Time seems to be ripe for a course correction in the Palike, beset with corruption and an unnerving lack of direction.
Six years back, when the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) chose to spread its administrative tentacles far beyond the city’s modest boundaries, a fresh hope rose in the horizon. In one dramatic stroke, the city had quadrupled in size, promising higher tax revenues, professional planning and a firmer grip on the administration.
Six years later, the progress report is a study in unbridled corruption, blatant financial mismanagement, poor project executions and an unnerving lack of direction. Scams surfaced with alarming regularity, each one rivaling the previous one in its scale and audacity.
Devoid of any semblance of expertise in project planning and implementation, the Palike fumbled ingloriously year after year. Result: The city today lies in a shambles, its citizens trapped in a maze of poorly designed, poorly consulted flyovers and roads, their trust in the severely cash-strapped corporation’s capabilities at an all-time low.
Ironical it may sound, but reformists seek a turning back of the clock to get the BBMP back on track. And that would mean trimming the Palike’s size to more manageable limits. Seasoned urban planners are unanimous in their assertion that the corporation’s woes started with its 2007 expansion.
“The resources required to manage such a vast area have come down although the revenue generation potential increased,” explains former chief secretary and Centre for Sustainable Development chairman, A Ravindra.
Beyond property tax and advertisement revenue, the Palike could not expand the base. “The resource base of BBMP or any other municipal body is very narrow.”
But whatever the resources, the Palike has been guilty of gross financial mismanagement. As urban expert, V Ravichandar recalls, “We had a fund-based accounting system that allowed for all expenses and revenue items to be tracked at the lowest level of occurrence (eg. changing a light bulb in 4th block, Jayanagar or ad earnings from a hoarding in the same block) but this was allowed to lapse; there were quarterly reports to citizen groups that have been discontinued. So opaqueness wins, transparency loses.” Budgets, he notes, are another work of fiction. “Fool folks with promises of crores of spend while the reality was crores spent in salaries and servicing debt burdens.”
Bifurcating or even trifurcating the Palike is now high on the reformists’ agenda. Urban experts are convinced that the merger of 100 wards of the erstwhile Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) with seven City Municipal Councils (CMCs), one Town Municipal Council (TMC) and 111 villages to create the larger BBMP was a mistake. The smaller municipal bodies could have remained as separate entities, of course with a robust professional intervention to ensure quality administration.
Tasked with managing the city’s critical civic infrastructure, the Palike cannot afford to remain disconnected from other related agencies. Para-statal city bodies such as the Bangalore Electricity Company Limited (BESCOM), Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), the city traffic police have a multitude of urban management functions.
Strangely, BBMP is the only agency answerable to the public through its elected representatives, even if many roles are outside its purview.
It is estimated that the Palike handles only about 40 per cent of the city’s annual expenditure on civic services and infrastructure. Besides, the BBMP’s share of the total personnel engaged in civic works is not even 15 per cent.
One solution, as Ravindra suggests, could be bringing all the basic services such as water and power supply under one umbrella. For instance, the task of supplying drinking water and managing the drainage and sewage could be the Palike’s, while BWSSB could focus on the larger Cauvery network. BBMP cannot be looked at in isolation. However, until such an umbrella setup takes shape to boost greater accountability, an immediate answer could be a far better inter-agency coordination mechanism.
But there is a counter-argument. Specific agencies are specialised in a particular utility, having evolved after years of funding and infrastructure creation. Specialised people can do the work better. This contention demands that the agencies continue with their functions, although their efficiencies could be vastly improved. As things stand, the functions are hardly differentiated in a scientific manner. BBMP, for instance, has to build the stormwater drains, while underground drainage is BWSSB’s work!
For Bangaloreans reeling under an inefficient civic administration, the litany of scams is a constant reminder of the reeking corruption. Is there a way out? There can be, if the elected representatives are given real responsibility. “Today, they are not held responsible. The corporators only ask questions. We have to go through the process of getting better people to stand for elections. If you really create a good city government with adequate powers and autonomy, things will evolve,” observes Ravindra.
So, the thrust is on a strong city governance structure. This, as many urban planners and governance experts emphasise, calls for a directly elected mayor. The term could be four or five years. But the mayor should be a strong political executive with enough powers.
He / she could have his / her own team in the lines of the State Cabinet. Each team member could be in-charge of a particular civic department. Together with improved resource mobilisation, professional inputs and better planning, the city’s administration could get a hyper-boost.
Yet, this much talked-about proposal has remained in the drawing room. Wary of losing their powers over such a large revenue-generating city as Bangalore, the political heads are apparently going slow. “The State government has to take its hands off BBMP. The chief minister cannot be expected to ensure that there are no potholes. He has larger State issues to be concerned about. The current practice where the Palike has to run to the Urban Development Department or the City in-charge minister for every small thing, has to change,” feels an urban architect, who has worked closely with the Palike.
In several international cities, the Mayor has become powerful enough to eventually stand for presidential elections. In New York City, for instance, the Mayor was at the centre of spearheading the relief operations post 9/11. “Sadly, here they don’t want the mayor to become politically powerful. The BBMP mayor is just a titular head with no real powers, and a short term of one year. This should change,” notes another urban planner.
This proposal for a strong city governing body finds an echo even in a letter sent last week to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah by the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC). Among 10 points suggested for the city’s development, the panel has sought a dedicated secretariat exclusively for Bangalore. This should be different from UDD. The rationale: The challenges of the city should not be seen as an elitist endeavour but as a pillar of inclusive growth and an economic imperative to augment the state’s finances, as explained by TV Mohandas Pai of B.PAC.
Either through a directly elected mayor or a dedicated secretariat or department, Bangalore cries for a more streamlined approach to governance, feels Ravichandar.
There is a need to look beyond UDD, which has a minimal role now. As things stand, the Chief Minister is reported to have forwarded the secretariat proposal to city incharge and transport minister, Ramalinga Reddy for followup action.
Once the governance setup is ready, the city will require a big infusion of funds since it is the State’s growth engine. Independent estimates show that all the civic agencies in the city put together spend only about Rs. 10,000 crore per annum. A big chunk of the funds is spent on daily expenditures and not asset creation.