Edited Excerpts from an interview
You ran Delhi for 15 years, and by every account, it was an outstanding period for the city. Looking back at these years, what are the achievements that you are most proud of, happiest about?
We did governance in a situation where full powers are not with the state government. Please remember that Delhi is not a full state yet; it is a union territory. We do not have the police with us, we do not have the land with us, we have only two MLAs on the DDA’s planning board. We are dependent on the Central government for practically everything. In 2002, the BJP-led NDA government passed an order, saying that everything should go to the lieutenant governor (LG). Any new law, or any implementation order, should go to him for approval first.
So we, as a government, had to work virtually with our hands tied behind our back. Despite this, we achieved a great deal in the social sector because that was within our power. Today, Delhi government’s social sector takes up 65 percent of the current budget.
I am also proud of the improvements we made in the infrastructure, which everybody can see. The Delhi Metro project was lying somewhere on the top shelves; we brought it down and put it on track. You can see the number of roads and flyovers that was built during our tenure. We also brought economic prosperity to Delhi. Today, Delhi’s per capita income is more that Rs 3 lakh, which is the highest in the country. Then we brought the people’s voice into governance. We started the bhagidari system, which was recognised by the United Nations as a great step forward, towards a continuous democratic process.
Can you tell us a little more about the bhagidari system?
In the bhagidari system, we got the city’s residents welfare associations (RWAs), which were duly registered and elected bodies, into a process of continuous interaction with the state government. By now, we have about 3,700 RWAs in Delhi. We tried to understand their problems — Jor Bagh, for instance, may have one particular problem, South Extension may have another, Mehrauli, quite another. From their side, the RWAs tried to understand the scope and limits of governance. This created a constant interaction with the people, which we deepened through electronic media. After giving the system a trial of four-five years, we armed the District Collectors (DCs) with economic powers: we devolved Rs 5 crore to each of them to spend on projects and schemes put forward by the RWAs, that they felt were most needed. The money was not given directly to the RWAs, but through the DCs. This is in addition to what we devolved to the MLAs under the Local Area Development Scheme — Rs 4 crore a year. There is also Rs 1crore for water pipelines to be laid, etc, in areas where there is a scarcity of water. The MLAs control only the choice of projects. If they want something done by the PWD, for example, build a new road, then, the resources are allocated from the MLA’s LAD fund. So, it was not catered separately for, in the budget.
We also set up 140 Gender Resource Centres (GRCs), where we trained women through NGOs to develop their skills. To give an example, if you train a woman on how to make good bedsheets and pillow covers, then she can earn about Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000, because these are required not only in households, but also hotels, rest houses, etc. For women, we also started the “Awaz Uthao” campaign where women could get together and voice their concerns. We also created the 181 helpline number for women in distress.
So, you see, we were able to make a significant difference to peoples’ lives, and to the quality of governance in all the three sectors — social, economic and infrastructure. I believe the people approved of our government because their lives had improved and because they were involved in the decision-making.
I also tried to make our political system more accountable. Every MLA and minister was required to be available 24 hours. When we had a power crisis, I attended phone calls myself even at 2.00 am. We had a proper system for attending to peoples’ problems and grievances. We never had a situation in which thousands of people gathered with grievances and the government was unable to do anything. We had public grievance cells, where people could go and resister their complaints. We put governmental procedures and payment processes online. As a result, Delhi residents can now register their property, pay local taxes and dues online and get the paperwork done within 3 hours.
I brought in a system of service-level agreements with officers under which, if they do not reply, or provide the required service to the citizens within a stipulated time, they are fined for every day of delay.
In the healthcare sector, today Delhi has 43-46 government hospitals. This is in addition to the private hospitals that have mushroomed in Delhi and the National Capital Region in the past decade. These are serving not just the residents of Delhi but also people from the surrounding areas; as many as 36 percent of our patients come from the neighbouring states. They come to Delhi because Haryana and Uttar Pradesh may have good private hospitals but not enough government hospitals, particularly in Noida and Gurgaon. During my time we have built heart speciality and cancer specialty centres. We now have a liver and biliary sciences centre, the only one of its kind in India. My point is, we have tried to touch every part of everybody’s life.
As a resident of Delhi, I have felt some of these benefits. One area is the ease in payment of the house tax. Earlier it used to take endless amounts of time and the same payment demands used to keep coming back to me year after year even after it had been paid. All that has gone and the house tax itself has come down to a fraction of what it used to be.
