Did the ‘mehndi’ or the speed breaker kill her? – The Hindu

This incredibly sad story of a young woman dying in a road accident a day before she was to wed is from Chennai, India. It is one of the thousands of avoidable deaths that occur with frightening frequency in this country.

Did the ‘mehndi’ or the speed breaker kill her? – The Hindu.


Urban Jungle: Chennai is a horror for people on foot

My Urban Jungle column in The Hindu on the difficulty of being a pedestrian in Chennai published today, is here. This column is part of a series on the city, and looks at the many aspects of suburbia from a personal viewpoint.

Beware when you tread on Chennai roads. The footpaths are barely there, and often hold nasty surprises. Photo shows a drain clean-up in progress on Kodambakkam Station Road. Note the various obstacles on the walker’s path.

Bent but not broken in Chennai

This scene on a busy Chennai road is a powerful visual of what the streets of the city are today, for people who have fallen afoul of the consumptive economy. As one of the most densely populated cities in India today, Tamil Nadu’s capital is witnessing a fast deterioration in the quality of life. Real public investment has been shrinking and virtually disappeared after last year’s state elections brought the AIADMK to power. The city has a significant slum population, scorching speculation in property, withdrawal of the government from welfare sectors (in spite of high profile announcements to the contrary), and sheer lack of public circulating space.

No city for old women

Chennai is at the bottom of the list of Indian cities when it comes to pedestrian facilities. Ask this woman on Station View Road, Kodambakkam, which is hostile to walkers.

An old, bent woman making her way along one of the crowded roads in Kodambakkam may be unremarkable to those who have lost touch with the reality that most citizens encounter. This arthritic older adult is almost at the centre of the road, moving ahead painfully with the help of a stick. This is Station View Road. The space at right is actually illusory for walkers, because it is created by a commercial establishment for its own purposes, is not continuous, and pushes a walking person to the centre at several points closer to the suburban railway station.

I remember the spaces available to old people about the age of this woman on the streets of Barcelona when I visited that magnificent city in 2010. Retirees were enjoying themselves, walking along nicely demarcated and smooth footpaths, in groups, chatting. It was a picture of contentment, afforded in part by civic order. What a contrast!

Until Chennai is brought to its senses, and forced to identify clear walking spaces along the margins of its roads, it will remain at the bottom of civilised practice, as this recent news report on walkability in India in the Times of India points out.

Chennai Transport Regulatory Authority: Will it help commuters?

The reported setting up of the transport regulatory authority for Chennai is indeed a positive measure, but it appears to fall short of recommendations made by the Planning Commission and also the objectives of the NUTP and JNNURM. (Report on the development in The Hindu is here.)
All the official documents are available in full on the Internet. (See links below)
The key questions to my mind are:
1. The Planning Commission in its approach to the 11th Plan suggests a legislative foundation for such a transport regulatory authority. What has been done in TN?
2. A major function of the new body as envisaged by the Commission, and also by international practice, is creation of a level playing field. Since there is only a monopoly operator, there is a conflict in expanding the system for commuter benefit.
3. The Commission, I think, expressly states that the existing operator cannot run the Regulator. Since the Transport Minister heads the existing operator, MTC, it goes against the grain of the policy.
4. We would have to look at what kind of civil society representation is found on the regulator to represent users, other than the official players, which is the bus operator, planning authority, police and so on.
5. What kind of remit does the regulator have to include allied activities like pedestrian movement, which are key to greater use of public transport? This requires policy synchronisation. On the contrary, the huge Chennai Corporation tenders published over the past two days in The Hindu indicate that it is business as usual – widening of roads (in other words, removing footpaths) and making investments for motorised road users at the cost of walkers.
The following documents are important to analyse the changes in transport policy.
  • Planning Commission approach paper to Eleventh Plan, on Transport including MRTS is here.
  • The UPA Government’s National Urban Transport Policy is here.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission website is here.
  • Rutgers University paper on urban transport crisis in India is here.

K.K.Nagar child loses leg, but do we care?

Today’s column by Paul Krugman dwells on the long-term effects of malnutrition. Children without adequate nutrition tend to lose out on full intellectual capacity development and hence are condemned to poverty in many cases. Krugman’s anguish is based on scientific evidence from the AAAS, and has strong resonance among Indians, whose great nation holds arguably the largest number of malnourished children on the planet.

I would like to add to that continuing tragedy, the shocking lack of safety for children attending school. The Hindu reported last Friday (Feb. 15) that a six year old child lost its leg in an accident involving a car very close to Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan Senior Secondary School in K.K.Nagar.

Most likely, there will be little outrage at such an unspeakable tragedy, of a child called S.Swaminathan being condemned to disability for life due to rampant motorisation in India. A mad rush for vehicles with no standards, training or safeguards whatsoever. The majority of middle-class Indians are too busy enjoying their new luxuries, including powerful cars, and have little time to devote to such horrors or to the crumbling state of infrastructure in which their nation is cooking up 8.5 plus per cent growth.

Many children make such dangerous trips everyday in Chennai.

