The real economic growth story is to be found on the streets, and not inside an economic panel, no matter how renowned the economists. These economists are just adding insult to injury by touting GDP figures and India’s phenomenal growth.
Using this measure, India is not only NOT growing, it is rapidly heading backwards — in that, it isn’t even making an effort to climb out of it’s local third world status.
The effect on Tourism
What tourist will like to have their lungs assaulted with record setting AQI levels? 35 of the top 50 most polluted cities belong to India.
Tigers in the wild are something that tourists the world over would love to experience. Yet — getting to India’s Tiger reserves is an ordeal in itself.
The same holds true for India’s majestic Himalayan range — which is arguably the most beautiful in the entire world. And yet — almost every week, a bus or two fall into a gorge, killing everyone on board.
What sane tourist would like to take their chances with such infrastructure?
Doesn’t this happen everywhere?
Nowhere is the local power or road infrastructure as fragile as in India. It fails with a regularity and scale that simply has to be experienced to be believed. Even today, in 2022.
Nowhere in the world does the entire sewage of a community flow onto the roads, all because the neighborhood line was incompletely connected to the main line.
Nowhere in the world can a commuter be walking to work and step into either an open manhole or a live electric wire — and be instantly killed.
Nowhere in the world do stray dogs strike as often as they do in Indian cities. In the state of Kerala, there were over 30,000 bites in a span of 3 months (2016 figures). In most other states and cities, the numbers are equally bad.
Negligence Lawsuits against municipalities (Solution Part 1)
It seems truly shocking to me that even with life and limb being lost, few families ever pursue legal action for negligence.
Part of the reason for this is that it is mostly the poor, marginalized families who lose life or limb. In no other country, do open manhole covers account for as many deaths as in India.
Solution Part 2 — Speedy Trials for Municipality Cases — Especially Corruption Cases
While corruption at the national level is at an all time low (thanks to a clean-ish leadership), corruption at the state and local levels is still rampant. Even municipalities of largely funded metro cities (Mumbai and Bangalore for example), see a huge gap in the results versus the funding. Where does all the money go?
Solution Part 3 — Fines and Penalties for Loiterers, Thieves
It’s not just the municipality that’s always at fault.
The reason manhole covers to missing is due to local thieves trying to make a quick buck.
The reason that streets remain filled with trash, even post trash collection, is the general public treating the entire country like a giant trash can. My wife regularly tries to stop residents from simply treating the entire country as their trash can. A housewife in a balcony overlooking a park (that we both frequent), simply emptied all their trash over the balcony into the side of the park. My wife confronted her — and told her she was taking pictures and was going to file a complaint. Instead of apologizing, she calls her husband. Long story short, they promised to clean up the mess — if my wife would not file a complaint.
Educated people who grab a meal from McDonald’s, can be seen throwing out the packaging out of a moving car. On confronting one such individual, who was traveling with his kid in the front seat, I asked the question —
Is this the example you want to set for your kid? He simply looked away.
Why are there not strict penalties?
There’s no excuse here — it is just a lack of political will — at the local and state levels.
There are cities in India where such stories are rare. These are cities where cops are empowered to conduct anti loitering drives, issue fines and more. However, most Indian cities have local leaders who are simply unconcerned — or worse, fall into the category of the polluters and trashers.
None of the solutions proposed above are rocket science. And yes — lawsuits DO get filed from time to time, but not at the frequency and urgency that’s needed.
In Ending — Death by a thousand cuts
An Indian city is like a person that wakes up everyday with a thousand cuts, and keeps applying bandages rather than figuring out what the source of the cuts is.
As I wrote this article, another young girl (practicing to become a beautician), died by stepping on a fallen electric line (which was hidden under stagnant rain water).
Another house burnt down in Faridabad because an electrical appliance blew up (due to voltage fluctuations, which are still commonplace).
Meanwhile, the Chief Minister of the state of Haryana, Shri Khattar, has instructed large display boards all over the city and blocked traffic, due to his VIP visit.
State Governments are as corrupt / possible more so — than local Governments.
India loses lives, and that’s tragic enough. For those unconcerned about a handful of human lives (this includes top local leaders, politicians), the sheer loss to the Indian economy is staggering.
If Prime Minister Modi’s vision of India becoming a $5 Trillion economy is to be fulfilled, this pathetic state of Indian local infrastructure will need to change. Without it, even the current 3 trillion dollar economy means little.
Commuters cannot travel to their workplace safely. Tourists can not walk safely, without an assault on their lungs, and potential assault on life and limb due to open manhole covers, stray dogs, falling electric poles, leaking sewage pipes and related hazards.
Instead of building bullet trains, we should be focusing on ensuring ZERO deaths due to open manhole covers, falling electric poles, stray animal attacks, fires caused by voltage fluctuations, vehicles falling into gorges, and a host of other failures of basic Indian Infrastructure. For all the books glorifying Prime Minister Modi, including some by leading economists, few writings exist on the complete and utter failure at state and local levels.