Can a new law save Bengaluru?

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The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagar Palike’s fiasco at the JP Nagar 24th Main Road/15th Cross Ring Road intersection (underpass) is well known to south Bangalore residents in that area. A contractor had outsourced the work to another incompetent contractor who was later replaced by the BBMP. The project is months behind schedule and shows no sign of completion, with heaps of mud, broken dividers with mud all over and the main road dug up.

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JP Nagar - ring rd underpass

15th cross-ring road intersection dug up (Pic: Supriya Khandekar)

In 2006, despite a clear warning from its own chief auditor on tendering, the BBMP violated the process in appointing consultants to monitor a major project to upgrade 26 roads. There has been no action on the errant officials, even after exposing this fraud.

A list of such examples will fill an entire book, and yet no one in our city authorities is held accountable. Will this system ever change?

A state government committee has drafted legislation that proposes a new governance structure for the Bangalore Metropolitan Region, and aims to resolve not only the above mentioned issues, but many more that plague Bangalore. The state government also put the city council elections on hold until this reformist legislation has been passed.

The draft legislation proposes major steps forward in decentralising local powers to citizen-oriented ward committees and introduces the long awaited metropolitan planning committee (MPC, a quasi-legislative body at the Bangalore regional level with elected representatives). It appears to give much-demanded importance to transparency and citizen participation.

And yet, it has failed to address the current lack of accountability, especially when Bangalore has continued to see massive bungling in both projects and planning, say citizen campaigners.

Some hits, some misses

Dr. A Ravindra (former Karnataka state Chief Secretary) of chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure Development (ABIDe) committee is leading the drafting of the law. The work was part of the mandate coming out of the ABIDe report on governance that was released earlier this year. It is also one year since ABIDe was constituted. The draft legislation (bengaluru_region_governance_act_2009.doc) has been open for public comment for several weeks now.

On 27th April, some of the city’s civic activists including members from CIVIC, Citizens’ Action Forum Head, RTI users, Save Koramangala initiative members, and a few other NGOs, came together in a meeting with Ashwin Mahesh, one of the members of ABIDe. Mahesh is also a faculty member of public policy at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. The meeting saw heated discussions on the draft law, and an array of suggestions were presented to Mahesh. CIVIC is a Bangalore-based NGO with a long track record of campaigning for decentralisation and was also the host for the meeting.

“There is nothing in this bill about the constitution, powers and functions, implementation of plans, finances of the MPC, the changed structure and accountability mechanism of the parastatals and so on, which is the major addition required in a special law for Bengaluru,” states Kathyayini Chamaraj, Executive Trustee, CIVIC. She, therefore, feels that the bill is an incomplete one. (By parastatals she is referring to organisations like BDA, BMRDA and others)

As Kathyayini expresses her views, other loop holes in the ABIDe’s governance draft bill also come to the forefront. “I do not find any mention of accountability in the entire report. Who and how will the government be held responsible for inefficiency? Why didn’t ABIDe look at this issue at all?” Koramangala-based activist Vijayan Menon asked Mahesh in anger, at the meeting.

The answer to these questions was as expected. “Accountability, I agree is a major mistake from the committee’s side, there was no special importance given to this point. I think it is a fair point but I do not know as of now how will the committee put this into the law. We will think on this issue and will come out with something rational,” says Mahesh.

However, talking to Citizen Matters, Ravindra claims that this will provide a solution to all the problems arisen because of expansion of the city, population-wise and municipality-limits wise.
He rebuts the criticism that the draft law does not address accountability: “Formation of ward committees, neighbourhood committees and having an elected mayor are all ways to achieve accountability. Through these ways citizens will find a way to hold the government responsible. I do not think there can be a change in the law for this.”

He further says in general terms that laws and rules are primarily formulated to ensure accountability; therefore all the draft legislation is formed keeping in mind accountability. “I agree things are not working properly and that is the reason we need these reforms,” he adds.

When asked about accountability of government officials in the administration itself (bureaucrats and officers), Ravindra accepted that this was an untouched hemisphere and even he does not know how to bring in accountability there. “There is very less clarity about the hiring and firing of government officials, the system is not working properly but I do not know how to bring a change in that,” he says.

As noted earlier, the draft legislation goes further into wards, ward committees and neighbourhood area committees, roles and duties of committee members, how they should function and how they should be formed. It also re-defines the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s (BMRDA) roles. The legislation has also provisions on testy matters – giving contracts for maintenance work – and provides for all local bodies to give individual contracts for road, water supply, solid waste management and so on, at the level of one ward or multiple wards. Ward offices must have disclosure boards and a website for all contracts in the ward with contract /contractor details, land use conversion approvals, all new project and plan sanctions, as per the draft law.

