For two weeks, municipal employees of Delhi were on strike demanding the most basic right of a worker – to get his or her due salary on time. This is not the first time that municipal employees have had to go on strike for this demand. In fact, this is the third such strike in the span of just one year. The previous two strikes in June and October had ended with the Delhi government releasing some additional funds. But this time round, salaries have not been paid for three months and the ‘loan’ of Rs 551 crore offered by Arvind Kejriwal in early February after a week’s strike has failed to end the deadlock. The Rs. 300 crore promised by the Lt. Governor from the DDA’s account has also helped little.
While supporting the demands of the MCD workers, Arvind Kejriwal has also described the whole development as a political conspiracy by the BJP to precipitate a crisis in Delhi and destabilise the AAP government. Given the continuing confrontation between the Delhi government and the Centre over issues of powers of the former, especially on the question of control over the Delhi Police, there is obviously an element of political contention between the BJP and AAP. Moreover, the three corporations of Delhi are currently held by the BJP and the MCD elections are due next year. The affairs of the Delhi government or the MCD are therefore bound to have the unmistakable context of political rivalry between the BJP, AAP and the Congress. But when thousands of municipal staff – from sanitation workers to teachers and medical personnel – do not get their salary for months on end in the national capital, it is clearly primarily a crisis of urban governance and its policy framework.
In 2007 the municipal corporation of Delhi was trifurcated with the ostensible aim of greater decentralisation of power and better delivery of services. While this has obviously increased the establishment expenditure, there has been no commensurate increase in revenues landing the corporations into increasingly unmanageable deficits. Meanwhile, the share of taxes due to be devolved to the municipal corporations has been reduced from 5.5% to 4%, leaving the rest to a performance-linked Municipal Reform Fund (MRF). The deficit-ridden North and East Delhi corporations reportedly verge around bankruptcy even as the MRF has swelled to more than Rs 1300 crore. The municipal finances are also adversely affected by non-payment of dues like big institutions like the Delhi Development Authority which owes more than Rs 1300 crore by way of unpaid duties and taxes. Municipal revenues are also crippled by corruption and non-enforcement of rules and norms – the East Delhi Corporation for example earned only Rs 12 crore as advertising revenue even as corporate and political propaganda billboards scream from every rooftop and street corner.
Much of Modi’s propaganda blitzkrieg with slogans like Make In India, Digital India, Swachh Bharat, Smart Cities and so on and so forth promises a rapidly changing urban landscape. Yet when sanitation employees and other municipal workers right in the national capital have to go on strike to secure their salaries we can easily see the mess that rules in the name of urban governance. It can be seen in the everyday denial of basic civic amenities to a great majority of India’s urban population, in the absence of basic rights of the workers who run the basic services and increasingly also in major environmental disasters or health hazards as witnessed recently during the Chennai floods and the Mumbai garbage dump fire. The urban renewal and livelihood missions have not addressed either the infrastructural issues of mass housing and public transport, or guaranteeing basic amenities, not to talk of universal healthcare and education. The smart cities being announced can only make this model of skewed urbanisation even more unequal and unsustainable, centralising a disproportionate amount of resources and facilities for the urban elite and those belonging to the gated communities and effectively subordinating the democratic structure of municipal governance to the processes of privatisation and commercialisation.
AAP is widely appreciated as an innovative urban party with visions of improved urban governance. In its brief tenure so far it has indeed touched some basic urban concerns like electricity and water, school admission and traffic congestion. Yet on a policy level we can hardly see any alternative approach. The ‘odd-even’ model best illustrates this AAP approach of ad-hocism and superficiality where the whole focus is on easing traffic congestion without addressing the basic question of availability of affordable public transport for the bulk of Delhi’s growing population. The promise of regularisation of contract employees in key sectors like municipal and transport services has remained only on paper. While blaming the BJP for financial mismanagement, the AAP does not propose an alternative framework for strengthening the municipal finances of Delhi. If the present policy regime continues, the municipal structure, even if reunified under a single corporation, will get increasingly subverted by the forces of privatisation and the ‘aam aadmi’ in whose name Arvind Kejriwal runs his party and government will get further marginalised. While insisting on a reliable solution to the demands of Delhi’s striking municipal employees, pressure must also be mounted for a reorientation of policies of urban governance in favour of the marginalised ‘aam aadmi’.