Friday, March 01, 2013

Use a fan instead of a cooler

The CEO of our city has always astounded me with her knee jerk solutions to disturbing issues. One can never forget how, in the wake of a young journalist being murdered whilst coming back home from work, she quipped: All by herself till 3 am at night in a city where people believe...you know...you should not be so adventurous. I wonder what she meant? Was it that women should stay indoors after a certain time? Going home from work is in no way adventurous. I remember having to come home post 1.30 am way back in the seventies when I worked at the radio station French services and had a live transmission from till 1am. Cars were provided by the office but sometimes we had to take circuitous routes and as I lived the farthest, I often was alone for the last leg of the journey. The cars were old and often broke down but somehow one was never scared. In the 80s I worked in International Conferences and again such conferences have the uncanny habit of going late into the night and one had to come home alone. It was not a matter of choice and in no way an adventure.

A few days back our esteemed lady came up with another gem. When attacked for the exponential rise in power tariffs, something we are all experiencing, she retorted: If somebody is finding it difficult to pay the bill then he can use a fan instead of a cooler. So if I understand well, whatever our grievance, it is never the State's fault, it is ours for not making the needed adjustments. If water is too costly have a weekly bath, if food is too expensive eat a meal a day and so on. Strange interpretation of democracy! We elect you presumably to care for our needs, but once you are in power you can do anything.

Coincidentally to this latest chief ministerial blooper, or maybe it is synchronicity, an article appeared in a serious weekly entitled: The take it to easy polity. The article begins with a quote of our PM: Reforms are needed, I have always said that, but economic reforms with a human face will give India’s common man real hope. However 9 years down the road we are all waiting our the basic amenities. What is worse is that we have to pay more for what we do not get! What we are seeing is an insidious plan to hand over public services to private players and the way to do that is simply to mismanage these services and ultimately plead incompetence allowing the private boys to take over. Since electricity has been privatised bills have escalated and many of us in Delhi have received water bills in 5 figures! Even  Project Why which operates from a minuscule building for 8 hours a day receives electricity and water bills in tens of thousands.

I would like to highlight two very different aspects of all that has been said. The first one pertains to the abdication of the state of all its responsibilities. To illustrate this I will share a personal experience. A few years ago I was approached by a senior MCD official and friend. He asked me whether I would be interested in 'taking over' the local municipal school. This was the very beginning of the privatisation saga. I was somewhat horrified but wanting to know more I played on. The bottom line was that one would get the school, the kids, the teacher's et al. Only the teachers - and you could not select them - would be paid by the MCD. All other expenses were yours! Needless to say that being an organisation seeking funds to educate slum children, I could not use pwhy funds to do work of the sate, and hence if the concept was to work the only recourse was to seek fees. Exit all the poor kids! If of course immediately refused the idea. Education as per the Constitution has to be free and equitable! The State must run proper schools. But that is pure chimera. It is not because they cannot - ie Central Schools - but because they want not. The reason: plenty on offer. One maybe because they want to ensure that a large part of society remains illiterate or at best semi literate. Better to manipulate you! Vote bank politics! Soon we may hear something like: if you do not like our schools go to private ones.

The other aspect I wanted to focus on was the 'wants'of the urban poor. It is easy for our city boss to suggest people use fans instead of coolers but that is not how it works. When people move to the city they do so for a better life. They have needs to fulfil but once these are met come the needs. I will tell you the story of one family whose home I have been going to for over a decade now. When I first met them, they told me that they had come to the city after Mrs Gandhis death having had to leave Punjab. At that time their kids were small and in the little plot of land they managed to 'purchase' they built a mud structure with a tin roof. Over the years they managed to educate the children as that was their first priority. When I came into their lives, the mud walls had been replaced by brick ones, the tin roof by a concrete one and they had just purchased a refrigerator. A small black and white TV occupied a place of honour. Today they have 2 colour TVs, coolers, mixers and grinders and a washing machine. The kids go to good public schools and they have new dreams they want to realise. Their wants are not illogical or absurd. They are the culmination of long difficult years. They are willing to pay for public services provided the bills are fair. They have not come all this way to go back to mud walls and tin roofs. They do not want to use a fan now that they have a cooler.

The kind of remarks politicians make shows the complete disconnect between the rules and their people. It is time things changed!

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