DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bhopal CDP 2031 - a counterpoint




The Bhopal CDP 2031 has had a chequered history. Due in 2005 it is nowhere in sight eight years later in 2013. This is the way the government handles its urban administration despite the available paraphernalia of an Urban Administration Department with its appendage of a full-fledged Commissionerate for Town & Country Planning comprising qualified town planners and other professionals. The government seems to forget that it is the urban areas that generate most of the revenues for it to play around with for whatever it tries to do with the advancement of the state. The greater the delay the longer the state remains “BIMARU”.

A highly deformed draft that was thrown into the public domain in 2009 received such hellish flak that it had to be rejected or cancelled at the highest level of the state administration. Drafted under the influence and, presumably, guidance of the real estate lobby with tacit approval of the political bosses, it was destined to become a massive disaster. Those who guided its process of drafting took common people as fools and aimed at plundering the most vital resource of land to make hay. They, therefore, overdid their act enraging the townsfolk who rose as one man to attack it right down to the dustbin.

The revised plan was to come out in 2012 but was again subjected to delay and this year a decision was taken to unveil it only after the Assembly elections later in the year. Speculations were set off – and quite rightly so – that the politician-builder nexus wanted to utilise the interregnum to maximise their income by using up the available land to the benefit of both the parties – one for investing the proceeds in the elections and the other for making quick easy money and laugh all the way to the bank.  Even the consideration of the concept plan prepared by the professional body of Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology for conservation and development of the Upper Lake and its catchments has been postponed as the yields from the usage of these pieces of lands before imposition of curbs, if any, were estimated to be massive.   

The question thus arises is whether the city development plans are meant to satisfactorily meet the needs of its citizens and its growth maintaining the balance between environment and the developmental needs or whether these are instruments for facilitating enrichment of the greedy, venal and self-centred builders and politicians. Every plan plans for expansion of the town at the cost of thousands of hectares of forests and farmlands. Bhopal already has expanded in all directions without the essential civic infrastructure. Yet none seems to be keen to cry a halt and say this far and no further because of the monetary spin-offs from development of real estate.
What is more, the 2005 Plan that is still current has not been fully implemented. In any case, it does not seem to have improved the quality of life of the people, reduced poverty or improved their productivity which should be and are the objectives of CDPs. And
yet a fresh plan is waiting to be approved. Regardless of that, builders and colonisers are relentlessly expanding the citys limits. One does not know whether their building activity is covered by the current CDP or ad-hoc permissions or even without them.

In a brain-storming session in which ministers, senior bureaucrats, builders and developers participated in 2011 the Urban Administration minister was reported to have said that  Bhopal had “all the elements, be it lakes, hills, greenery, road, rail and air connectivity”, which make it an attractive real estate investment destination. Likewise, the minister for Housing and Environment (H&E) felt that when returns from the stock market are not encouraging investments in real estate and bullion appeared to be viable alternatives thus fostering more investments in real estate in the city. This not only was music to the ears of the builders and developers but also indicated the thinking in the government regarding development of the town.

Sunita Narain, the noted Indian environmentalist, in one of her pieces expressed a sort of a truism when she said, The real-estate lobby has a vice-like grip on Indian cities. All too often land use decisions are based on what will make a quick profit for the real estate developers. And without fail, the decisions disregard common sense. The casualties are social and environmental. One, therefore, is left with the inescapable feeling that the state politicians sought partnership with the builders, developers and colonisers only for personal gains and not for larger social and environmental benefits for the city and its citizens. 


Be that as it may, one of the most pertinent reasons against further expansion of city limits is that the current 2005 CDP still remains unimplemented to a pretty large extent. No work has been done on as many as 24 roads that were planned and there is no hope of work relating to them starting any time soon.

Another reason is that when currently the city as it exists within its limited confines suffers from acute want civic services there would seem to be no point in enlarging it further. Everyday newspapers carry news and photographs of the broken down roads, leaking or overflowing sewers, accumulation of garbage, clogged drains on accumulation of filth or for being built over. Shouldnt there be planned effort to improve matters in order to offer a better quality of life for the residents? Even the newly-included area of Kolar in the municipal jurisdiction with relatively newer colonies and complexes are crying for attention. None of the civic services are being rendered by the local municipal corporation with any semblance of efficiency or competence. If the city is expanded wouldnt it trip up more with its much less than required capability? City development does not refer to only its expansion to accommodate future growth of population with the concomitant requirements of business and industry; it also means improvement, enhancement and up-gradation of the existing civic facilities of roads, sanitation, health care, education, mobility and so on.

