It is a good time indeed for the people suffering nightmares during the long rainy season � the much-needed repairs to the bylanes of our cities and towns have started. But can we really be happy looking at the newly laid tar on the broken, pot-holed lanes that we had traversed so long in knee-deep water made slippery by slimy mud deposited by the swilling water from the open, overflowing drains infested with billions of infectious germs?
The answer is neither a yes nor a no. No doubt, the newly tarred roads lift the spirits of all commuters, be it a pedestrian, a motorist or a cyclist. It is a blessing for rickshaw-pullers and autorickshaw drivers who can heave a sigh of relief at the respite from the back-breaking and vehicle-damaging rides that were forced on them throughout the year. Cart-pushers will perspire less and motorists will save some money on repairs, which is a welcome relief considering the ever-rising prices of all commodities!
However, the city dwellers and the small shopkeepers on the roadside have something else to fear about. This dread comes from the raised surface of the roads in front of their houses and shops. Once again, the PWD has raised the road surface this year by a minimum of 10-15 cm, despite protests. This annual ritual indulged in so gleefully by a responsible public service department creates such fear among the people that they would rather continue with the muddy and dusty roads instead of the newly tarred ones.
The surfaces of almost all roads have risen by at least a foot over a short period of only 5-7 years. Homes and shops constructed during the 1970s and 80s have already gone below road level by at least 2-3 feet. Those constructed in the 90s and the first decade of the new millennium have been dwarfed by 1-2 feet during the same period. The residents start dreading the rainy season even in the heady days of winter and spring as they feel their homes will soon be ravaged by dirty water carrying a multitude of germs. This is the result of the efforts of our city planners sitting in the ivory tower of the state capital!
During the last 15-year regime, the then CM was apprised of the problem umpteenth times by this writer in his capacity as the Chief of the State Emergency Response Services. To his credit, the CM readily responded to the problem and instructed the district administration, the PWD and the State Emergency Services to conduct a joint survey to identify the roads that could be widened and also to explore the possibility of fixing the mean road level of the capital city. The state PWD was the nodal agency for both the tasks. Altogether 64 roads were identified accordingly for widening and for installation of water hydrants. Regarding fixing of the mean road level, the State PWD said it will need a comprehensive survey involving a substantial amount of money for hiring experts from outside the State. Land has to be acquired and compensation at market value paid to the owners for widening of the roads. A sum of Rs 500 crore was mooted only for this. The CM thought for a while before asking, "Where is the money?" That was it. The dream died there. The PWD went to court and got an order allowing it to raise all road surfaces by a maximum of 15 cm wherever needed effectively killing the hopes of the citizens for a rainy season free from tension of frequent inundation and diseases.
Even otherwise, winter is not an unqualified bliss for poor citizens. If the city roads are muddy and slippery during the rains, they are dusty and smoggy during winter. In all localities, except perhaps the capital complex area, 2-3 feet of the total road surface adjoining the footpaths are mostly left bare. Filth and dust collect there spreading germs all around. The air becomes toxic with the dried mud, and respiratory infections, tuberculosis, allergy and other diseases find easy prey among the people.
The winter months also bring other woes. The civic authorities have failed to provide safe drinking water in most of our cities including the State capital. Majority people depend on their own sources for their daily water needs. The only reliable source they have is ground water. Bountiful rains have quenched their thirst for thousands of years without much intervention from the authorities. The Ahom royals took the initiative to dig wells in some areas which are still serving the people. However, with burgeoning population, this source too is drying up. The break-neck speed of construction of high-rise buildings in urban centres has resulted in the constantly falling ground water levels. Every winter, scores of people all over the State have to dig deeper and deeper to find water. The much-hyped Brahmaputra water supply scheme is yet to see the light of the day. It is not known when the work will be complete and when water will finally start flowing through the pipes in the sprawling city.
Other development works are also undertaken by the State and Central departments throughout the year. A yearly budget is prepared by the authorities incorporating demands from all departments. However, coordinated execution of the works is never insisted upon. Each department spends its allotted share of funds in isolation. As a result, newly laid roads are dug up immediately after completion by the drains and sewerage department that constructs drains, by the post and telegraph department that lays cables, the PHE department that lays pipes and by the electricity authorities who set up new lines or shift old poles. The cities and towns look perpetually unkempt and uncared for. The dug-out earth turns into mud during rains and dust in the winter. Either way, the citizens suffer.
These are only a few of the myriad woes that we, citizens, face day-in and day-out. Our rights for fresh air, potable water, smooth roads, amongst many others, always remain a mirage. Every new government promises the moon. Swachh Bharat, Amazing Assam, smooth-like-silk expressways and many other dreams remain just that, dreams. Floods and erosion keep on taking toll of people in villages every monsoon. Every winter, dust and smog keep killing our lungs with new diseases. We stumble through potholed, dusty, muddy roads cursing our own fate and crossing our fingers hoping against hope that the wells that just got dug do not go dry in the coming winter.