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Heed Small Matters, for Small Matters

July 6, 2011

“Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean, and the beauteous land”. As in Julia Carney’s hymn, it is the “small” elements of one’s day to day existence that determine the larger whole. It is these that, for much of the time and most people, make life easier, better and more enjoyable – or cause pain and unhappiness. Some of these are influenced by the individual or by friends and family; many others, though, depend on what organizations or governments do (or not do). There are actions that governments could take, which would improve the quality of life for citizens. Each person would have his or her own list of such items; here are but a few random examples.

Many cities now have toll-roads, especially to access near-by suburban areas. Used by tens of thousands of commuters every day, these roads are designed to be high-speed corridors. Yet, bottlenecks at the toll-gates often cancel the advantages of a speedy and smooth drive. Some of this is caused by lack of enforcement: for example, of the “tag” lane. Apparently, this cannot be enforced because of buck-passing about authority and responsibility between the parties concerned. To make matters worse, the odd amounts of toll-fee add to the delays, It would require a considerably thick head to not anticipate a problem if the toll is not a round figure (the present toll on the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway is, believe it or not, Rs 21). Doubtless, those in charge will have many rational explanations as to why the toll is not a simple, easily payable amount. But, one would have hoped that someone with an outlook beyond that of an accountant would have stepped in. A small matter; yet, a cause for much agony for many people every day.

Resentful of the hundreds of cars in Delhi with red flashers atop (signifying a VIP), accompanied inevitably by an armed security escort that threateningly pushes aside all other traffic, many welcome the bold step of Delhi Police in announcing that they would stop unauthorized usage of such flashers. Particularly pleasing was the widely publicized advertisement listing those eligible to use such red flashers and lights on their cars. It does, though, raise two questions: first, why was no action taken earlier on this many-years-old illegality; second, what action is being taken against those who flagrantly violated the law, including many ineligible bureaucrats? One also wonders whether the Cabinet Secretary has formally written to all Ministries to immediately comply with the law by removing the red lights from the cars of all those who are not eligible. Just a small issue again, but a matter of unease that the government itself is amongst the law-breakers, and causes disruption to the harried commuter.

If driving on India’s roads is a hazard, being a pedestrian is even more so, with a lack of proper foot-paths, encroachments on pedestrian space (for parking, and by shops and hawkers) and few – if any – regulated road crossing points. This is made worse by foot-paths and road edges that are constantly (and serially) dug up by multiple agencies, never to be properly repaved again. Every now and again one reads about plans to ensure co-ordination amongst agencies that need to dig up roads. Yet, this seems a goal that is always in the future. Certainly, enforcing such coordination should not be that difficult? Nor should ensuring the full restoration (if not improvement), after digging, be an impossible challenge. These small actions can contribute to the comfort and safety of millions of pedestrians.

How good it would be have displayed at each public-work site, the budget, expenditure, time schedule, executing organization, and names and numbers of those responsible. This can be accessed through the right to information (at least till the government decides that this, like CBI investigations, is sensitive and, therefore, secret!), but why not a simple board at every project site itself? Would this not be more indicative of transparency and accountability than mere good words? Also, it may convey the implicit message (as articulated at such works in the US) of “your taxes at work”.

A standard procedure during road repairs is to close one side of the road length, resulting in two way traffic on one side of the central median. While there is often a “diversion” sign at one end, there is no indication at all at the other end, catching drivers unawares as they unexpectedly face a vehicle heading straight at them on the wrong side of the road. Is it not obvious that there needs to be a warning sign at both ends of such a diversion?

One experiences hundreds of such “small” issues everyday, on which no authority seems to act. Yet, they irk the “aam aadmi” and affect not only the quality of life, but sometimes its very survival. Good governance is not only about big issues and major policies; it is equally – if not more – about the mundane details of daily life. Who, at what level of governance, will take care of these? The structures of governance today are such that responsibility is diffuse and buck-passing is, therefore, inevitable and easy. There have often been pleas to change structures so as to establish clear authority and responsibility. Such reforms are now overdue, at all three levels of constitutional governance. Given the inadequacy of existing mechanisms, is it time for a Ministry or mission for small issues?


From → Growth, India

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