In the circumstances one feels that the new CDP should tackle following issues that touch the lives of the people and refrain from planning, as far as possible, to bring more and more farmlands and forests within an enlarged municipal area:

1.      First of all the attempt should be made to implement unfinished part of the current plan

2.      The new plan should upgrade the (progressively deteriorating) quality of life of the citizens by taking up the following: 

i) Improve quality of roads all over in the town, including those that are within the old and new residential colonies

ii) Revamp the sewerage of the town to expand the capacity of the system to meet the needs of the next twenty years. Despite the money spent in the Bhoj Wetland Project and that taken on loan from ADB sewers still keep leaking and one can even now find manholes in dangerous and deplorable condition

iii) Planners have to contend with the problem of effective management and disposal of solid wastes. In the course of next few decades it may become far more acute. As landfills create more problems than they solve using the solid wastes for generating power is environmentally a far better alternative. Many countries are doing so and even Delhi has now got a plant

iv) Provision of adequate water for a burgeoning population is going to be a major issue during the coming decades. Upgrading the supply system obviating the chances of major and minor leaks that occur so frequently involving in losses of hundreds and thousands of litres of scarce water is imperative. Besides, recycling of waste water and rain-harvesting should be mandatory wherever possible. Speeding up of meterisation of supply should be prioritised with planning for equitable water supply all across the town

v) The new plan should focus on eradication of slums. The government had projected in 2005 that Bhopal would be slum-free by 2012. That has not happened.  Resettlement of slum-dwellers in low-cost housing should be a priority. Likewise, with projections of an enhanced rate of migration into the cities during the next few decades the plan should also provide for meeting the influx by making arrangements that avoid further slumming.

vi) As a corollary of above, a comprehensive plan involving development of trade and commerce, education and healthcare in the neighbouring smaller towns could be thought of to entice migrants from their respective catchment areas to prevent their crowding in Bhopal 

vii) Public transport needs to be planned in a manner that it eases pressure of private vehicles on the roads. Feeder services have not been planned so far. Unless buses running on the main arteries are fed from hinterland of the stops public transport would never become popular and the roads will progressively get choked. Even the BRTS might not be of any help

viii) Planners have also to think of providing a system of mobility to the commuters comprising roads, railways, metro or light-rail or monorail or sky trains, cycle tracks and pedestrian pathways to control the vehicular emissions. World over efforts are on to reduce vehicular emissions as automobile sector contributes about 30% of the greenhouse gases. So far there has been no attempt in Bhopal to control it despite the relentless increase in the number of vehicles and even check on polluting vehicles is conspicuous by its absence. 

ix) Regardless of the acts of omissions and commissions in respect of the city’s water bodies a new plan should indicate measures over the next two decades for their sustainable use and conservation in a scientific manner. Likewise plans should be made to revive the city’s streams which have now become worse than drains. Many cities in West and the East have revived dead urban rivers and streams for improving the environment.

x) Plans should also be formulated to prevent further colonisation and re-greening of the surrounding ecologically important hills and forests.

xi) The city is known for its green ambience but it has lost a great deal of its roadside canopy which needs to be fully restored.

xii) From the Nawabi era, it has also been known for its parks and gardens which have constantly been encroached upon or are being degraded. The master plan for the city should provide for their revival and upkeep in order to extend to the citizens a better and green habitat.

xiii) The older part of the city is littered with rundown, neglected heritage structures which need to be taken care of. A city is not worth its salt if it doesn’t take care of its heritage. The plan should provide for their aesthetic conservation and beautification of their surroundings with suitable facilities for tourists. In fact, these structures need to be properly marketed.

xiv) Above all, for effective governance in the city the CDP should determine the extent to which it should be expanded and allowed to grow. Planners need to make an objective assessment of the critical lack of civic governance in the city’s current smaller avatar and, given the unlikelihood of any significant improvement, need to set a limit to its growth. They should, nevertheless, plan for strengthening the civic governance to provide clean, healthy, secure, productive and fulfilling life to the citizens of the city.

Note: The article was written specifically for an online newspaper earlier this year

Monday, October 14, 2013

Of Indian official hostelries



A national daily front-paged a smallish scam perpetrated by the bureaucracy and some ministers of the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) while on tour. What they did, however, was something reprehensible as it only showed their hypocrisy as also their petty-mindedness.

MP Bhavan
While on tour on official business in Delhi they stayed in public sector starred hotels but made the Madhya Pradesh Bhavan authorities to pay their bills. Madhya Pradesh Bhavan is a MP government guest house meant for accommodating touring officers and ministers when they are in Delhi on official business. It is a sprawling affair with scores of rooms. And yet it seemed to have proved inadequate as another virtually equally large outfit, the Vindhyachal Bhawan, was erected.

