Who's accountable?

Bangalores woes

Bangalore’s middle class and students came out in their thousands in support of the Anna Hazare movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill and against corruption. They might look at their own city and compel accountability of Bangalore’s venal politicians, many municipal bureaucrats, engineers and contractors who have turned a beautiful city into a perennial ugly urban wasteland of diggings, mud, slush, potholed roads, no pavements, and huge concrete piling work everywhere. It has been never ending for ten years. What is worse, many are constantly repeated (like pavement slabs). When it rains, walls collapse, two wheeler drivers break their necks, houses are flooded by sewage, and children die in open drains.  
 
Bangalore is home to some of the brightest engineers in the world. ‘Bangalored’ has entered the American lexicon for white collar American jobs now performed in Bangalore. Bangalore brains design and redesign many things from animation films to sophisticated medical equipment and diagnosis. Other Indian cities are catching up with Bangalore ---Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad and Ahmadabad. They have large and growing populations of techies and the middle classes. They have widened roads, constructed flyovers, improved drainage and water supply, and built massive new housing colonies in less than five years, with little discomfort to residents. 
 
However, for ten years now Bangalore has been developing less as a livable city and more as an ever-expanding and permanent construction site. There was a time when it was possible, indeed a pleasure, to walk on Bangalore’s beautiful wide pavements with many shady trees. Now it is dangerous to life and limb. Most of the trees have now gone and the old stone slabs on pavements have been replaced by a mish mash of prefabricated concrete pieces that do not fit and cannot bear the weight of the traffic, leaving gaping holes in the pavements.

 In any case, most pavements have been uprooted and do not exist, and certainly not as a continuity. Almost every road is dug up, and everywhere there is one or more from among the following: flyover construction, metro work, underground sewer pipe laying, broken pavements or work on demolition of houses for widening of roads. None of these activities anticipates the concerns of citizens as pedestrians or those using public or personal transportation. There is a casual attempt to enclose dangerous construction sites like metro rail, (except near the Vidhana Saudha), unlike in Delhi where not only were there enclosures but they were cleaned every day, with well-kept alternate roads and pavements prepared for use. Bangalore’s bureaucrats do not even think of this.

Every government since that of SM Krishna has tinkered with Bangalore’s urban topography. Every chief minister and public works minister as well as sundry mayors, and loud mouthed corporators and commissioners of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike have promised to fill potholes in roads and improve the pavements forthwith. But they have always remained mere promises. Contracts for these works are awarded usually to local contractors or they are appointed as sub-contractors. Their work emulates that of the famous Tirupati temple barbers who line up dozens of customers eager to offer their hair to the Lord. In imitation of good production engineers they shave one side of the heads, and leave the half-shorn devotees to wait while the barbers go in search of fresh victims.

The half-shorn cannot go away or to another barber. Similarly, Bangalore urban contractors dig up the road or pavement and then disappear often for months, before they return to desultorily continue with their contracted work. 

The rare honest inspection of the work of contractors has shown substandard materials being used; poor, careless workmanship, and every attempt to cut costs by reducing quality, below the contract conditions. The contractors generously share the loot with all officials connected with the work. No wonder that walls collapse, children drown, scooter drivers are maimed for life, vehicles are damaged, and people dread walking on the streets. The poor, who have no choice, take their lives in their hands every time they venture out.

Bangalore Mahanagara Palike has a large bureaucracy of engineers, inspectors, accountants and many others. They are all conscious of their status and rights but not of their duties. There is zero accountability for any individual. Almost every official or employee appears to be on the take, making much more than his legitimate salary. The Lokayukta can only do so much in identifying them. In any case he cannot prosecute them without government permission, which is rarely given.

We need a mass movement to enforce individual accountability for substandard municipal work, delays and especially the ‘Tirupati barber’ method of starting work and leaving it undone for years, with  exemplary punishments of imprisonment and dismissal; not the puny ones now available. The contractor who loots the system, the municipal employee who colludes in this, the corporators who wink at it and other higher officials must all be brought to book. The Freedom Park can start a people’s movement to save Bangalore.

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