MumbaiNaama: Devoid of people’s voice in the BMC, the city suffers

MumbaiNaama: Devoid of people’s voice in the BMC, the city suffers

The elected representatives or corporators, however inefficient and given to corrupt practices they may be, are the voice of the people in the civic administration

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, January 04, 2024, 10:40 PM IST
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Two recent matters point to the perils of not having an elected civic body. As January rolled in, stories pointed to the action that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had taken on polluting and dusty worksites to control air pollution in the city. Half of the nearly 6,000 construction sites had been reportedly served notices and penalised for failing to follow the pollution guidelines and preventive measures. This action, the civic body claimed, had helped to bring down Mumbai’s pollution levels considerably below the alarming Air Quality Index numbers in November and December. Why the BMC could not take this action and penalise the violators in the usual work flow, without the uproar from people and directives from the centre, is anybody’s guess.

Then, reports trickled in that the BMC had splurged an estimated Rs 600 crore in the last few months and plans to spend another Rs 800 crore on “beautification” projects across the city. These, as this column has previously noted, are meaningless vanity projects which do little to improve the quality of life for people; instead, they provide a clique, comprising guardian ministers of Mumbai and powerful civic officials, an unbridled opportunity to spend from the public exchequer and for powerful contractors to make a fast profit with minimal and tacky work. The “beautification” projects have so far given us kitschy decorative lights on trees and lamp posts, unimaginative and unrepresentative sculptures on traffic islands, murals and wall paintings.

Did Mumbai really need these? Would the city not have benefited with basic civic services such as more accessible pavements for pedestrians, roads free of craters and ill-placed speed breakers, improved garbage clearance and street sweeping, upgraded sanitation and water supply in slum areas, basic lights on many inner streets and more? The top areas where beautification projects have been undertaken include Parel, Naigaum, Sewri, Govandi, Mankhurd, Deonar, Vikhroli, Powai, Bhandup, Borivali, Andheri, Jogeshwari and Vile Parle spread across five civic wards.

Of the total of nearly Rs 120 crore spent in these areas, Rs 24 crore were used in Deonar-Govandi-Mankhurd. Anyone who has been here or passes by would affirm that beautification was certainly not a priority in these parts which are among the worst equipped with basic amenities such as sanitation and garbage clearance. It is worth reflecting if the spend would have been better aligned with people’s needs for clean water and sanitation if corporators had been in the general body and committees of the BMC. As things stand, the Congress which was the opposition in the civic body, has approached the Bombay High Court alleging that most “beautification” projects were in areas controlled by the BJP and were decided by Mumbai's two guardian ministers who are also from the BJP.

This is not a comment, adverse or otherwise, on the track record of IS Chahal, Mumbai’s municipal commissioner turned administrator, but on the appropriateness of having a civic body directly governed by the state government without people’s voices reflected in its priorities and decisions. This is also not to suggest that the BMC was highly responsive to Mumbaikars when 227 corporators represented millions of us in the hallowed and historic hall where the general body met or that people’s priorities were reflected in the many committees where corporators sat including the powerful Standing Committee.

However, having corporators there gave us a chance at urban governance more tuned to our needs. The term of the BMC general body ended in early 2022 but as the elections remained stalled on one pretext or another, the municipal commissioner became the administrator taking directions from the state government to decide the civic priorities, budget, and allocation. The BMC is not the only one without elected representatives. Across Maharashtra, as many as 27 municipal corporations commanding a total budget of over Rs 1,10,500 crore are now apparently governed by administrators under the direct power and influence of the state government — with no representation of the people. The intent and purpose of the 74th amendment to the Constitution, granting more power and autonomy to urban local bodies to better reflect people’s voices, is quietly forgotten.

Why is this significant? The elected representatives or corporators, however inefficient and given to corrupt practices they may be, are the voice of the people in the civic administration. They are simply the most accessible totem of power in our neighbourhoods. It is possible for us to knock on their doors or speak over a phone call to bring our grievances and needs to their notice, it is possible for us to prevail upon them to get the small matters such as water connections, bad roads, garbage lifting, garden maintenance and access, and so on sorted out.

While we can theoretically approach our ward offices and take our grievances right up to the assistant municipal commissioner of a ward, or file virtual complaints, this is well-nigh impractical given the inaccessibility of their offices or their famous ‘non-availability’ to common citizens or the unreliability of the e-complaints system. Besides, individual citizens or people’s groups cannot sit on committees where major work and financial decisions come to pass. The corporators help the administration determine priorities of work and influence spending. Their absence in the civic process is not to be taken lightly, especially in the BMC where the annual budget is an average of Rs 45,000 to Rs 50,000 crore.

Would the meaningless “beautification” projects have been approved with a spend of nearly Rs 1400 crore if the proposal had to be brought to the general body of the BMC? Would corporators not have raised hell over such a spend when toilets and pavements are more urgently required in some of the project areas? The importance of elected representatives in urban governance cannot be overstated or dismissed because a crop of them turned out to be abysmally self-serving and allegedly corrupt. The answer to this is not to do away with elected representatives but to elect better ones, or demand the area sabha system or another structure which reduces the dictates of political parties and allows people to claim more space in urban governance.

Let alone develop a new system or improve the existing one, the state government has seen fit to do away with the modicum of people’s representation. This is true of both the three-party governments — the present one headed by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and the former by Uddhav Thackeray. None of the parties showed clean intent on this issue. Thackeray had the excuse of the Covid-19 pandemic for not holding elections to municipal corporations and councils through 2020 and half of 2021. But nothing explains the Shinde-led government shunning elections other than political expediency and the impulse to centralise urban governance.

Of course, the government can claim that the BMC elections matter lies in the Bombay High Court but this is a convenient excuse. This centralisation of power and command over civic resources is not incidental; it is the feature of the Shinde-led government.

Smruti Koppikar is a senior journalist who writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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