DELHI: Focus shifts

To environment, development

Published: Saturday 15 November 2003

DELHI: Focus shifts

Sheila Dikshit <br> Chief Mini in the capital, a clean break seems to have been made with the rancorous mudslinging that is part and parcel of an election campaign. Instead, substantive issues are fuelling the verbal slugfests in the run-up to the assembly polls.

Matters pertaining to participatory governance, development and the environment have taken centrestage because the incumbent Congress government -- led by chief minister (cm) Sheila Dikshit -- has scored on all these fronts. The Congress regime has also appeared more accessible than its predecessor Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) government. Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan avers that the Congress's impressive track record on most of these issues might stand it in good stead, especially among young voters.

powered by cng: Ask Dikshit about her government's achievements, and the move to introduce compressed natural gas (cng) as an alternative fuel in public transport vehicles will top her list. To be sure, the decision has proved momentous in that cng has contributed substantially to improving the capital's air quality. The sharp fall in air pollution is evidenced by the 10 per cent drop in respirable suspended particle matter (rspm) levels between 1998 and 2001 -- the period during which the green fuel was launched. While the rspm level was 200 microgrammes per cubic metre at one of the busiest traffic junctions of the capital in 1998, it fell to 180 microgrammes per cubic metre in 2001. But it is noteworthy that the same government had briefly tried to stonewall cng's launch two years ago, despite Supreme Court directives.

devolution mantra: Another notable success notched by the Congress government is the unveiling of the Bhagidari programme, a system of shared governance. Bhagidari was introduced in 1999 to act as an interface between the administration and people. Starting with a few resident welfare associations (rwas), the programme has grown manifold to reach several hundred such bodies. A Civil Society/tns-mode survey covering 132 rwas found that 96 per cent people thought Bhagidari was a good idea. Further, 74 per cent felt that it had improved the quality of life in Delhi. However, Rangarajan is of the view that Bhagidari may not really help the Congress draw votes. According to him, almost a third of Delhi's population, which lives in unauthorised colonies or slum clusters, has not yet benefited from the scheme. This is important, as the turnout of poor voters is higher than those belonging to the middle class and affluent sections of society.

overall development: In public perception, the capital's power situation and roads have improved markedly. The turnaround is largely due to the privatisation of power distribution in 2002 and construction of several flyovers. Work has been completed in as many as 22 out of a total 44. Even as the bjp levelled allegations of a Rs 1800-crore scam in the power sector, the move seems to have failed to sway the voters. In addition to these civic amenities, the launch of the Delhi Metro rail service in December last year is being seen as a facility that would help in easing the traffic congestion as well as curbing vehicular pollution. Interestingly, the Congress and bjp (by virtue of its being in power at the centre) are both claiming credit for this project.

The present government has also made a significant impact in the field of healthcare by opening new hospitals and expanding the capacity of existing ones. Since 1998, about 820 beds have been added in 15 hospitals.

According to Dikshit, two things that would tip the scales in the Congress's favour are development and better quality of life being offered to the residents. "Specifically, it's the cleaner air and a change in the mindset of the people. They are beginning to appreciate the greenery, flyovers, Metro and increase in the forest cover," the cm told Down To Earth . Yogendra Yadav of Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (csds) reveals that environment has, in a way, become an election issue in Delhi.

Opinion polls show Dikshit to be well ahead of her main rival and bjp's chief ministerial candidate, Madan Lal Khurana. The electorate, cutting across age groups and social and economic status, prefers a second term for Dikshit rather than putting Khurana in the saddle. Her popularity is particularly evident among the very poor, Dalits, minority communities, women and younger generation voters, states a survey carried out jointly by the Hindustan Times and csds.

Notwithstanding these positive indicators, corruption is still rampant -- particularly in civic bodies like the Delhi Development Authority (dda) -- and the city's crime rate is spiralling. But thanks to Delhi's unique status as the country's capital, Dikshit can pass the buck for such ills to the bjp-led Union government. While dda is a part of the Union urban development ministry, the Delhi Police come directly under the Union home ministry. Although the Union cabinet did clear the Delhi statehood bill, Dikshit called it a "half-baked" plan since it envisaged only cosmetic changes.

There may be some weight in the cm's arguments, but the Congress government still has a lot to answer for. The high level of pollution in Yamuna river and scarcity of water in the city are a few unresolved issues. Khurana is also trying to put Dikshit on the mat over the dengue epidemic that has struck Delhi with a vengeance. Another ominous sign for the Congress is the sudden rise in onion prices, an issue that had dislodged the bjp during the previous assembly elections in 1998. Clearly, the incumbent government has no room for complacency.

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