Decentralising of BBMP: Promises of zonal budgets

B H Anil Kumar, new Commissioner BBMP, taking charge at BBMP head office in Bengaluru.

Decentralisation. This has always been a buzzword for true democratisation of governance. But for decades, multiple vested interests have ensured that it remains just that: A shallow buzzword, trapped in cosmetic activation minus big bang changes. Is this about to change now?

Here’s how a ray of hope has emerged: The new Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) commissioner B H Anil Kumar recently proposed a concept of zonal budgets. Simply put, this would mean separate budgets for each of the Palike’s eight zones.

Kumar’s justification: Zonal budgets will help decentralise powers, aid seamless release of funds for multiple development works and sanction of job codes. The proposal has got everyone talking. The fledgeling network of grassroots governance through ward panels has received a boost.

Centralised delays

What triggered the Commissioner’s declaration of intent was a litany of complaints by corporators that files on emergency works were held up at the BBMP headquarters. It was all about centralisation, a reluctance to adopt technology such as an e-filing system that effectively slowed down sanction of job codes for works across wards.

Their concerns were party-neutral. Welfare programmes had been stuck, some files were not cleared for six months or more, and proposals submitted were gathering dust. The channels were all clogged, and with more files coming in, there was no way out without thinking out of the box.

So, is zonal budgeting the way out? Kumar’s contention was this: “In the long run, this may be essential. While some heads of accounts may be centralised, the others can be handled at the zonal level.”

Hope in the horizon

Citizen groups have welcomed the idea, acknowledging its potential to disrupt the existing system. “The news of zonal budgets gives us lot of hope at a time when the 1.3 crore residents are extremely frustrated with the functioning of the BBMP,” notes Srinivas Alavilli from Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB).

Twelve years ago, in an ill-planned centralisation move, the erstwhile 100-ward Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) had morphed into the 198-ward BBMP. Brought into the Palike jurisdication were seven City Municipal Councils (CMCs), one Town Municipal Council (TMC) and 110 villages.

Millions on the city’s outskirts hoped that this transformation would rev up their lives, their roads, their minimal drainage systems. Today, that hope remains a pipedream. As Alavilli observes, “almost every week, there is a protest in some part of the city, and most of these happen to be on the outskirts.”

The farther you are from Hudson circle, he notes, the greater the chances of bad roads and terrible civic infrastructure. “While people in Malleswaram are dancing on the streets for better footpaths, those on Sarjapur road can’t even form a human chain without risking lives. Let’s be honest with ourselves: the decision to merge many towns and villages into the Corporation failed spectacularly.”

The implication is clear: Centralisation does not work. “Budgets made centrally at BBMP with a top down approach with political interference can never represent the real needs of residents of any ward, especially the new ones,” says Alavilli.

Zonal budget is today an idea, articulated by the Palike’s executive topbrass. But how far can it go from concept stage to execution? Offering a ray of hope is the timing of the Commissioner’s remark.

It comes close on the heels of Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa’s recent decision to have four Special / Additional Commissioners to oversee two zones each. These officials, all IAS officers, will have the same powers as the Commissioners in zonal matters and can take all administrative decisions independently.

Decentralised budgets should then be a natural followup of this process. The rationale is also to boost transparency and accountability. A special commissioner for each zone was the original idea, but was scaled down to one for two zones due to shortage of IAS officers.

Address gaps first

Not everyone is impressed with a mere announcement of intent without kickstarting fundamental changes in the governance structure. Nagesh Aras, a civic activist from Bellandur located amongst the 110 villages added to BBMP in 2007, feels the ‘improvements’ will not work at all due to basic lacunae in the system.

In the past decade, Aras points out, the population has exploded in 110 villages. “Large population in much larger wards means we need much more infrastructure. But all wards keep getting the same old budgets. As a result, the outer wards are left without infrastructure. Despite being affluent and paying the highest amount of property tax, the population is forced to live in squalid condition.”

Even if BBMP allocates a higher budget to these villages, he says, it will not follow a systematic and transparent process to identify infrastructure needs of any area.

Arbitrary prioritisation

“Further, the prioritisation and selection of projects are totally arbitrary. Projects that are sanctioned do not get budget, or are delayed or canceled without any logic. This needs to be addressed immediately,” he elaborates.

Decentralisation through the four zonal special commissioners with zonal budgeting is a good idea, notes urban planner and BBMP Restructuring Committee member, V Ravichander. “It is difficult for a central BBMP to be in touch with the huge urban sprawl that we have in Bengaluru.”

However, he hastens to add, “this needs to be accompanied by political decentralisation through zonal committees where the corporators of the zone meet twice a year to clear the zonal budgets.” The 198-member council can meet. But bulk of the time, he says, the meetings and work by the corporators should happen at the decentralised zonal level.

This should be accompanied by an apex level pan-Bengaluru body that has the BBMP (with its revised four zones) and all the other parastatals such as the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL), Bangalore Development Authority (BDA).

Integration between these agencies is necessary, says Ravichander. “Issues such as mobility can only be done at the apex level through a UMTA like body.”

Boost for ward panels

Zonal budgets will help ward committees, however flawed and inconsistent, contends Alavilli. “The ward panels can graduate from being grievance redressal forums to planning and budgeting. A ward development plan made by the panel will help make a realistic zonal budget bottom up,” he explains.

As a first step, he suggests, the new zonal commissioners could direct ward committees to give inputs for next years budget.

 

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