While we forcefully advocate a free market, it should in no manner mean a market without regulations or one where rules are flouted wantonly by corrupting civic authorities, an example of the kind being the cause of the devastating fire that claimed the lives of 14 people, including 11 women, who were celebrating a friend’s birthday in Mumbai on 29 December. No doubt, several palms had been greased to ensure that pubs packed a cramped building without adequate fire safety measures, leaving little access to fire tenders to reach the spot in the eventuality of an accident. The false roofs that collapsed under the impact of the inferno, increasing the casualty, point at another act of negligence by the restaurateurs that the authority sanctioning the eateries callously neglected. The human loss could have been graver if the fire had broken out during the daytime, as the Trade House Building in the Kamala Mills compound houses many commercial units. ‘Fire-fighting’ now to pacify public anger by informing the people that five officials have been suspended and that the police are on a lookout for the owners of the “1 Above” pub does not impress as a knee-jerk albeit necessary action. This is not a political issue, though, and the people will not be more secure by cursing the Devendra Fadnavis government, as accidents of the type are waiting to happen across cities of the country under the writ of different governments.
Corruption plagues municipalities everywhere as no economic reform has reached this lowest stratum of governance in the country, which has left enormous powers with extortionist babus to heckle businessmen rather than keep the latter ethical in business pursuits. The structure and mandate of these civic bodies are such that they are, in effect, not under the control of the State governments even when both are ruled by the same political party. When the parties are different, the situation worsens, witnessing a puerile showdown between the two as it has been happening for the past two years in Delhi. Some officials have already admitted they are an ineffective bunch when it comes to overseeing restaurants in the national capital. The most notorious among Indian cities is Kolkata where barely a year passes that sees no major incident of some commercial establishment reducing to ashes. But the issue is not fire alone; there are building collapses, parking bottlenecks, road accidents, noise, air and water pollution and a host of other problems — all attributable to the corruption and inefficiency of the system known as a municipality.
Fundamentally, the efficacy of a municipal corporation in managing a large city is under question. When a better managed and arguably less corrupt civic body of the New York City is not able to avert a similar disaster, governments and the people must ask themselves whether it is feasible for a centralised behemoth of bureaucrats to keep every building, lane and alley under strict vigil even if the inspectors were to be incorruptible. It would be a much better idea to let every neighbourhood, residential or commercial, manage its own affairs except when funds are required for large or macro projects — roads, water supply, electricity, bridges, transportation, etc — for which they may approach the State government. When the area is commercial, mutually competing interests of the tenants of office spaces would ensure that no business house gets away with a monstrous building while the collective interest would keep the place from turning into an ugly jungle of concrete. Where there are houses alone, the residents would manage everything from the space between adjacent and parallel walls to the disposal of garbage better. Finally, the central government led by Narendra Modi must realise, if there is one impediment to the realisation of the fruits of his reform measures, it is the municipality of every city in the country which makes a mess of the good intentions of every democratically elected lot. All governments committed to offering the people better living conditions must sit together to mull over the idea of community management of neighbourhoods.