But our revenue collection is better because lower rates and simpler payment methods have greatly improved tax compliance! Therefore I felt no need to go on raising tax rates. Delhi is a trading city. It is a hub for the despatch of goods throughout northern India. It does not have much of an agricultural economy. So I have concentrated on upgrading the facilities for trading, and for the services sector. We have made it more attractive for people to come here and send goods out to other parts of north India.
Are there things that you would have liked to do which have remained undone or could not do because of the constraints you work within?
No. You have to understand that half a million people come to Delhi every year. Why? Because it’s attractive, there are homes to stay in, there are jobs. The constant challenge my governments had to cope with was meeting the additional demand generated every year by these five lakh people for water, power, places to sleep in and jobs. So this is our unfinished task. So long as Delhi continues to grow, it will always remain unfinished. There can be no full stops in Delhi.
For instance, the Metro has made life infinitely easier for white and blue collar workers alike. Twenty-five lakh people travel in the Metro everyday, but it’s reach is still not widespread enough. After the Metro, we were going to bring in MonoRail in areas where the Metro cannot go, so that the traffic on the roads is less. More than five lakh cars, buses, two-wheelers and commercial vehicles are registered every year. We have been building roads and flyovers at breakneck speed. We’ve already built few underpasses, but more have to be built. We also thought of double-decker flyovers. Either a double-decker or an underpass, that was part of our manifesto. There are many unfinished tasks.
People frequently complain that because of the traffic on the roads, emergency medical care has become more and more difficult to get. And we don’t have a system where housing colonies have an “all medical facilities centre”.
I would agree with you on that issue. Yes, we have more than 150 government ambulances, dispensaries, smaller hospitals with 20 beds, etc, but because of the population and the traffic — we know about 29 different kinds of vehicles that run in Delhi — it’s still not enough. So we need to have more discipline, perhaps Singapore-style, which is very difficult to implement here.
How do you explain the 15 percent drop in the Congress votes then?
I can’t point to only one cause. There were several. There was the anger against corruption within the Central government, and against the price rise in the whole country, and that anger came out, specially in Delhi, because the central government happens to be sitting here and because of the presence of the media here. People may hear about a scam in remote areas, but it’s impact is felt most severely in Delhi.
Secondly, I think our party should have worked more collectively. It could also have been a kind of political fatigue: “it’s been 15 years, let’s have a change”. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had made promises that appealed to a lot of people living in posh areas — 50 percent reduction in power, 700 litres of free water, jobs for all, two laptops, contract labour to be over and everybody made permanent. Now these are attractive things, but certainly not feasible. If it had been possible I would have reduced the power tariff by 70 percent, and we would have had the cheapest power tariff in the country. Of our summer total of 5,000 MW of power consumption, our generating capacity is only 300-400 MW; we import the rest from NTPC and others. We constructed one power plant in Bawana with a capacity of 1,500 MW, but we couldn’t get enough gas. So it is only producing 100-150 MW.
The point I am making is this. Delhi is not a power-producing city. We don’t have the land. Even our water comes from Haryana, Punjab and UP. It has no natural resources, no agriculture. So you are working in a very different economic scenario.
Arvind Kejriwal and his colleagues have launched a rather personal attack against you on two issues. Broadly, they claim that there was corruption in the building of the Commonwealth Game apartments and the other is on the regularisation of 1,200 unauthorised colonies.
Kejriwal is talking about the Shunglu Committee and the CAG reports, but the CBI has cleared my government of all the charges contained in them. The only charge against me is that I selected some lights at my residence. Yes, I did that. Just go and see the Delhi secretariat; it’s one of the most beautiful in the country. I selected everything over there too.
The Shunglu Committee report also has just one sentence that says the chief minister took an interest in the selection of streetlights. In any case, they were decided by the departments concerned, which are the PWD and the MCD departments. We wrote a point-by-point reply to its allegations not only regarding me but the whole government. Our reply went to the Shunglu Committee and to the prime minister’s office. Both returned the file to us with no comments, which meant there was nothing to act upon. The CBI also cleared my government and me; they also sent our deposition back with no comments.
