Bengaluru MLAs ‘bunk’ major reforms meeting, ABIDe miffed

On February 7th morning, Karnataka’s Urban Development and Law Minister Minister Suresh Kumar was to hold meeting to discuss a long-pending bill to reform Bengaluru’s administration. This is the BMRG or Bangalore Metropolitan Regional Governance Bill, drafted by chief minister B S Yeddyurappa’s own ABIDe task force. Kumar had invited all 28 Bangalore MLAs, 3 MPs and officials of city agencies.

What does this BILL change?

* Longer-term and more powers for the mayor

* Metropolitan planning committee (with elected members of BBMP council and panchayats) will run greater Bengaluru, not the state government

* BDA’s planning power will end. Vision for the city and planning will go the MPC, and BMRDA will report to the MPC and draft the city’s master plan and zoning rules

* BWSSB will become a water supply body only. Water distribution and connections will go to BBMP. Citizen will have more say over water woes through their corporators

* Ward committees (WC) will be expanded include ten neighbourhood area representatives per ward. WC will have powers to oversee ward works and take decisions for the ward using funds allocated.

But only 2 MLAs came for the meeting – Ravi Subramanya (Basavanagudi) and B N Vijaykumar (Jayanagar). After waiting for an hour, a dejected Kumar cancelled the meeting. Mayor S K Nataraj and MLA Ashwath Narayan (Malleshwaram) turned up after the cancellation.

Suresh Kumar chose to be non-committal on the almost near no-show by the MLAs. "I cannot comment on their not attending", he says, speaking to Citizen Matters over the telephone.

The BMRG bill tries to reform several areas of city governance in one stroke. It was expected that this was the government’s major meeting to seek political consensus before going forward with it into the assembly.

Topics on the table include longer-term and more powers for the mayor, setting up the long-pending constitution-mandated metropolitan planning committee for greater Bengaluru, taking away planning functions from the BDA and vesting it only with the BMRDA, making BWSSB into a water supply body only with water distribution going back to BBMP, expanding ward committees to include neighbourhood area representatives and so forth. Under current law, Bengaluru’s mayor has a ceremonial role of convening the council and a mere one-year term.

ABIDe members Ashwin Mahesh, R K Misra and A Ravindra were clearly disappointed. We have reached a stage where we have several initiatives already ongoing in government, but without structural reforms, this can only go so far, opines Mahesh. "If the government is not interested in this bill, then ABIDe might as well be closed down", adds a miffed Mahesh. ABIDe Convener and Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandasekhar was traveling and also could not make it to the meeting, said his spokesperson, V Anand. 

Misra, a member of the BJP’s Good Governance Cell headquartered in New Delhi, is also upset at the Karnataka BJP’s attitude to reforms. "MLAs were calling in to check who else had come or was coming, instead of just showing up at the meeting", he says. According to him, Karnataka ranks at the bottom for governance amongst all BJP-ruled states.  "There is a leadership problem in Karnataka", he says, flatly. Suresh Kumar as urban development minister in sincerity called for the meeting, but the chief minister needs to get behind the bill’s discussion to really push this forward, he noted.

Malleshwaram MLA Dr Ashwath Narayan (BJP), who did make it, albeit late, also choses to be tight-lipped, like Kumar. He says that he has read through the features of the BMRG bill and is aware it lines up major reforms, but cannot comment on it. "We need to discuss it first. I will comment only after that", he told Citizen Matters over the telephone.

In contrast to ABIDe members, Jayanagar MLA (BJP) B N Vijaykumar appeared forgiving about the no-show by most other MLAs. "Legislators were informed about this meeting on Fri and Sat. Everyone was busy with Sahitya Sammelana. It’s difficult to say why they all did not come. Let’s reschedule the meeting to a convenient date and then proceed", he says, unwilling to comment further on the no-show.

Vijaykumar on the other hand is outspoken in his views about the bill, and says that a meeting must happen and his own doubts need to be cleared. "MPC is needed. But the format is to be discussed", says Vijaykumar with the confidence of someone who has thought about the reforms. He agrees that BDA should not do planning for Bengaluru and this must be given to BMRDA. He is also in-principle agreeable to narrow the focus of BWSSB into supply/procurement and hand over distribution to BBMP.

"But is BBMP ready? At one stroke it will be difficult", asks Vijaykumar. His main concern, which he had hoped would be discussed at the cancelled meeting, was on the preparedness of city agencies for the reforms. "Discussion must include MLAs and heads of all these agencies. Today UDD Secretary, BDA commissioner Meena and other officials were there", he adds.

Congress MLA Narendra Babu told Citizen Matters that he was called for the meeting last weekend by Kumar’s personal assistant when he was attending the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana. He could not attend due to a marriage in the family, he noted. However, he appears interested in discussing the bill and to see the BJP government’s views.  Narendra Babu comes across as a strong supporter of reforms for Bengaluru through decentralisation.

"I am for direct election of Mayor and a full-term", he says with enthusiasm, and yet adds quickly that this is his personal view and not his party’s.  A directly elected mayor will have greater legitimacy to represent Benglauru and not just his or her ward, he argues. Babu says he is yet to receive a formal copy of the draft ABIDe bill from Minister Kumar. 

For ABIDe members, this fiasco is particularly frustrating because it comes after more than a year of lobbying to move the draft bill into real politics. It also comes at a time when the Karnataka legislature has already been criticised by NGOs and ABIDe for having passed a city reforms-related Community Participation (CP) Bill a few weeks back without debate or discusson.

The CP bill was to give a greater role for citizens on local matters. Yet, many experts including Ramesh Ramanathan, technical advisor to the UPA central government, ABIDe members and city-based NGOs have called it a sham. (A separate report on this will be published in Citizen Matters later this week). 

For the moment though, the MLAs’ no-show of Monday does not appear the end of the road for a reformed Bengaluru administration. Suresh Kumar says he has rescheduled the MLAs-MPs-Officials meeting. A fresh date has not been fixed yet and will be announced soon, he says.

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