Where is the government? Who is responsible? Those “good questions” asked by an apex court bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta in the context of Delhi being in danger of being buried under accumulated garbage, and Mumbai flooded after heavy rains reflected the dilemma of citizens in not just those metros but almost every city in the country.

Their Lordships got no immediate answers, and like the citizens would have to make do with lame excuses, the buck being passed from Central to state governments and thence onward to civic bodies and so on. That is the stark reality of the virtual collapse of civic administration, a reality that cannot be camouflaged by all the claims, statistics and promises of ministers etc.

Screaming ‘achche din’ from the proverbial rooftops will in no way convince the citizen that his future is in competent hands: that one political party or another wins a local election is no validation and merely confirms that citizens have to choose what they deem the best of a bad bunch.

“Mountains” of garbage in the National Capital Territory were the immediate focus of the court ~ for which it slammed the Lieutenant-Governor ~ and proceeded to slap fines on 10 states and two union territories for not filing affidavits on their solid waste management mechanisms.

“The Solid Waste Management Rules came into force in April 2016. We are two years down the line but we are shocked to know that more than two-thirds of the States/UTs have not yet complied with the basic requirement,” the bench noted, pointing out that judicial directives and orders of the government were being ignored.

“Every second day we are being attacked for judicial activism” or accused of encroaching on the powers of the executive and legislature their Lordships said, asking “what should we do when nobody is working?” It would be unfair to single out a single ministry or agency for the collective crumbling of civic governance.

Yet the larger issue involves more than fixing responsibilities and apportioning blame. Since “smart cities” are one of the buzzwords of the NDA government it has to take a lead role in upgrading civic management. No city can be “smart” unless it is clean, has efficient public transport, adequate water and electricity, drainage and sewage ~ the contemporary equivalent of ‘roti, kapda and makaan’.

Pointing to favourable GDP figures, or credit ratings by international financial agencies does not impress the common citizen. The ministry for housing and urbana ffairs must strive to live up to its fancy-sounding name, serve to inspire all state governments and local bodies and enlarge its thinking beyond denuding Delhi.

Or revert to its original name of Works, Housing and Rehabilitation (for the refugees at Partition). Alas, most Central ministers and ministries have abandoned their leadership role, squabble with the states, and are overly-obsessed with election-oriented politicking.