It had taken a mighty push from the Karnataka High Court to force BBMP to constitute the long-delayed ward committees. But this exercise was quickly branded ‘farcical’ as corporators packed the panels with their near and dear ones. Now comes, the last nail: The panels hardly meet.
If this is not a mockery of participatory governance, what is? This is the angry query posed by a collective of concerned citizens, activists and policy analysts, frustrated to see that their efforts at grassroots democracy have been so dramatically hijacked.
Mandated under the 74th Constitutional Amendment (Nagarapalika) Act, 1992, the Ward Committees were clearly aimed at empowering informed citizens. The panels were envisaged as participatory forums for urban governance, where urban local bodies such as BBMP could actively engage with citizens in city planning and development.
The committees have been compromised, with a vast majority of residents’ welfare associations deliberately kept out. But even if one comes to terms with this, the least the panels could have done is meet regularly. Section 13 of the Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act mandates meetings every month.
No advance notice is issued even for meetings that are held on rare occasions. Rules require such notices to be displayed at all public spaces in a ward so that everyone is well informed. The meeting agenda and minutes are also required to be publicized through the Palike website. This too is given the convenient go-by.
Srinivas Alavilli from Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) reiterates that the committees hardly meet. “They have completely defeated the purpose. Ideally, if a day and time are fixed every month for the meeting, the whole process will start taking shape. The solution to all the civic issues in the city lies in the effective functioning of the ward committees,” he notes.
But the committees are bound to remain ineffective as long as corporators harbour the fear that decentralisation will take away their powers. This fear forced the Palike to delay the formation of the panels until the High Court intervened again.
Citizens were jubilant when the Court ordered the formation of ward committees for better waste management at the local level. CfB even ran a campaign ‘Namma Ward Committee’ to identify truly deserving citizen candidates for the committees.
The response from citizens and RWAs was very positive. “We got about 1,000 nominations. But eventually, only three got selected. We even ran a mass RTI campaign to know what happened to the applications. We never got any response,” recalls Alavilli.
Panels a ‘sham’
The committees in their current form are a farce, a sham, notes urbanist V Ravichander. “The Citizens Participation law itself is flawed, since it gives the corporator veto powers over the committee’s decisions,” he says.
A way out could be rethinking the committee structure itself. The BBMP Restructuring Committee had recommended 20 members in a Ward Committee.
Ten of them would be elected on the basis of proportional representation reflecting the party vote share (1 seat for every 10% vote share) in the municipal elections and the other half nominated from a wide spectrum of civil society. “RWAs, NGOs and representatives from the slums could be part of this half,” explains Ravichander.
Ward Committees, formed after much legal pressure, have been reduced to a ritual, agrees Leo Saldanha from the Environment Support Group (ESG). But having formed the panels, it should be ensured that they work, as the possibilities are immense, he reasons.
If these panels work properly, Saldanha feels ‘60% of the city’s waste will disappear. The corporators can make these 10 committee members work with him / her as partners. Each member can be given a different role. “The possibilities are immense.”
Real democracy, says Saldanha, is about people getting most of the services locally. “The entire city can be revitalized, as the committees have 18 listed functions including upkeep of urban environment, public health, greenery and more. Look at the Kerala floods. They managed it so well because they have a long history of ground-level citizens participation,” he explains.
A BBMP road project, decentralized through the committees, could be executed with much efficiency. “The committee can keep a tab on the work quality, how much tar is used, who are the contractors, and how much money is used. It would be like a local republic.”
This way, citizens would have a sense of ownership, says Alavilli. “Today, all works are based on the discretion of the corporator and MLA. Instead, the ward committee can prioritise what a ward requires, build a consensus, monitor and oversee the work. This would be collaborative effort. Citizen members will be following up on what they decided in the committee,” he explains.
But a big question mark hovers above the committees’s capacity to do so, since they are packed not with concerned citizen representative but relatives and cronies of the corporators. The objections filed by Kathyayini Chamaraj from CIVIC before the High Court in September 2017 tells the story of a system gone horribly wrong.
Here’s what it said: “The names of husbands of many women councillors have been included as ward committee members, and these husbands are likely to act as proxies for their wives and become de facto chairmen of the ward committees, defeating the purpose of women’s empowerment.”
Several relatives of councillors, political party office-bearers and political party workers were also found to have made it to the list. “Both these facts reveal how the true purpose of the ward committees, of bringing transparency and accountability in governance at ward level, are being defeated by such nominations,” the objections stated.
This violates the basic principles of good governance and amounts to nepotism and favouritism. A year later, the manner in which the committees function remain unchanged.