Citizens Action Forum (CAF), a federation of Residents Welfare Associations (RWA) in Bangalore, held a meeting on Saturday February 19, at the Central College Senate Hall at which three issues were tabled for discussion – the move by BBMP to hike property tax by 15 per cent, water supply, and the garbage problem.
A full house saw representatives of RWA and concerned citizens voice their opinions on these issues to seek responses from ward representatives and MLAs. What remained at the end of over three hours of discussions was one overarching question that none of the VIPs on the dais — MLA Aswathnarayana, B N Vijaya Kumar. Corporators G Manjunath Raju (member of the BBMP’s standing committee on finance and taxation), Lalithabai, Govindraju, and BWSSB Chief Engineer Venkat Raju – were able to give a clear answer to:
"If the BBMP is strapped for cash and needs to raise more money, and only 40 per cent of property owners in the city have reportedly paid their tax, why is the corporation focusing on imposing a heavier burden on the law-abiding citizens who have paid their dues, instead of trying to collect from the remaining 60 per cent who have defaulted on payments?”
CAF presented detailed figures for the revenue that the BBMP was collecting under different heads (property tax, rental income, advertisements on hoardings, and trade licenses). Rental revenues have not been updated or rationalised; many hoardings are illegal and bring no revenue (and are not being penalised either) and by spreading the net wider over property tax defaulters, it was pointed out, the corporation could easily earn enough to cover its needs.
Property tax alone could bring in Rs 2,250 crores (against the Rs 900 crore collected) if coverage is raised from 40 to 90 per cent. There are, CAF pointed out, over 1,000 BBMP properties let out for commercial purposes which could fetch another Rs 500 crores if current market rates were implemented. Lack of political will to increase efficiency in collection, rather than lack of resources, is the crux.
The replies from the dignitaries were eloquent in supporting this popular perception of lack of political will in decision makers – there was not a word of explanation on why 60 per cent of property owners were being allowed to escape the tax net.
A news report of May 24th, 2009 titled “BBMP cracks the whip on tax dodgers” declared that the palike had prepared a database of properties within the city’s municipal limits "with the help of satellite imagery" and that the slots for properties for which tax had not been paid would show up as blanks (instead of blue) on the database, so a glance at the coloured slots of properties will clearly show up the defaulters in each locality.” So why has the BBMP not caught up yet with the defaulters, if their sophisticated database (which, a former deputy commissioner claimed, was “bribe proof too) was showing up ‘coloured slots’ in May 2009?
Why has BBMP not updated its property register as mandated by the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act? There were no explanations from the invited officials and elected reps.
Many invited VIPs turned up late, after 4.30 pm , when the meeting was called for 3.30 pm – and most of them left early too, before the end of the discussions, after making their PR speeches and collecting their gift wrapped mementoes. One declared that he had to leave to oversee preparations for the “samavesha” that the BJP had planned for the next day (Sunday 20th) as a “show of strength” while another said, during the discussions on water and garbage, that he had just returned from Singapore two days earlier. (One of the attractions of becoming a civic administrator is the prospect of foreign tours to “study” garbage disposal or storm water drains!)
Some others among the VIP invitees blamed the citizens (one declared that the “mafia was making their work difficult”) – all of which added up to what Mukund described aptly as “be-jawaabdari” (lack of accountability).
In all civic matters affecting the citizens, the people have no say in decision making, they are handed down decisions taken without heeding the voices, preferences or objections of the residents, and penalised if they don’t tow the line – and that is not a democratic way of functioning, citizens declared.
There were more hard hitting presentations – about the number of water bodies that have been lost to the city, and the irrational manner in which the water shortage is sought to be tackled by the BWSSB without a viable long term plan in place. CAF listed alternative workable solutions, for reducing the gap between supply and demand (in municipal finances as well as water) and also for more efficient garbage handling (on which Rs 120 crores are being currently spent, only to dump the city’s waste onto nearby villages).
N S Mukunda of CAF demanded that government stop illegal letting in of sewage, and ensure sewage lines are separate from storm water drains.
Were the authorities listening? One comment was that those present on the dais were “not authorised to take decisions and that they could only pass on the audience’s feelings to the “higher-ups’, which means even strongly interactive sessions like this one, make it difficult for us to get heard directly in the corridors of power.
That again, is not democracy. We need a “fifth estate” as CAF puts it, in the form of people’s articulation, loud enough to make a difference to the quality of governance that we now have the dubious privilege of ‘enjoying’…