BBMP's ward panels: Beyond baby steps

Gangambika Mallikarjun BBMP Mayor, chair the Ward Committee Meeting at Maternity Hospital, Kanakanapalya, 2nd block, Jayanagar in Bengaluru. Ravindra Hijeri, Health Inspector, Nashimaiah, AE BBMP, Gangadhar AE SWM, K P Ramadasappa, AEE BBMP and Desai, AEE BWSSB are also seen. Photo by S K Dinesh

Hyper-local problems demand hyper-local solutions. So, when a neighbourhood road is in disrepair, or an entire street goes dark without streetlights, why turn to the MLA? Why not raise the issue with your Ward Committee, mandated to work with your corporator to prioritise the work, fix a budget, monitor its execution and get it solved?

This is exactly what over a third of the 198 wards under the Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) is now up to. After years of struggle by citizen activists, over 60 ward committees have finally begun to meet, the first Saturday of every month. The work flow will come next, giving a dramatic boost to local governance.

Member selection

Yes, the panel selection was not exactly democratic. Forced by the Karnataka High Court directives, the panels were constituted in a hurry, ironically, with a top-down approach. Issues remain with the panels’ structure, powers and the corporators’ veto power. But, the positives now look strong enough to eventually wipe out the structural issues.

So, what exactly are these positives? The first, as the monthly meetings in December 2018, January and February this year prove, the ward panels have made that significant shift from being mere token gestures to something concrete. The challenge is to fine-tune them further to make decentralized governance real, practical and sustainable.

Huge potential

A vast majority of civic issues that Bengalureans worry about and complain endlessly could potentially be solved at the ward level. Srinivas Alavilli from Citizens for Bengaluru, spearheading the campaign for ward panels, elaborates: “Any task that can be carried out at a local unit should be performed at that unit.”


DH Illustration

The closer the government is to people, the better delivery of public amenities, Alavilli says. “Ward Committees are the closest forms of ‘government’ to citizens. Our governance was overly centralized because that’s how the British wanted it. There is no reason to continue with that model.”

Participatory governance

At the heart of the problem is this: Bengaluru, a growing metropolis with a population exceeding 1.3 crore cannot get its myriad problems fixed without getting its citizens and residents welfare associations involved.

As Alavilli puts it, there is a far better chance of success when the issues are raised and resolved locally. This has to be done not in Vidhana Soudha, not even in the BBMP head office, but at the local BBMP ward offices with active participation of the ward committees.

Every ward committee has 10 members besides the Chairperson and the Secretary. While the Corporator is the Chairperson with veto power, an Assistant Engineer / Health Inspector is the Secretary. The rest of the panel represents all sections of the society with three women, two Residents Welfare Association (RWA) members, one SC, one ST and one member from the General pool.

Empowered panel

Officially mandated by the Constitution, the ward committee meeting can analyse the work done locally, prioritise the budget for it, suggest works that need future budget allocations, while acting as a bridge between communities, officials and people’s representatives.

“Monthly ward committee meetings are a leap forward in the governance of Bengaluru,” notes Srikanth Viswanathan, Chief Executive Officer, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. “The meetings will create greater understanding of local governments among citizens, give them a platform to engage in neighbourhood civic matters, and build trust between citizens and government.”

Realistic expectations

Ward committees as democratic institutions are an end in themselves. However, Srikanth cautions, “we should be realistic in our expectations of ward committees in civic problem-solving. Councillors themselves hardly have powers in Bengaluru and the BBMP is hugely dependent on the state government for finances.”

Back in 2005, the Centre he represents had pushed the Ward Committee / Area Sabha concept as part of the Community Participation Bill under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The idea was to strengthen the 74th Constitutional Amendment.

Wards not on board

The promise held forth by the Amendment has taken years to get some meaningful traction with the ward panel meetings since December. But the vast majority of wards are yet to kickstart the process. Valli Narasimha, a citizen activist from Kamakshipalya, attributes this to an enduring disconnect between most elected representatives and the voters.

She elaborates, “When you, as a citizen wants something done, you see the high and mighty side of these corporators. I have been sending messages to our local corporator to conduct the ward committee meetings. But there is absolutely no response, there seems to be no interest whatsoever.”

Frustrations

Ward panel meetings, she reckons, are a sureshot way to take the citizen participation route to local governance. “But many don’t want to hold them. Perhaps, they don’t want others to know how they run the place. It is very frustrating,” says Valli. The change, she adds, should come from citizens. “The I don’t care, Chalta Hai attitude should go.”

Indeed, a change has been kicked off -- even if belatedly -- with the ward panel meetings in over 60 wards. But to keep up the momentum, to make the committees truly representative, a few but significant gaps remain to be filled.

Once every ward come on board, these gaps ought to take centrestage: A democratic member selection process for the ward panels after the 2020 BBMP polls, quick data transfer on the programme of works from the BBMP to the wards, and a serious debate to eventually revoke the corporator’s veto power.

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