Kejriwal and his ilk must know that no minister actually decides on what is purchased. The Cabinet takes a decision and establishes a budget for something. The bureaucracy does the implementing. The Commonwealth Games’ budget was as much ours as the Government of India’s, and the DDA’s and other bodies. Within that budget, it’s the engineers and officers who decide who gets which contract. It never comes to any minister, leave alone the chief minister. So that is a totally false allegation. AAP is trying to misguide the people. Since they have made promises they cannot keep they are diverting public attention by lodging FIRs.
AAP is also alleging that unauthorised colonies were authorised just to get votes or pander to the rich middle-class unauthorised colonies.
No, there are more than 1,400 unauthorised colonies. The matter had to be cleared by the Urban Development Ministry and the Central government took some time to decide that. In the previous election, we had given these colonies provisional certificates. Now, can anybody bring down colonies that are home to lakhs and lakhs of people? How are you going to do it? And they are not all posh, they are middle-class, lower middle-class.
We started a process where they could pay the stipulated amount and get the ownership rights. It was not easy, because some of the colonies were located in areas that came under the Archaeological Survey of India, or were located in forest areas. They could not be recognised. The municipal corporation, which happens to be with the BJP, is supposed to give certificates that a colony does not violate any of the conditions. They tried to slow the process. If AAP thinks that it is going to recognise these colonies, then the process has already started and I think 895 colonies have already been recognised.
But I wish Kejriwal had asked me about our slum dwellers’ resettlement schemes. During Indira Gandhi’s time, a lot of jhuggi-jhopri dwellers were settled in resettlement colonies, but were not given ownership rights to the land on which their homes were built. Over the years, many of these people had been moved again and again, without being given rights to the new land either. During my tenure we have conferred the right of ownership on these people who now number 40 lakh.
That makes it even more difficult to understand why there was a huge drop in the Congress vote. How far has the economic slowdown in the country been a cause of this?
I don’t know if the economic slowdown in the country has actually physically impacted the people in Delhi. But, there were some shortcomings in our party, particularly its inability to communicate our achievements to the people.
Would it be correct to say that this is because the government has lost touch with the people?
No, we hadn’t lost touch with the people. If we had lost touch with the people, then we wouldn’t have taken the steps we did.
That’s a different kind of touch. One kind of touch is needed to identify what the people need. But another kind required to communicate and tell them “this has been done. You have acquired these rights and can access these facilities”. Has the party lost its capacity to communicate these things to the people?
This secondary feedback was lacking because the party was not active enough. The DC and the MLA had financial and other powers to do things. But it is possible that the residents of his or her area or constituency did not know.
This is the gap that AAP has been able to exploit. They have come forward with a promise to create a utopian world, however infeasible that may be. I think people got carried away by that. Because as I said, voter fatigue had set in “15 saal ho gaye, let’s have a change”. And our party had grown complacent.
Not many jobs may have been lost in Delhi, but it is also true that very few new jobs have been created in the past four years. As the national data clearly shows, this has particularly affected younger people who have just joined the labour force, and women. There has to be a sense of helplessness and disempowerment behind this reaching out to AAP.
No, this is true in the rest of the country. But Delhi is still creating jobs in large numbers. That is why it is even more a magnet for people from all over the country. Why does a college boy from the Northeast or Gujarat come to study here? You see good universities, and please remember the entire NCR is within easy reach and this is where large numbers of jobs are being created. People can take up jobs in Gurgaon or Noida, or go looking for jobs in both places and come home in a single day, 30-40 minutes on each journey is all it takes. So I am not too sure whether a sense of insecurity was responsible for the vote in Delhi for AAP. But I do feel strongly about voter fatigue, about a desire for change.
And there were pivotal events that catalysed public opinion against us simply because we happened to be the government in power at the time. The worst setback was the Nirbhaya rape case. Unfortunately, it was something totally beyond the state government as the Delhi Police is not under us.
AAP now wants the Lokpal Bill to cover the CM. “From the peon to the CM”, that’s their slogan. Is this feasible? What would be the effect of bringing the CM under the Lokpal?
I am not able to understand why the AAP has a problem with respecting due process — following a procedure. The Lokpal Bill has been passed by the Government of India. Anna Hazare ji congratulated Rahul Gandhi and the Congress for doing it. Now in a federal system like ours, can a state government pass any law that is repugnant to the Parliament? So, what is Kejriwal trying to do? What is the message he is sending: That I will have a Janlokpal Bill, which I want without understanding what I can or cannot constitutionally do? This is what I want, this is what I will have. And I will not follow any procedure?
