“Bangaloreans must demand to take their neighbourhoods back”

He is dynamic, well-built and tall. Like many who enter public life after a successful industry career, he has many facets. He is an entrepreneur who founded BPL Mobile in the 90s, a firm that some would call a benchmark for India’s telecom revolution. Since 2005, he is a venture-capitalist, and runs Jupiter Capital, with its offices behind Kids Kemp, off M G Road, Bengaluru. And he was a former president of India’s largest and oldest chamber of commerce, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). 

We have become a single agenda city of traffic, traffic, traffic. Pic: Subramaniam Vincent

Meet Rajeev Chandrasekhar, 45, Independent Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) representing Karnataka and Bangalore Urban district. Chandrasekhar has more recently been in the news on his views and exchange of letters with Ratan Tata over the 2G spectrum scam.

“I dislike the discussion on transportation because there is no city in the world that has a population of eight million people that has no transportation problem.”

— Rajeev Chandrasekhar

In Bengaluru though, Chandrasekhar is the Convener of embattled chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s much loved-and-disliked ABIDe task force. Expanded, it reads Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development. During the last two years, ABIDe has released its Plan Bengaluru 2020 as a vision document for the city, and the reformist Bengaluru Metropolitan Regional Governance Act (BMRGA), which has still not been introduced into the assembly, as we enter 2011. BMRGA is supposed to restructure all government agencies controlling Bengaluru today (BDA, BWSSB, BMRDA, BMTC and the elected BBMP) into a more decentralised and democratic setup, more answerable to citizens. At the time this interview went to press, it remains a major vision waiting to leap out of a piece of paper to save Bengaluru.

Citizen Matters caught with Rajeev Chandrasekhar in the New Year on the status of his work for Bengaluru and more. Subramaniam Vincent conducted this interview at Chandrasekhar’s offices on M G Road.

Subramaniam Vincent: Hello Rajeev, welcome to this Citizen Matters interview. We are going to talk about Bangalore itself and the work that is involved with your efforts both as an MP and as the convener of ABIDe. I will come to the BMRGA bill in a bit, I have a few specific questions about that, but let’s start with what is happening in Bengaluru right now.

We have almost called the BBMP as the U-turn-MP because they are doing too many U-turns. We see them doing this to the roadwidening issue. When they say roadwidening is on, it is not clear if it is and when they say it is off, clearly its on! And then there’s the University of Agricultural Sciences’ GKVK road-through-forestland project, where they tried to build it, cutting hundreds of trees, despite severe opposition, and now they have done a U-turn on it. Why has ABIDe not been able to get BBMP out of this rut?

ABIDe

The ABIDe task force is an initiative by the Chief Minister of Karnataka B S Yeddyurappa. The stated objective is to revive and rebuild Bengaluru through a combination of comprehensive planning, improved municipal services and new investments into infrastructure.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar : It is not a question of not being able to get anybody out of the rut. It is a symptom of a fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that there is no blueprint or plan that is governing the various agencies that are involved in implementing projects that are related to the development of the city.

If you don’t have a plan whether you are a news magazine or a corporate or an individual managing his personal finances, if you don’t have a larger architecture that you are building towards, what you will have is various agencies and various people doing different things at different times, that they believe are right for that local area.

SV: Do you think a plan alone would work?

RC: A plan is an important and fundamental starting point for the development of any particular city for a practical, sustainable, logical, reasonable development of a city. Now let me give you an example.

The city of Bangalore is littered with stories, examples of ad hoc, ill thought of, badly thought of projects, all done in the name of modernising and development of the city. You know the infamous magic box…it’s a joke. It was supposed to be a solution to address the traffic problems and the people that have benefited are the contractors who have made money off it. Look at those pedestrian underpasses, when we took up ABIDe, we looked at making the city pedestrian friendly. We said we needed more pedestrian capacity to be created in the city.

Somebody goes ahead and creates these pedestrian underpasses without even remotely focusing on where the pedestrian congestion density is. So you have for example, near Raj Bhavan, three pedestrian underpasses built at a cost of Rs.1.5 – 2 crores each of public money. Two of them are lying shut because nobody uses them.

You cannot build a model city- you look at London, New York, Singapore- all of these cities plan their growth through a blueprint and a plan and then various agencies and their budgets are deployed to implementing that plan.

SV: What is your take on the city’s Revised Master Plan 2015 then? Isn’t that a plan itself?

