We will continue to have disasters like AMRI hospital, unless we plan separately for our streets and roads.
A week ago, fire broke out in the Advanced Medicare & Research Institute (AMRI) Hospital in Salt Lake City, Kolkata, killing 93 people. AMRI is a chain of hospitals, and the one in Salt Lake is a prestigious one. For instance, Mr Jyoti Basu, the former Chief Minister of West Bengal, breathed his last there. In a knee-jerk reaction, the local government has arrested all directors of the hospital and a few others. We don't know how the case will proceed.
Interestingly enough, nobody is thinking of the primary reasons as to why such a prestigious hospital is located in a narrow street, why inflammable material was stored in the basement, why the hospital ignored a warning issued last September, and why no action was taken all these months for failing to correct the flaws.
WHO IS TO BLAME?
There are two issues here. One that will concern the ordinary person is punishment of the culprits. The second is our system of governance that lets these mistakes occur and persist. For example, isn't it time that we ask why streets are built as narrow as they are, why hospitals cannot be located on a decent road, and why buildings aren't maintained well? However culpable the hospital administration may be, the tragedy would have been improbable if our governance had been good.
Punishing culprits is comparatively less significant than installing good governance. Hence, we will now discuss how that may be done.
For reasons that aren't clear, our town planners don't distinguish between streets and roads. Roads are meant for unimpeded traffic, whereas streets are to be designed for providing access to property on either side. There is no way the two functions can be confined in one thoroughfare. Fast traffic will be impeded by people stopping to access property or crossing the road for that purpose. For that reason, fast traffic will prevent people from crossing the road to access property on either side of a street. A city needs to have both roads and streets; and the two have to be designed differently.
Streets will have many pedestrians and should be designed for their safety and comfort. On the other hand, roads shouldn't have pedestrians at all, and should be designed for fast movement of vehicles. Hence, streets must have pavements, and should also offer emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire engines easy access at all times. There was much hullaballoo when many people died in Coimbatore during a wedding, but no action was taken to change the laws of town planning. That error is likely to be repeated in the case of AMRI hospital too.
For instance, we should accept that in the near future most people will have cars, but there just might not be enough garages to park them. Hence, all our streets — including those meant for the current poor — should be wide enough to accommodate pavements for pedestrians, provide space for cars, and yet permit easy access for ambulances and fire engines during emergencies. That means no street should be less than 15 metres wide.
There is constant talk of housing the poor and clearing slums, but nothing gets done. Even this week, the Prime Minister raised the topic. Is he thinking of 15-metre-wide streets for our slums? I don't think so. Has he heard of the 80-20 principle by which the top half spends 80 per cent of the total and the bottom half the remaining 20 per cent? I doubt it. Is he aware that the rule applies only to current expenditure but not to capital investments; therefore, the poor should get subsidised houses? I don't think so.
We need a law which compels every new real estate project to set apart 20 per cent space to construct half the total number of houses. In the beginning, the rich may occupy them and the poor may not want them. But with time, those houses, being small, will naturally attract more and more of the poor, and the rich will quit. Ultimately, there will be no slums, particularly when the government pays for the infrastructure of the streets and subsidises houses built for the lower half.
An urban area needs space for houses, for services, for industry and for recreation. Let us allocate not more than 40-50 per cent for housing, 20 per cent for roads, 10-20 per cent for services, 10-20 per cent for recreation, and the remainder for industry. Then, a hospital like the AMRI won't have to use influence to get space even on a narrow side street.
Our governance is terrible because it is highly centralised. Our administrators aren't good managers because they concentrate on direction and not on inspection. A couple of hundred British officers ruled more than three hundred millions on the sub-continent, because they concentrated on inspection, but delegated the authority to act to low-level subordinates.
In our cities, rich people (and very poor ones too) flout every rule and get away with it. That is partly because no single person is responsible; nobody knows where to complain to get their grievance rectified. As I have suggested before, we need a jawabdar— an individual in every locality to whom complaints can be taken, who will take action against anyone flouting rules, who will certify every month that no rule is being broken, and who alone is responsible for everything that goes wrong.
We will continue to have disasters like the ones in Coimbatore and the AMRI hospital, unless we change our town planning rules to accommodate the poor and separate streets from roads; we should also change our governance system from direction to inspection.
(The author is a former director, IIT, Madras. Response to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(This is 318th in the Vision 2020 series. The last article appeared on December 3.)