The unedifying saga of ward committees

The unedifying saga of ward committees

The state government has ensured that the laws to implement the WCs have been watered down.

The saga of ward committees (WCs) in Karnataka has been one of unedifying denial of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of citizens in urban areas to participate in decision-making. MLAs and councillors have tried their very best to make these bodies dysfunctional, leaving citizens disempowered and helpless.

In the 25 years since the passing of the 74th Constitutional Amendment (CA) or Nagarapalika Act, the Karnataka government has ensured that the laws to implement it have been watered down and councillors have ensured that even the diluted law never gets implemented so as to kill the spirit of the CA totally. The WCs have been constituted only under duress or due to whiplashes from courts.

With civil society organisations (CSOs) conveying to the Centre the poor implementation of the 74th CA in the state, the Ministry of Urban Development sent a Model Community Participation Bill in 2005 to be implemented by the state as a conditionality for releasing funds under the JNNURM.

Who would have known that the state would weaken the conformity legislation even further by giving veto powers to the councillor on the WC in its Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act of February 2011?

Even the rules under the KMC (Amdt) Act of 2011 were not framed, and despite court orders in 2013, draft rules were published by the Urban Development Department five times without finalising them until June 2016, perhaps, to delay the constitution of the WCs.

Now that the Karnataka High Court has again ordered on April 24 that WCs should be set up within a month, all 198 councillors have been asked to give 10 names each to form the WCs in their wards. But as per Section 13H(2)(b) of the KMC (Amdt) Act, the WC members are to be “nominated by the Corporation” (whatever that means) but it does not say that councillors are to recommend the names.

As in the earlier instance, councillors are likely to again nominate only ‘Yes-men’ close to them and vitiate the entire purpose of these committees, which is to make the councillor accountable to citizens of the ward. When the possibility of politicisation of the committees was conveyed to the HC, it gave an oral order that not all names suggested by councillors should be chosen and that other suggestions by citizens should also be considered.

These problems of interpretation have arisen as the rules have not laid down a procedure for the nominations to be made. Suggestions by CSOs that applications should be called for, objections to them invited, and a selection committee of non-partisan, noted citizens set up to select the best candidates, have been given a go-by by the rule-framers.

A glaring lacuna is that there is no time-frame fixed within which the WCs should be constituted, possibly deliberately, to stall their very constitution.

Nomination guidelines
The WCs are mandatorily supposed to have at least two SC/STs, three women, and any other three individuals. Two registered associations are also to be nominated, which, as per Section 13H(2)(b)(iii)(b), “shall represent majority of residents, or civic groups or commercial gro­ups or industrial groups” (sic).

There is no mention that associations or trade unions of the urban poor, such as that of slum-dwellers or street vendors, can be nominated. When left to councillors, they have been nominating temple trusts, caste-based groups and even Wrestlers’ Associations, to these posts! There is also the fear that if only RWAs representing the affluent in a ward get nominated, their agendas may be at variance with or even opposed to that of the urban poor.

Unlike a grama sabha in the rural areas, the WCs with only 10 members will not provide space for every voter of the ward to participate, unless effect is given to the provisions under Section 13C of the KMC (Amdt) Act for constituting Area Sabhas.

Each Area Sabha is to comprise the registered voters of not more than five contiguous polling stations in a ward. These are supposed to plan for their area in a bottom-up process. But six years after the KMC (Amdt) Act was passed, the polling stations that will constitute the Area Sabhas have not been notified.

Each Area Sabha is supposed to have an Area Sabha Representative (ASR) and, as per the Act, it is this ASR who is to be nominated upon the recommendation of the councillor. And if the councillor fails to do this within 90 days of the constitution of the council, the commissioner is supposed to do it.

So far, no councillor or commissioner has made these recommendations and none has been held accountable for this violation of the law. Also, though the Model Bill suggested election of ASRs who would also sit on the ward committee, the sta­te has continued to opt for their nomination, which would again lead to cronies of the councillor being nominated. Without Area Sabhas, who will plan, monitor and audit works in the ward?

Unless a committee is set up to revise the entire conformity legislation under the 74th CA, similar to the one that was set up to review the Panchayat Raj Act in the state, citizens in urban areas will remain disempowered.

(The writer is Executive Trustee of CIVIC, Bengaluru)