I took the accompanying picture on way back from K.K.Nagar three days after the accident was reported. It shows a motorcyclist squeezing through some rubble that has been generated by construction of a median, near Jawahar Vidyalaya, Ashok Nagar. There was no need to replace this median, but apparently, someone in the Chennai Corporation or another agency decided to replace the existing one with hard granite. Of course, these planners can never get down to setting footpaths right. That small step would help many school children walk to school safely, but apparently, dressing up with costly granite is more important to today’s civic managers than investing in simple, effective solutions.

We can only express our deep anguish that many generations of Indians will have to lose life and limb, before our polity acquires the maturity to view these safety issues as fundamental. Until then, our semi-literate politicians and their brand of dangerously creaky politics will rule, aided greatly by middle class indifference.

Of course, for the police, lives are mere statistics. This statement from the Chennai City Traffic Police only confirms that depressing reality.

The World Bank, corruption, the media and India

One of the mysteries of our time, an era of galloping GDP growth and relentless hype about an Indian century, is the breathless welcome given to World Bank projects in a number of States. When there is so much buoyancy in tax revenues, and when Indians are only too willing to pay a little extra for national development (they are already paying a cess for infrastructure and education), what is the need for the WB to come in with its insignificant offerings and reams of advice on how to spend money that is mostly loaned (in other words, which is anyway to be repaid ?)

There can be one of two reasons or perhaps both. One is that it is easy to get a WB loan, ostensible conditions notwithstanding. Second, it is easy to spend that money without too many questions being asked in legislatures and parliament. These would be difficult to achieve with tax funds. The other distressing conclusion is that we are hopelessly corrupt as a people and will loot from all possible sources, and when the Bank itself is willing to look the other way (for some strange reason) we will take from there as well.

Without question, the Detailed Implementation Review conducted by the World Bank, provides a close look at the maggots that infest the rotting appendages of India’s Government-supervised projects. For a country that is forever on a high about its cultural and democratic credentials, it is a reminder that it has not even a fig leaf.

The World Bank has been providing staggering loans for many years, during the Hindu rate of growth, but there is little or no visible change. Now, the Bank tells us that it has suddenly woken up to rampant corruption in India’s handling of the funds in healthcare projects. Could it be that India’s politician-bureaucrat-contractor parivar has become more successful at fraud, alarming even the Bank? Or is something else going wrong?

According to the Bank, the five projects covered by the Detailed Implementation Review findings include the $114 million Malaria Control Project, the $82.1 million Orissa Health Systems Development Project, the ongoing $54 million Food and Drug Capacity Building Project, the $193.7 million Second National HIV/AIDS Control Project, and the $124.8 million Tuberculosis Control Project. The trigger for the review is the corruption exposed in the Reproductive and Child Health Project.

(It appears that the Bank’s audit found that there was something rotten even within, as an internal audit revealed. The operations in India by Bank officials flouted its own rules. The Wall Street Journal has called it a disgrace and posted the Detailed Implementation Review online for everyone to see.)

Two classic cases of doublespeak by the Bank are found right here in Tamil Nadu. We have a multi-million dollar Health Systems Project in progress in the State. There is also the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project Phase III being implemented. Just what components of these projects are decided by our rulers and their friends at the WB, in consultation with the public?

The financial summary of such loans is given as follows in the HSP:

Terms and Conditions Between Govt. of Tamil Nadu & Govt. of India

As per Office Memorandum, Annex II of External Assistance Manual)

  • The external assistance received from World Bank is passed on by the Government of India to States as Additional Central Assistance (ACA) in 30 : 70 mix of grants and loans.

  • Maturity period of loan is 20 years

  • Rate of Interest is 12%

The HSP is effective for five years from January 2005. Three years have passed. One of the components of the high cost project is a Health Management Information System. We have seen none of that in the three major teaching tertiary hospitals in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital, including the apex Government General Hospital which receives referral patients from all over the State. Would the bank like to extend its policy of transparency to the media and tell us what is going on here? Surprisingly, the Tamil Nadu Health Systems Project even has a dedicated website purportedly maintained by Tata Consultancy Services, but it is remarkably indifferent to detail and transparency. Clearly, Mr. Robert Zoellick is missing something here, if at all he is looking closely.

The Reproductive and Child Health Project has already been flagged as a corrupt enterprise by the WB. We have no idea of how the mess has been cleared up, and only terse details are available from the Bank’s press release.

If you look at the TN Urban Development Project III, for which the State Government says the bulk of the funding for the plans made so far will come from the Bank, there is even less transparency. I asked Ms. Abha Joshi Ghani, Lead Infrastructure  Specialist South Asia Energy and Infrastructure at the Bank, for her response on how the Bank goes about preparing its plans. Does it disclose its plans and seek public comment? Is the outcome report for past phases of TNUDP available on its website, so that the public can compare what it has promised and what has been delivered? I have so far got only vague replies and a promise to find the link to previous outcome reports.

On the policy front, the TNUDP is a retrograde step, pushing an anti-environmental agenda such as usurping common spaces and sidewalks to favour construction of roads, overpasses and freeways. I have not seen a single component to build pedestrian infrastructure, such as modern walkways, subways or crosswalks. One of the components is to construct modern bus termini. How many have you seen built by Ms. Jayalalithaa and her predecessor/successor?

Most of the basic project proposals are available for the media to peruse in the public domain. In addition, the Right to Information Act 2005, which has so impressed the Bank, is available for journalists to use. But who can help a media that vows to see no evil, hear no evil and report no evil?