Sheila Dikshit will be remembered not only for her smiling nature and pleasant personality but also for transforming the Capital by taking some bold decisions
The period between 1998 and 2013 was momentous for Delhi when Sheila Dikshit was the Chief Minister. It was during her tenure that the capital faced a multitude of problems like air pollution, water and power shortages and poor infrastructure, to name a few. But Dikshit took all these head on and with great success. While many issues still haunt the city, nevertheless, her vision of Delhi as a modern metropolis, worthy of being called the capital of a rising nation, was by and large fulfilled.
Dikshit had said that “Delhi is rich in human resource but poor in natural resource” — water and wind both come from outside the city. She was a committed environmentalist. True to her being, she gave priority to issues of pollution and environment. In 1998, she ordered all buses in the city to be run on compressed natural gas (CNG). This brought about a substantial improvement in Delhi’s air quality back then. In yet another move to improve public transport system, Dikshit insisted on the introduction of low-floor buses, which were highly priced but well-integrated. She had the vision of introducing air conditioned low-floor buses as well, despite the huge cost to the exchequer, compared to the earlier high-floor buses plying on the Delhi roads, mounted on truck chassis, used by the Delhi Transport Corporation. The new fleet of buses brought about a sea-change in the way people commuted since, making it more reliable, modern and secure.
Further, the introduction of CNG for all forms of transport required the development of a massive infrastructure. Adequate number of CNG pumps for the filling of cars, buses and trucks needed to be set up, besides creating parking space for the vehicles. Dikshit was quite generous in allotting land for the purpose to the Indraprastha Gas Limited, which was a joint venture of the Government of Delhi and the Gas Authority of India.
Water has always been a tricky issue for the capital and her visionary leadership enabled the construction of the Sonia Vihar treatment plant, which supplied water from the Ganga canal to East Delhi. The improvement of treatment capacity and reduction in losses due to leakages, including the emphasis on metering of water supply, brought about substantial improvements in the water distribution system. However, there is still a continuing need to augment water supply from other sources to meet the growing demand of ever-expanding settlements. Dikshit also supported the research project of Renuka Dam to ensure water availability in future.
Delhi’s infrastructure underwent a rapid transformation during her leadership. From the widening of roads to the building of bridges, flyovers and the introduction of the lifeline of the national capital, the Delhi Metro, connectivity improved dramatically during her tenure. East Delhi, too, saw improved connectivity. The Commonwealth Games (CWG) held in 2010 enabled her to take many bold decisions. Dikshit used to say that we need to learn from the Delhi Metro as to how timely completion of projects can be ensured. The Barapullah (now Banda Bahadur flyover) road was constructed in a record time of 18 months, which would normally take five years to complete. At the planning stage, the Railways and the Archaeological Survey of India were opposed to its construction as it would cross the Nizamuddin Railway station and was too close to the Humayun tomb. But Dikshit was able to convince the Central Ministers to remove the objections of the departments and the work went on for the completion of the project. She personally inspected the progress of the project. Today, the Barapullah flyover is an important lifeline connecting the city.
Other important infrastructure projects started during her tenure included the Signature Bridge, which is an iconic structure of Delhi. The Delhi Haat at INA is a must visit to buy ethnic items. It became such a hit that two more haats were set up in Pitampura and Janakpuri. The Garden of Five Senses is yet another landmark place. The Vikas Bhawan II, built under the green building concept, too, was her brainchild. I remember informing her that unlike the Delhi Secretariat, which was constructed during her tenure as an iconic building, the Vikas Bhawan II had air conditioning provision only for officers. She insisted that all staff members must have the same facilities even if it costs more. I had to inform the Public Works Department (PWD) to change the plans and have a fully air- conditioned office building.
One of the most significant decisions taken by her was the privatisation of the power sector in Delhi. This was a controversial move but was essential because of the lack of infrastructure for power and the enormous losses incurred by the Delhi Vidyut Board as also to address the growing demand.
As a result, power availability in the capital has improved and competition has enabled the sector to become self-sustaining. However, further improvements are still needed and this requires constant review.
I remember, just before the opening of the CWG, some foreign team managers complained about the lack of complete infrastructure and also pointed towards the negative reports in the Press. Dikshit swiftly reached the Games Village and held a discussion with the delegates. Her smiling nature and pleasant personality were enough to convince them to stop complaining and they felt reassured about the seriousness of the administration to complete the work on time. Any apprehension that there would be calls for boycott of the games was nullified.
She started the hugely successful campaign involving children for a cracker-free Diwali as well as the “green and clean” Delhi campaign. Planting and giving saplings as gifts at official functions and school meetings was a huge success, and created an enormous impact and awareness about environment protection. The ‘Stree Shakti’ campaign to check women and children’s health in camps from time to time showed that she was sensitive to the needs of people of all sections. She had an open house every day where she would listen to scores of people at her official residence.
Improving governance was her mantra. After the Telgi stamp paper scam, it became necessary to incorporate changes in the system. Electronic stamp paper was introduced to ensure that no scam got repeated. It involved setting up of an E-stamping infrastructure in coordination with Stock Holding Corporation of India. Today, it is a well-established system. Computer education, too, was started in schools to ensure that the digital divide does not put Government school children at a disadvantageous position.
Dikshit ensured that Delhi pulsated with art and culture. She instituted the Delhi Kala Academy Awards for outstanding artistes and every year, cultural programmes, including the publicly appreciated music recitals at Nehru Park Chanakya Puri, were immensely popular.
As the commissioner of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), every time I brought to her notice any financial problems in the organisation, she would instruct the officers to sort it out. I also informed her about the growing garbage problem. On her next visit to the United Nations, she asked UNOPS to conduct a study of the garbage problem and they appointed a Dutch and Indian consultant to study and give a report. Many initiatives on waste to energy, mechanisation of garbage handling and creation of new engineered landfills in Delhi are a result of the report submitted by the consultants. Such was her deep understanding of the issues and problems facing Delhi. Trifurcation of MCD was yet another achievement. It brought competitive spirit in the three MCDs.
During her tenure as the Chief Minister, Delhi underwent a complete transformation in infrastructure, environment awareness, garbage management, education, health, and e-governance. She took bold decisions and never took a U-turn once a decision was taken. She toured Delhi relentlessly, met the people, heard their grievances and also listened to elected representatives. She called bureaucrats for meetings and heard them and gave decisions, which each one implemented, being sure that there will be no going back once decision was taken. She had leadership, compassion, wisdom, and a steely resolve behind a smiling visage. She knew the measures needed by Delhi to move the metropolis forward. She was fully conversant with the constitutional position of Delhi and could convince the leadership at the Centre and also lead from the front.
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Delhi)
Writer: Rakesh Mehta
Courtesy: The Pioneer