AAP has raised specific questions about the oversight powers of the Central government over the Delhi Assembly, and you seem to say earlier that this was a serious constraint. As CM, did you chafe at this oversight and want it removed?
Yes, I would have liked that but in a limited way. Please remember Delhi is the capital of India and is not a full state. It has VVIPs and a host of diplomats. I think the state Assembly and administration should have much greater say in areas like land use changes and allocation. We are the ones who build the schools; we are the ones who build the hospitals. The DDA doesn’t do it so why is it that it has all the land?
Every time I want to start a school, I have to go the DDA. As for control of the police, there have been three committees set up by the Government of India to look into this. The Moily Committee, and before that, the Vedprakash Committee and the Balakrishnan Committee have all said that the Delhi government should get its own police, at least to enforce law and order and control traffic. So I have often said that we should divide the police, let the Centre keep VIP security and leave the rest to the state government.
So, Kejriwal is on a fairly good ground there but is not giving you the credit?
He can be on good ground but he must understand the procedures. My feeling is he does not understand these at the moment.
Is there a sea-change taking place in the development of Indian democracy? Most people feel and Rahul Gandhi has openly declared that democracy has been perverted and has become the preserve of the few and disempowered the ordinary people. How would you like the political system to respond to this challenge because the challenge is very real?
I just want to ask Kejriwal one question. What stops you from spelling out and undertaking the necessary reforms, to make your government responsive, make it more efficient, make it more open? You have the Right to Information (RTI) Act, use it better. Start with Delhi, because what Delhi thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. So, do it now. You are the CM today, you can change the bureaucracy, make it more modern. You can afford to do it. You may not be able to put an electronic registration in a faraway village, but you can certainly do it here. You can get your birth certificate or death certificate within a second if you want it here. So, there is nothing to stop you, provided you have the will to do it. There is no need to make promises you cannot keep and then circumvent them. You first promised to halve the price of power. Today, you have cut back your promise to 400 units, without realising that we had done this already.
Nonetheless, Kejriwal is getting tremendous response in other parts of India also. People are sensing that here is someone offering us an alternative. Whether he delivers or not, at the moment, people are feeling a new kind of hope. For political parties to remain relevant they must respond to this. I want specifically to ask you about two questions. One is on political corruption, which springs from the fact that all political parties need ever larger sums of money to fight elections, and have no legal and accountable way of getting it. Individual donations, even corporate donations, are in no way sufficient. The only alternative, as western Europe, and many other countries have found, is state funding of elections. Are you in favour of it?
Absolutely! Today candidates are made to collect funds to fight an election on their own. Ninety-nine percent of the people — I am just giving a rough figure — cannot do it. They can’t even pay their petrol bills.
The other thing has been much talked about is the clientelist system that has sprung up because of this. If a candidate succeeds in raising money it is understood that there will have to be a quid pro quo.
The quid pro quo comes primarily because you are helped in your time of need. If the government were to take up electoral funding, like it has taken distribution of voter lists and so on, then funding would become much more transparent. But the funding has to be liberal. We need to have a system like Western Europe or Australia. You have to think of these things because elections are necessary to keep our democracy alive.
Kejriwal’s other rallying point is the need to make the bureaucracy and police accountable to the people. The citizen’s charter was one idea for imposing accountability. Another way would be amending Article 311 to allow individuals to prosecute the government department concerned and force it to set its house in order. Do you feel that this is possible?
The more fundamental reform needed is a drastic simplification of procedures. If a simple application, as for a pension, is 10 pages long, one officer can give one interpretation and another can say “I am not satisfied”. We have to simplify things. We are not living in the British Raj. We have to base our systems upon trust. Systems designed to prevent mistakes or malfeasance delay all projects endlessly and that raises costs and denies benefits. If you base your systems on trust and faith, some people do take advantage of it, but the overall loss of time and money will be much smaller.
Where does one start, because there are so many departments?
What I would do is to take one or two departments which impact peoples’ daily lives most heavily and change the spirit of governance from suspicion to trust. Learn from the experiment and then apply the same principles to the rest of the government. It cannot be done overnight, so avoid making tall promises. Tata Motors was not built overnight either.