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Urban distress

Editorial |

The disturbing collapse of the flyover in Majerhat, a lifeline to southern parts of Kolkata, has to be perceived in a context even deeper than the mishap at the Vivekananda bridge in that city in 2016 ~ though both provide ammunition to the Opposition to flay Mamata’s government.

That petty politicking, even the Governor chipped in, only amplifies a grim reality afflicting the nation ~Urban distress the distress in its urban management mechanisms. Maybe municipal engineers and others, unlike their opposite numbers on the farm have yet to resort to suicide to escape from their troubles but there is little point trying to camouflage the pathetic state of civic affairs.

READ | Majerhat bridge collapse | Toll 3, NDRF calls off rescue operation

Bridges have collapsed in Mumbai too, traffic thrown out of gear after downpours in the Capital and its supposedly ultra-modern satellite, Gurugram, while devastating fires have ravaged affluent areas in other cities. Mountains of garbage pile up as waste-management remains only on paper, and adherence to zoning regulations is a sick joke. The truth is that except when a tragedy provides a talking point, civic administration gets even less priority than rejuvenating the agricultural sector.

Protecting cows seems more important than ensuring that urban centres, not just the metros and major towns, remain “livable”. Adding to the problem is that most municipalities have become so politically top-heavy that they cease to recognise basic responsibilities. On paper we have a high-sounding body like a ministry for housing and urban affairs headquartered in New Delhi, but like most Central outfits it has abandoned playing a lead role in upgrading civic affairs.

Sure there are a range of initiatives on which crores of rupees are spent, like tackling open defecation, but their real target is “political” ~ to contrast the performance of the present government with the alleged non-performance of all its predecessors since 1947.

Political gains and not efficient management are the sole objective. It is therefore no surprise that maintenance of bridges, roads, power-lines, drainage, sewers etc get short shrift ~ more publicity is garnered cutting a ribbon for a new culvert than to ensure that existing infrastructure is regularly inspected and properly maintained.

READ | Two years after Vivekananda flyover collapse, no remedy

The previous government had with much fanfare launched an “urban renewal mission”: has it been discarded because it was named after the first prime minister? An immediate non-political task is for the Centre to initiate the creation of a cadre of specialised municipal engineers to oversee civic affairs.

Only sustained, efficient management will avert urban disasters that require the defence minister to direct Army engineers to build a pedestrian over-bridge on a suburban railway, or for an international sporting event to be so scheduled as to “escape” Delhi’s smog in the cold season.

Maybe city-dwellers have a share of the blame for their own suffering ~ a mass protest at Parliament against potholes, or a credible threat to boycott the polling booths just might do the trick.