Kathyayini says this is mere mutatis mutandis to Bangalore without real restructuring. She notes that the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act already covers building bye-laws, essential services, powers of the government of supervision and superintendence and enumeration of taxes and so on; there is really no need to bring in a new legislation. “One could merely amend the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act and introduce some special provisions for Bangalore,” says Kathyayini.

However, S Vishwanath, one of the Trustees of CIVIC who was also present at the meeting, feels that this law is not all that bad. “It is a good beginning combining the earlier PSS Thomas, A Ravindra, and B K Chandrashekhar reports. The only thing which can be added is a clear definition of the ward committee’s resources and accountability mechanism.”

The only suggestions he has are for the law making process. He says it should be made as consultative as possible and various groups should be included, like Federation of Karnataka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Confederation of Indian Industry and slum NGOs. Furthermore, he felt that the MPC should be constituted at the earliest and should also be empowered, Most others in the meeting agreed.

Public hearings for consulting people, or ward committees?

Meanwhile, when issues like MPC, electing ward committees, their rights and duties and so on were discussed, N S Mukunda, convenor of Citizens’ Action Forum presented the idea of holding public hearings before any law is passed. Mukunda had already submitted a document on this to ABIDe. He feels that citizen participation is the key for any democracy and is the ultimate way to achieve accountability and transparency.

Mukunda proposes public hearings at all assembly constituency levels in Bangalore, that is, at all 28 assembly constituency. These meetings will be chaired by the MLAs of the constituencies, councillors and assistant revenue officers of the areas concerned.

N S Mukunda of Citizens Action Forum has proposed that public hearings become mandatory processes at all assembly constituency levels, at all 28 assembly constituency.

These meetings will be chaired by the MLAs of the constituencies, councillors and assistant revenue officers of the areas concerned. Citizens should give their suggestions in writing and the ARO should collect all suggestions, and these points should be handed over to a government-formed special committee.

This committee should further select the relevant points from all the suggestions which can be considered to draft a law. At the same time, why certain points have been rejected should be disclosed to people in a document. After this the draft law should be presented to the public and a majority final approval should be taken. This system will solve all the issues surrounding accountability, transparency and citizen participation, says Mukunda.

“Public hearings should be the mandate of each body in its jurisdiction of operation and budget spending. Especially, ward committees should use the public hearing as a tool as would organisations like the BMRCL for their projects, including the ward committee compulsorily as part of the public hearing,” adds Vishwanath, supporting Mukunda’s proposal.
This was just one of the meetings where people question and put forth their suggestions in front of an ABIDe member. “The suggestions will be proposed at upcoming ABIDe committee meetings and relevant points considered for inclusion,” says Mahesh.

On the other hand, Ravindra takes a different line. “There is no need to have public hearings for all laws to pass.” He agrees that public hearings of the sort have been useful earlier but he feels that people come up with more objections than suggestions, out of which most are of personal nature. He, therefore, does not think holding public hearings is a viable option.

“Some draft legislations are even now open for public scrutiny, but how many good suggestions do we get? Very few, not many people participate. Important laws are still going through the process of citizen participation, therefore, there is no need for any change in this,” says Ravindra.

He also feels that not all suggestions coming from the public can be implemented. “We will try to consider some suggestions,” he says. He has not seen any of the suggestions presented by the public till now. When asked about the number of public meetings he has attended, he said he had attended only ABIDe committee meetings.

Participants at the 27th April meeting were sceptical about the size of the group, and feel that meetings of such nature must have wider attendance. Others, however, felt that even if all suggestions are not implemented these meetings provide a platform to put across various view points. “The first meeting I held was with two people, the next had 20 and I know the number of people will increase with every meeting and soon we will have a meeting with 2000 people. And then we will move on in a geographically distributed way,” says Mahesh.

The High Court’s revised deadline to hold city council elections is August, three months away. On 5th May, the chief minister promised to heed this deadline. (The earlier deadline was for 1st June).
This has made people hopeful that their suggestions will make it into the new law, and also that the law will settle the accountability questions once and for all. But will the suggestions even be considered?

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1 Comment

  1. It is unfortunate that a senior member like A.Ravindra thinks public hearings are not needed as ‘people come up with personal objections’. While this is probably true, it does sound like a statement from a hierarchical culture. In the absence of a public hearing, it is much easier for people with personal agendas to manipulate the system. With a public hearing, at the least, a. everybody has a forum to express their views and b. personal agendas come out into the open so that others can be warned and c. the ward committees get inputs as to what the people want and why. As this democratic and participatory process matures, I am sure more and more people will be able to participate in a relevant way. To deny this is to not allow the process to mature.

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