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Pradeep Chandra for Asiaweek
Just five years ago, Surat suferred a major outbreak of plague
Hearts and Minds
A city mired in indifference stages a remarkable turnaround
By JAGDISH RATTANANI Surat
If cleanliness is next to godliness, then Surat was pretty close to hell. Located 250 kilometers north of Bombay, the river-side city was known for its booming textile industry and diamond trade. It was also famous for being awash in filth. Some 40% of its 2.2 million people lived in slums, without drainage and sanitation. In September 1994, the worst happened: plague broke out following a flood. Migrant workers fled, 58 people died and thousands of businesses closed. People from Surat had to be certified healthy before entering other cities, and the few visitors it had, mostly journalists, wore masks and took antibiotics. The outbreak shook the country. Exports became suspect, Indian planes were banned from foreign air space and the Bombay Stock Exchange plummeted.
Officials quickly brought the disease under control, but Surat's stigma remained. As did its old habits. "We enjoy roadside food, and after eating, we littered. This was absolutely normal," says I. J. Desai, head of the pressure group, Surat Citizens' Council Trust. Despite sporadic clean-up efforts after the plague, the city was still extremely congested and unhealthy. Mounds of garbage lay outside well-appointed offices where business grew, unmindful of the stench.
Then came Suryadevra Ramchandra Rao. A little-known civil servant when the government appointed him to head Surat's municipal corporation (SMC) in mid-1995, Rao initiated the first steps that transformed the city into India's second cleanest (after Chandigarh). More than that, entire mindsets changed. Surat is now the only Indian metropolis with a municipal service which works every day of the year. It is where roads are scrubbed every night, where all but four municipal cars are hired to save costs, and where the city commissioner and his officers regularly patrol the streets. The municipal service, says current commissioner Guruprasad Mohapatra, underwent a "total change, like a sick enterprise moving to profit mode."
Transformation didn't come easily. In a community that had little civic pride or regard for public cleanliness, the 15,000 demoralized city employees saw little use for Rao's program to improve waste disposal and slum conditions. "So I told them: Instead of blaming the people, let's just do our jobs," says the former city manager. Hence his slogan, AC to DC: go from air-conditioned offices to daily chores.
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How we did it
Yet more than half a year after Surat scrubbed up, Rao says, people's attitudes did not change. They evidently reckoned the new city boss would soon run out of steam. "That's when we went about establishing rule of law," he says. Officers spared no one. In fact, the most powerful culprits were tackled first, whether it was a hotel kitchen violating hygiene standards or a rich businessman evading city taxes. The same applied to illegal structures, which ranged from shanties to stores catering to the middle-class. Rao's reasoning was simple: "If we let off the moneyed, the goondas [criminals] and the well-connected, then we have no right to go to slums and tell them [to obey the law]." And despite the temptation to placate potential voters, the elected city council quietly backed Rao's actions.
"The visible difference was so great that it caught the citizens' fancy," recalls Prakash Dubey, Mumbai's tax commissioner who was working in Surat at the time. "The people stepped in with active support." Some residents organized themselves into Rao senas (armies) to defend the civic authorities against opposition. Others even volunteered to take down their own building extensions which enroached into already narrow streets. Says deputy mayor Navalbhai Dhirubhai Patel: "Cooperation was so good, sometimes we had tears in our eyes seeing common citizens sacrifice for the city."
Since then, three-quarters of the slums have had their streets paved. Where only 40% of the daily garbage was cleared, the figure is now closer to 97%. Health officials also set up a surveillance system through community clinics and hospitals that allowed them to anticipate problems. Morbidity fell by an amazing 65% within two-and-a-half years. In the process, Rao notes, city workers regained their self-esteem. Revenues from litter fines, collected as "administrative fees," have risen from $80,600 in 1996 to $278,000 last year. But that may be more a consequence of conscientious municipal inspectors than increased littering. Says commissioner Mohapatra: "The charge has made people more aware. People may deny liability, but no one questions being penalized."
Heads of municipal divisions were required to spend about half the day on walkabouts, which not only put staff on their toes but also helped senior officers appreciate their hard work. Daily reports kept track of such basic services as pipe repairs and waste collection, part of which was contracted out to raise efficiency. Color-coded postcards for residents' grievances ensured problems were attended to within set times: 24 hours or 48 hours. And together with citizens' groups, the authorities built public toilets in slum areas and widened roads to facilitate cleaning and smooth traffic. What's more, they have done it without handouts from the state and national governments.
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The city's problems go deeper than filthy or narrow streets, of course. Although Surat is the oldest municipality in Gujarat, dating back to 1852, its infrastructure is patently inadequate, especially following an industrialization boom in the 1980s. Only 37% of the city area is served by a sewerage system. Industrial effluents still pollute the Tapi river. For some residents, the quality of life hasn't changed much. Khemaji Baheraji, who lives in hut 366 in the slums of Shiv Nagar Katargam Darwaja, concedes that the roads are cleaner. But the drain at his doorstep remains uncovered, and there are no toilets, not even a dirt track to the main road. The 74-year-old can't afford better: he earns a pittance selling salt.
Raising income levels of people like Baheraji will require more than efficient city managers. But in the meantime, the SMC has pledged to extend sanitation to every corner of the city by 2001. All residents can expect piped water within four months, thanks two newly completed supply schemes costing $90 million. The SMC also has big plans to upgrade the slums and relocate residents. "We have to now move into second gear," says commissioner Mohapatra.
The city expects it. The bar has been raised since the Rao tenure, says Ravindra N. Vepari, who heads one of Surat's largest accounting firms. Local schools, for example, held a series of elocution contests on the question: What after Rao? (The former commissioner now heads a port authority.) "Having tasted the new atmosphere of cleanliness, no one would like to go back to the old, dirty ways," Vepari reasons. "People have become more appreciative - and demanding," says Mohapatra.
Surat's residents and their pride in the city remain the key driving forces of change today. "For a good system to be sustained, we need people awareness and involvement," says Desai of the Citizens' Council Trust. Hence the group's role as an independent monitor of the SMC's work. At his diamond factory, Sevantibhai Shah and his 1,000 employees maintain a level of cleanliness that can never be attained on public roads. But the gem merchant knows Surat has changed for ever. "Before the plague, I always knew my city was dirtier than others," he says. "Now, whenever I visit any other city in India, I feel my city is the best."
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