RC: RMP is more of a zoning plan. It is not a development plan. It does not adjust, for example, fundamental issues. We are a city of 8-9 million people, have we created additional capacities for mortuaries? Have we created more additional capacity for garbage? Sanitation? We have become a single agenda city of traffic, traffic, traffic. And because we only talk about traffic, almost all of the solutions that the city talks about are traffic.

You have road widening, you have magic-boxes, you have underpasses and pedestrian underpasses. All of them, by the way, the political class love because this is about spending money.

SV: Since you are talking about capacity building for the city itself, what about the capacities and the competencies of officials who are hired into the BBMP?

RC: I agree with you that there are many good people and there are many crooks. The well-intentioned people unfortunately don’t have the tools or the training or the capacity or the exposure. What you have is a town planning framework, a regime, know-how, capability, expertise, which is essentially used to plan a city of 1-1.5 million that is still being deployed for a city of eight million.

SV: Even if the government approves a new master plan, a plan that is a developmental plan that includes the zoning plan, will that change the competencies of the people?

RC: That’s what I am saying, a plan is just not limited to zoning or saying where the park should be. An integrated plan should also include, plan such as the ‘Bengaluru 2020′ has, the issue of addressing capacity within the government. For example, we have expressly said one year ago that government must set up an institute of urban governance if you want to improve the capacity and improve the quality and improve the development abilities within the government itself, you have got to give these officials training and inputs.

SV: Let’s come to a slightly delayed thing. You’ve got a clear case of a story that Citizen Matters have run where a BBMP call centre that was set up for vigilance over plan sanction violations (illegal buildings) was shut down within six months. Some 794 complaints came in. Since then Bharat Lal Meena has gone off to head the BDA and the current BBMP commissioner H Siddaiah merely says he is willing to forward such complaints to his technical point person, with no sense of the scale of the issue and how BBMP might address it. You know about this. Why is it that despite the fact that so many people being in power who actually know about this, the call center still doesn’t come back? Even the minimum systematic enforcement that could have happened is gone.

RC: There is no inbuilt incentive or oversight that forces a government organization to deliver service and satisfy a citizen.  

Citizen satisfaction is very low, or is absent from the priority of what a government agency does. Satisfying the MLA, satisfying the corporator or a vested interest that is very high on the priority. Therefore, that is why the BMRGA bill (Bangalore Metropolitan Regional Governance Act) seeks to create an institutional role for the citizen in the relationship between the citizen and the public utility in the public agency.

SV: So let us talk about the BMRGA since you brought it up. We have covered this bill earlier (still waiting to be passed).  The information we have is that it has already been watered down. It looks like the politicians were against it; they have said on record that they don’t want citizens elected into the ward committees; they’d rather have nominations.

RC: As far I know, the two compromises that we have had to make are on two issues. Both of them have some legitimate arguments so we have not compromised as much as we have conceded in the face of some logic.

One is this directly elected mayor. I am not ideologically or pathologically sold on this concept of directly elected mayor. We elect our chief ministers, we elect our prime ministers, and we elect our ministers too in a fairly straightforward manner. Therefore, if it is a mayor that is indirectly elected by elected councilors, I am reasonably neutral to the issue. Therefore when people said to not have a mayor elected directly because it will be difficult to process directly, I said fine. (The second issue is on the term of the mayor.)

SV: What about the powers of the mayor?

RC: Exactly, therefore what I find more relevant in this conversation in the issue of reforming Bangalore and creating sustainable development is to give the mayor more powers and a longer term, as opposed to having a mayor for one year. Give him either a term of two-and-a-half years or five years.

SV: Why not just five? Why is this number two-and-a-half figuring in to the picture?

RC: We have suggested five. Remember this is legislation that has to be introduced in to the assembly. They will debate it. There will be modifications. But we have recommended tenure of five years for an indirectly elected mayor.

Pic: Subramaniam Vincent

SV: What about powers of the mayor? Is there one thing in this bill that will make it through?

RC: The more important thing is that powers and accountability are two sides of the coin. We have not talked powers without talking about the accountability. The most important aspect of the BMRGA bill is to bring in accountability and transparency. It is not about powers. So the salient feature is, one to get citizens neighborhoods fully aligned and to let them have far more institutional and legal say in what happens in the neighborhoods.

SV: I am asking you about mayor’s power because, for a simple question on an underground parking lot, or something about road-widening, all of these questions are going to state-level ministers and the city council doesn’t even figure in them!

RC: Therefore we have said they are issues that will all be decided by the neighbourhood committees.

