Empowering ward panels

Empowering ward panels
In its original, undiluted format, a democratically constituted ward committee should truly empower a residents’ welfare association. But if the entire process is reduced to an eyewash to satisfy a legal requirement, shouldn’t the exercise be questioned, scrutinised and exposed for its extreme opacity?

The Karnataka High Court’s recent ruling, directing the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to set up the committees within a month is almost a repeat of what transpired four years ago. The corporators had then scrambled to constitute the panels, packing them with their own men. In the process, the original intent of the entire process was compromised.

Participatory forums

Mandated by the Constitution’s 74th Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, 1992, ward committees were envisaged as participatory forums for urban governance. The idea was to bring urban local bodies such as BBMP closer to the citizens and provide a robust platform for people to engage in city planning and development.

The committees were expected to boost efficiency of public policy by providing feedback to policy makers. The citizens could also shape policies according to their needs and play a role in developing mechanisms to extract accountability of elected representatives and local officials.

Take for instance, the city's mammoth problem of solid waste management. Decentralising this through active, functional ward committees could help tackle the problem much more effectively. This was a key argument put forth by the Environment Support Group (ESG) and Leo Saldanha, as they took the legal route to push for such committees.

Ground-up method

Simply put, the issue could not be addressed through a top-down approach. It had to be a ground-up method, “by ensuring every ward and its critical functions such as waste management are monitored by its statutorily appointed ward committee,” as Saldanha puts it. But for over two decades, the elected representatives had stalled the effort. This resistance to an effective, transparent and accountable urban governance was communicated to the Karnataka High Court. The petitioner recalls, “there was a deliberate effort on the part of elected representatives (corporators and MLAs) and the state government, to not enable the functioning of ward committees.”

Entrenched interests

The reason was clear: “Those in power were wary of a vigilant citizenry adversely affecting their deeply entrenched interests. And this was clearly the case with waste management which had become victim to a collusion between contractors, corporators and embedded bureaucrats.”

Spurred by the high court ruling, will the Palike ensure that at least this time, the approach to setting up the committees would take the democratic route? Citizen activists feel public-spirited individuals should stand up and articulate their intent to be on the panel, before the ward offices and corporators concerned.

But in the immediate context, ward panels set up as a response to a court order will be short-lived or ceremonial, points out Srikanth Viswanathan, CEO, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

He agrees that ward committees are overdue by 25 years. “Their formation in Bengaluru is obviously a positive. But what is not so obvious is that for the ward committees to work, we need frontal political leadership as citizen participation in cities is complex and very nascent in India.”

Background work

The ward committees and political leadership should be designed through a systematic background work. It cannot be done in a hurry.

Viswanathan lists out these critical questions for resolution: What will be the role and responsibility of the ward committee? How will it interact with the councillor and result in stronger trust and participation in neighbourhoods? How can the panels be prevented from further paralysing action on the ground?

Besides, there are queries linked to the panels' methods to catalyse positive active citizenship rather than negative citizen activism.  The merits and demerits of nominations versus elections would also have to be resolved since these would define the democratic approach to the process.

Corporators' veto powers

The weaknesses of the past committees have been clearly exposed. The corporators continue to hold powers to veto suggestions made by the committees. They have the final say on how discretionary funds are spent at ward level. No amendments to the ward committee rules are in the pipeline.

Yet, all hope is not lost. Awareness of the ward committee, its roles and responsibilities are now part of RWA discussions. There is greater yearning to be part of the process. The next step, as Saldanha says, should be to push for area sabhas, the sub-units of a ward.

Ward committees and area sabhas need to function optimally, and with popular support and capacity building. Only then could Bengaluru dare to dream of being a garbage-free city replete with functional public schools, public health centres, safe streets and pavements.
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