The scam was detected during audit of the expenses of these two Bhavans. Quite clearly, for ministers and senior officers staying in the guest houses is now kind of infra dig.  Time was when they all used to stay in them and there were and probably still are graded rooms to accommodate officers and ministers of different levels. These were constructed for their benefit as those days staying in hotels or private guest houses was simply unaffordable for even the senior most officers. Trips to Delhi were inevitable and finding suitable and affordable accommodation was a big hassle.

While based in Delhi, I recall, in the early 1970s most of the states gradually started building their respective guest houses in the expansive New Delhi area. The government of Andhra built a new one pretty close to the India Gate area and it became famous for its hot and spicy cuisine. The restaurant would be thrown open to the public on Sundays. Some, like Kerala, even converted as state guest houses the palatial bungalows inherited by them after independence from the erstwhile maharajas.

Senior officers of state governments like MP are governed by the state rules and they can look for hotel accommodation while on tour to Delhi only if the Bhavans do not have accommodation for them. With the tide of development and relative prosperity things started changing. After the VI Pay Commission recommendations were implemented salaries saw a hefty hike and so did the travelling allowances. With rising standards and aspirations senior government officers don’t find the state guest houses good enough and, therefore, do not look for rooms in; they like to put up in starred hotels. Hence the MP ministers and officials apparently pitched on the ingenious method that the audit happened to stumble upon.

 With ministers and senior officials, barring a very few notable exceptions, avoiding them, all the government
Circuit House, Manali, Himachal Pradesh
guest houses have fallen on bad days. They largely cater to, inter alia, relatives and friends of officers, ministers, legislators and state politicians who have no legal or official right to avail of the government facilities. This is very unfortunate. A facility that was provided for officials and ministers at great public expense is not only being misused, it also has become a big drain on the government. Not only the state’s guest houses are occupying massive areas of scarce land in prime locations of the capital, the tax payer has to pay for their maintenance as well as meet the fraudulent claims of the officials and ministers. One does not know the fate of guest houses of other states in the capital but if the occupancy rate is unsustainable they might as well do as several circuit houses have done – throw them open to non-official itinerants at competitive rates.

The circuit houses located at the headquarters of various districts, where once upon a time only ministers and gazetted officers could put up, now do not also quite measure up to their needs and style of living. But, for the sake of their survival, many of the circuit houses, after being spruced up, have been thrown open to the public and tourists on very reasonable tariffs. It is good that available facilities, instead of crumbling under state apathy and negligence, have been squarely put out to earn their keep in the very competitive market of tourism.

Set in the midst of huge parcels of land in what used to be generally called Civil Lines (as if all other lines were uncivil), the circuit houses were mostly built during the British era and were formidable looking structures with equally formidable looking khansamas (chefs) who would lord over the place. Having served ministers and top most bureaucrats of the state they would think nothing of smaller fries, the officers low down in hierarchy. But some of them used to be excellent at cooking – both Indian and continental. The rooms used to be well-appointed and a suite, if available, would be kept reserved only for top shots.

The finest ever circuit house that I happened to have stayed in was the one in Bhuj, Gujarat. This was way back in 1964. It was an old converted mansion that once used to be the residence of the British Agent for the princely state of Kutch. A huge drawing room had a banquet hall next to it with a massive dining table serviced by liveried bearers. Both were furnished in that princely style with quaint furniture and furnishings. The dining hall had a sideboard full of English silver and china tableware with the inevitable Kutch coat-of-arms. I was allotted one of the two suites on the ground floor that had a sitting room with a study corner, a dressing room – both lavishly equipped – and a bed room with a four poster king-sized double bed of intricately carved mahogany. There were two baths, both with (then rare) marble flooring – offering the choice of a WC and an Indian pan. All for just Rs. 3/- a day! I never got to stay in it again as in 1965 the Kutch border became hot and the army took over the building and all that it had.

A dak bungalow, presumably, in 19th Century 
Another such institution called the Dak Bungalow is now an endangered species. These bungalows were relics of the Raj that survived for more than a couple of centuries. These used to be government bungalows along the main dak (postal) routes erected for the dak (mail) runners for exchange of mails for onward transmission to the next stage. Government officials on tour and non-official travellers could also camp in them. They were, generally, one-storied thatched or tiled buildings, with a big central dining-room and two or three bedrooms around which ran a deep veranda, with a slightly removed kitchen and some far-removed outhouses in the midst of sprawling properties. As in circuit houses these too would have a factotum taking care of the brooding, heavily built premises as also of the guests.

The dak-bungalows used to be the equivalent of hotels for officials on tours and non-official travelers on the basis of availability straying into the hinterland. Patterned on the old Western coaching-inns these are still operational in certain remote areas but have mostly died out. Having a history, they had lore built around them and, earlier, were generally known for their chicken curry and the spirits that were supposed to be haunting them.
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All photographs are from the Internet