SV: But on road widening, if you take it as a city-level policy and the BBMP keeps  bringing up the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP), saying that these 80 roads were (marked for widening) in the CDP, so we will widen them no matter what..

RC: Therefore, what we have said in our plan is that both these things have to be read in conjunction. You have to read the ‘Plan Bengaluru 2020″, we have to read the BMRGA. We are saying that when it comes to neighbourhood development (forget about the main arterial roads) the voice of the citizens and the voice of the neighbourhood residents are final. If they choose to not have commercial development in the area, it is final. The minister can go blue in the face, the MP can go red in the face, but the neighbourhood area committee (NAC) will decide.

SV: So if Eighth Block Jayanagar feels that they have ‘maxed out’ on commercial development and they are okay with residential development and they don’t want new sanctions given to commercial or school developments…

RC: Their NAC can veto any plan sanctions.

SV: Is the current bunch of MLAs…are they seized of that kind of power going to the local level?

RC: In my sense there are many political people who are supporting this. There is enough political tailwind behind this. But there are many MLAs who have vested interests in real estate, who have corner land in residential areas who obviously want to monetize that, who will oppose it. If you ask me today is 100% of political class behind the BMRGA, of course not. Whenever we talk about accountability and transparency, do you expect politicians to come flocking to it or go running away from you?

They key here is whatever I go blue in the face and say is good or bad, if we don’t get a citizens’ movement in a sense, I am not being facetious  about it, this is really an important issue. This is about a city that has remained silent for too long, allowed bureaucrats and politicians to morph the city and exploit it. If neighborhoods don’t get up and say I want my neighbourhood back, in a sense that I am not harking back on 1947 and saying I want the quaint jasmine flower markets but my rights and my voice in what happens and what kind of transformation happens in my neighbourhood should be heard.

SV: On that level there’s been a criticism that has been leveled against the ABIDe committee, not against you in person, that is, if you want a citizens’ movement, you ought to have gone out in the city and pitched the plan Bengaluru draft. The kind of decentralised consultation that is needed to get mass participation…

RC: My own sense of this. I have been in public life for only four years. We are inherently default cribbers. Unless everything is put on a plate and served to you by spoon, we cannot do that. And by the way we have got almost 40000 inputs for this plan Bengaluru 2020. It is not 200 or 300. There are a number of people who have responded. We have tried to the extent possible to go out and have public consultations. We have had six public consultations. Some of them are specific to topics like urban poor; some of them are more general. We have gone and engaged. It is unprecedented, it has never happened before. We have also managed to get in my opinion a large amount of political class in favour of the reforms.

SV: When you say large amount of political class, do you mean the ruling BJP?

RC: Yes, the ruling BJP and I have got a lot of people from the Congress supporting me; the younger MLA’s are supporting it. Now the point is to get people to say we want this.

SV: When we go out and talk to people, and Citizen Matters did several stories on this, the sense on the ground that we get, from even residents welfare association members themselves is that they are not so keyed up on the importance of this kind of bill (BMRGA) passing.  (This is barring a few who are particularly interested in decentralisation of powers from state to the city)

RC: What are they saying?

SV: They don’t call us and ask us ‘What’s happening to ABIDe’s BMRGA bill and why are they not pushing it though, and we had read about this in a story some time back about the reform and there was no action!’ We don’t see the kind of thing that we see for road widening. We see fury when it comes to road widening.

RC: I am the first one to admit that the visibility to our work is less because the work is a little more sophisticated. If I go and start a movement saying that trees should not be cut, I will get a 100,000 people clapping for that. The whole point of solution that I am proposing is that it is not very intuitive. It is not something that everybody will easily understand.

SV: How does that change?

RC: It can only change with the media. I genuinely believe that that the media and the fourth estate have a role in explaining to people that there are some things that are beyond the intuitive obvious. You can protest road widening but it is a symptom of something bigger.

Look, politicians are very smart, bureaucrats are even smarter, they will give you a little sop and they will say okay you protested road widening, I am not going to do it but I will go and mess up the city in ten other places.

So there is a structural problem that requires a structural solution and this is true for everything that we have seen in India today whether it is Telecom (2G spectrum scam) or elsewhere. You need a structural solution, you need Lokayukta. If you don’t have an ombudsman or a vigilance officer or a vigilance oversight, which basically keeps the system honest, they will always play games with us.

