Capital curse: Inept local authorities and the blame game

A spell of showers - which can be so welcome otherwise - can bring the national capital to its knees, leaving the people always asking the question: "Why does Delhi collapse when it rains?

New Delhi: A spell of showers - which can be so welcome otherwise - can bring the national capital to its knees, leaving the people always asking the question: "Why does Delhi collapse when it rains?

Traffic gets gridlocked as many traffic lights stop working, leaving millions of commuters fuming and frustrated. Poorly laid roads develop potholes and sometimes moon craters; water collects at unexpected places spelling danger for both motorists and pedestrians and rickety footpaths crumble, making them into accident and even death traps.

Worse, the uncollected and spilling garbage - compounded by lack of civic sense among its people who litter the streets without thinking - flows into the drains and chokes them, making things difficult for both motorists and pedestrians. For those who don`t drive but are caught walking on the streets, the pavements - at least in the few places they exist or are not encroached on - are accident prone with open manholes, missing tiles, uneven walking paths, jutting cables, and other unexpected hazards.

The capital has about 760 traffic signals but these frequently stop working and serpentine jams result within minutes of a downpour. This is because water invariably seeps into the cable system that are products of poor engineering and maintenance.

"Soon after rains the traffic signals stop functioning. Most of the transmission cables of traffic signals in the capital are damaged. We are in talks for solar power traffic signals, but the proposal has been pending since 2002," a senior Delhi traffic police officer confessed, adding that talks had been on with a public sector company, but held out little hope of a solution to a perennial problem which no one bothers to attend.

After police helplessness comes civic negligence.

"Every year the local authorities fail the monsoon test and expose their hollow claims. The civic agencies` sanitation staff, after sweeping the streets, shove into the drain rubble, muck and plastic in the absence of more scientific garbage collection. No one bothers to clean that as that is not the sweeper`s job but someone else`s," Randeep Guleria, member, Delhi Resident Welfare Forum, said.

According to various Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), corrupt politicians, colluding civic agencies and scheming contractors ensure that substandard construction material is used and care little about naked electrical cables and open drains and crumbling sidewalks.

"The civic agency does not question the private contractors who are involved in cleaning the storm water drains, who do not clean the drains properly or any other job for which they are contracted as there is little supervision or audit of their work," V.K Arora, of the RWA East Delhi, said.

Under the present system, a contractor working for either the PWD or a civic agency has to give a five-year warranty for the roads or pavements they lay. If a road gives way, it is the responsibility of the contractor to repair it. But no civic authorities question the contractors, enquiries reveal as they are "colluders in corruption and loot", as a senior resident put it.

But when waterlogging happens agencies pass the buck to the Public Works Department (PWD), saying that it handles 90 percent of the de-silting of storm water drains. On its part, the PWD blames the civic bodies. And corporation officials in turn blame the increased broken roads and sidewalks to power discoms and gas authority for laying pipelines and then not repairing them.

Harassed citizens say the municipal corporations - South, East and North - are indifferent towards their problems and lack accountability and their trifurcation has not helped things one bit.

"Be it a parking issue, a road cave-in, or overflowing drains, we have to meet a string of authorities and call up a dozen people before anyone attends to our complaints. They are there just there to pass the buck or give some excuse," Raghubir Rai, a member of the Residents Welfare Forum of East Delhi, said.

Experts note that the monsoon woes of waterlogging can be tackled in Delhi only when a comprehensive drainage board is set up as the poorly managed Delhi Jal Board (DJB) lacks the requisite expertise or equipment to tackle the recurring problems.

"We need a comprehensive body for drainage in Delhi, as the drains are interconnected and they fall in each zone. In order to make the multiple agency responsible, a separate body should have members from the three civic agencies, PWD and Delhi Development Authority (DDA)," K.K.Kapila, chairman, International Road Federation (IRF), said.

He also said that for an immediate solution to waterlogging, authorities can dig huge water-harvesting pits in low-lying areas and concretise them, which will help increase the water table in summer.

Noting that due to global climate change, the capital might in future frequently have more high intensity rain, Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said poor design and senseless urban planning can make cities chaotic.

"Sensible urban planning is most important and a proper drainage alignment is necessary on a war footing; right now the drainage capacity of the capital is poor," Chowdhury said, warning that worse days were ahead for a city of 17 million people that was bursting at its seams.


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