This Karnataka Lokayukta (Justice Santosh Hegde) is an aberration; he is doing it completely out of his personal interest and so on and so forth. It is so easy today to just write a memo; a Lokayukta would still be doing his job if he goes and does two raids and outlines a list and says that’s it. He would still be doing his job. This man (Santosh Hegde) is going out there and creating a movement.

SV: Yet Justice Hegde has pointed out in a Citizen Matters interview that unless the Prevention of Corruption Act is amended (in Parliament) to remove the rule requiring prior sanction from the head of an authority/department before prosecuting an official caught red-handed, even the accountability that you would like to see happening with BMRGA bill would not happen! So what can you say as Rajya Sabha member on when this is likely to happen?

Prevention of Corruption Act

In his interview to Citizen Matters in 2009, Justice Santosh Hegde pointed out the need to amend Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act. This section bars courts from acting on punishable offences against public officials without permission granted by the authority who has the power to remove the official.

For e.g. if a top local official is caught red-handed by the Lokayukta, the head of the official’s department needs to give sanction for a court to proceed.

Justice Hegde has noted that this clause is being used to block effective prosecution of officials against whom evidence (bribery and disproportionate assets) exists, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that sanction is automatic in these cases.

RC: It will never happen. How will it happen? Look at the vested interests and the contradictions. Who has to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act? The MPs. Are you asking the Members of Parliament to go amend an Act that exposes them to prosecution? It is like asking the Chief Minister to amend the Lokayukta act to allow (direct) prosecution.

That is why I am saying, that in this discussion of democracy, I understand we are a democracy but we are not an informed democracy. We are not a democracy where the people understand their rights and are willing to go out and push the button on enforcing the rights. I am a citizen of Bangalore and I believe I have the constitutional right today to get better service from all these agencies because I am the taxpayer and it is my money that they are spending.

I believe that your (media) work is important and I am not flattering you, but we (citizens) need to go beyond saying  “I will outsource this work to ABIDe and by the way if they don’t fix the problem for me I will criticize them.”

SV: On that note, there are conversations that happen in the affluent layouts of this city, where people know ABIDe members. I am saying this to you as an editor and as well as one of the people who lives is such a layout. Citizens start saying “We will just ask ABIDe to do it.” This is why there is criticism (from NGOs and other observers) for ABIDe members, saying that this committee will start representing transportation and infrastructure needs of the elite of the city, who always want better roads and better infrastructure and so on..

RC: Which is why I have said I dislike this discussion on transportation because there is no city in the world that has a population of eight million people that has no transportation problem. At best what we do is manage the problem. We can’t solve this problem. How can we solve to problem of transportation in a city? Bangkok hasn’t solved it Singapore hasn’t solved it, New York hasn’t solved it, are we going to solved it by going on widening roads? You can widen the roads and in six months time the roads will still be packed.

The challenge is for more and more citizens to get aware of the multi nature of the problem that the city. Road widening or tree cutting does not define the city’s problem. They are two symptoms of larger problems and if people don’t come out and have a slightly more informed view about what the problem is they will not understand that the solution is a far more complex solution.

SV: How do people come out? Higher-income groups apart, have low-income groups in the city who do not speak English engaged you on the ideas in the BMRGA bill?

RC: You know it is one of the biggest illusions or myths to say that people who speak Kannada or are poor, don’t recognise that they have rights and are not frustrated. Their challenges or problems are a different set. They might not be identical to the problems of a citizen in Indiranagar or in Jayanagar, they might not be about road widening or tree cutting. But he still has a problem about how he commutes from his house, are the buses available frequently enough, are the fares reasonable. We have looked at urban poor, we have looked at housing and transportation for the poor…

SV: How much of those issues will get addressed if the bill is passed? How?

RC: All of them. Because the bill talks about taking all these agencies for urban poor and making it one. Instead of having Karnataka Housing Board, Slum Clearance Board and half a dozen other programmes that are all disparate with four different ministers, we said all of these agencies should be targeted, homogenised and focused on solving one challenge, which is the urban poor housing problem.

SV: Two last questions, because we are actually out of time. If this bill passes and the MPC (Metropolitan Planning Committee) is constituted, do you expect current members of ABIDe to be nominated into the MPC?

Missing in Bengaluru: Metropolitan Planning Committee or MPC

Article 243ZE of the Consitution says that that every metropolitan area must have a Metropolitan Planning Committee, which will prepare the development plan for the area.

The article also says that two-thirds of the MPC’s members are to be elected by, and from and amongst, the elected members of the municipalities (councillors) and chairpersons of the panchayats in the metropolitan area.

This clause is to be brought into force by state governments enacting laws. However, Karnataka has not done this. Currently for the Bangalore metropolitan region, it is the BDA, a state government authority that prepares the plan. No MPC exists. Legal experts consequently say that the state government is running the city unconstitutionally.

RC: The government will decide that.

SV: Do you have a personal interest in ensuring that some people (ABIDe members) shepherd the process?

RC: We don’t have to be on the MPC. If there is sufficient public opinion that this is what the MPC should do and this is what the structure should be and it should not be just MLA’s and corporators, and that it should also have some knowledge and capacity, it will happen. I am not particularly advocating or unadvocating it.

SV: But ABIDe members have invested a substantial amount of time and efforts..

RC: There are a number of people in ABIDe who are very passionate about the city and would like to contribute. Of course it is my job to offer and volunteer those names to the chief minister and the government and the people and it is up to them.

SV: On your personal journey in politics itself. You are an entrepreneur. What is your advice for people in their late 20s or early 30s to 40s, successful in their industry, who have a public mind and would like to jump in, in a way that R K Mishra also took the leap, what’s your advice to them to convince them that it’s worth taking a leap in to politics. Are you convinced about it yourself? (R K Mishra is a Bangalore-based entrepreneur and ABIDe member. He formally joined the BJP in March 2009 in a function attended by top party leaders Arun Jaitley and Ananth Kumar)

RC: Of course I am convinced. For all the frustrations, all the criticisms in all the four years, I believe that public life and serving the city and the community is a good thing to do. More so in our country because I believe democracy in this country is under threat from a number of reasons.

There’s a declining level of idealism and no democracy or country or community can survive without some kind of idealism, energy and some amount of people in it just to do some good. I meet a lot of people interested in it and I keep telling them its not going to be a walk in the park. You should be prepared for a tough walk but it will be eminently satisfying if not for everybody, at least to yourself and your family.

SV: Final question. It is not clear to us who the Namma Bengaluru Foundation really is. (Rajeev Chandrasekhar is founder and managing trustee of NBF. On its website, NBF says it intends to partner with RWA’s, citizens and other civic organizations for advancing their rights as citizens and to be their support in ensuring sustainable development of Bengaluru and a well governed city.) We understand the link between the Namma Bengaluru awards and the foundation but when we go to the website one doesn’t see the board of trustees, the governing body. Most NGO’s have trustees associated with it. But we only see your name associated with it.

RC: Namma Bengaluru Foundation was started only for the Namma Bengaluru Awards but we have decided over the last few months that Namma Bengaluru Foundation should do a lot more advocacy and activism in the city. Therefore, you will hear in the next 2-3 weeks a whole new board of trustees and a completely defined action plan, which involves, advocacy, activism and partnership with the government.

SV: Thank you.

3 Comments

  1. Vinay Sreenivasa:

    DNA story says this Bill will cover about 6-7 cities including Bangalore..so does not that address your ” swallow surrounding areas” concerns. Besides will this Bill not include Bangalore – Urban and Rural to cover 4 Parliamentary constituencies ?

    The bill is water ‘community participation bill’ – is this the same as BRGA or is it anything else ? asking this, as BRG was meant for Bangalore…whereas the Bill passed by Govt covers many cities…

    Also, can one compel the Government – now that this Bill is passed in the Assembly – to make it available on state website or perhaps you can get hold of a copy and paste the link here ?

    Regards

  2. 3 important concerns about this bill (among several others) which this interview and others seen to miss out –

    the constituion only calls for a metropolitan planning council. but this bill creates a metro. planning board which has only nominated ppl. this board will take decisions for the entrire 8000 sq, km! a nominated board deciding for the region, how does that fit in a democracy?

    by making a 8000 sq.qm bangalore metro region, this bill will create a very large urban area and swallow the surrounding rural areas.

    why is there still no publicly available copy of the bill? people in ramngaram, bangalore rural dont even know of this bill which impacts them…how can we pass such a bill without any public sharing of the draft , any public discussions?

    see also this article in DNA for more –

    http://www.dnaindia.com/bangalore/report_elitist-tag-dogs-bangalore-metropolitan-region-bill_1490891

  3. “There’s a declining level of idealism and no democracy or country or community can survive without some kind of idealism, energy and some amount of people in it just to do some good.” –
    That about sums it up !!. Well done interview. Thanks CM.

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