Dear Dr Manmohan Singh,
Last evening, I read a report of your speech at Mysore Road outside Bengaluru.
"Congress will give world class infrastructure to Bengaluru: PM", went the headline by the Indo Asian News Service. The report was carried by several news websites including media as far away as the New York Daily News. It went on to quote your reason for this promise:
"Because Bengaluru deserves the best", you said.
Dr Singh, stop.
I cannot speak for all Bangaloreans, but hear me out anyway.
I do not want a world class infrastructure for Bengaluru. I want a world class city government.
First things first. If elected to power, ask your Congress government to give us this, and Bengaluru will take care of itself.
But for that, you need to stop thinking ‘infrastructure’ and starting thinking ‘government’.
I have to explain this because I believe your speech, of all recent political speeches, reveals the most astounding lack of deeper vision to inspire world class Bangaloreans. And by world class Bangaloreans, I do not mean the elite alone. I mean everyone in the city with the aspiration for a better life for themselves and their families.
What is world class city government? This, Dr Singh, should have been your starting point.
Go to any major city in a democracy with world class infrastructure, to use your own words. Look at their city governments. And then look at ours.
In a world class city, a mayor is the city’s leader. In our city, Bengaluru, the mayor is invisible. The state government’s ministers hold all the cards.
In a world class city, a mayor has a five-year-term. Our mayor has one.
In a world class city, the mayor has the powers to take decisions without having to run for approval to ‘papa’, i.e. state government. Our mayor is ceremonial, he can only convene the city council, not much else.
In a world class city, the mayor will appoint a team including the city’s commissioner. In our city, papa decides all that. Papa’s babu-boys who come with fancy designations that all end with the word ‘commissioner’ in it. They report to the city council only ceremonially. And papa keeps transferring them around like puppets. No vision, no plan, no tenure. Only firefighting.
A world class mayor will hold press conferences regularly and explain decisions to the media, not by speeches but in interactive conversation. Our mayor never faces the press for anything beyond a few ‘sound bites’.
There’s more to this world class concept you need to understand, Dr Singh.
A world class city government raises its own funds using a combination of world class financing, high credit-rating, and revenues that befit a city that contributes over Rs.50,000 crores to the GDP of the state. But our city is outlawed against doing anything but raise property taxes, advertising taxes, a few cesses, and building license fees, on its own. Bengaluru’s total inflows are a few thousand crore rupees, a pittance.
A world class city government will not have to run to papa to get every awarded tender approved, and worse still, run to big papa in New Delhi, which is you Dr Singh, for money to put new local buses, neighbourhood flyovers and what not.
A world class city council will debate major issues and vote on decisions, with every councillor’s vote recorded and made public so that citizens know how councillors voted. Our city council does not even vote! (I bet you did not know that. And worse, this was happening when your party was in power too.)
A world class city government will have one planning authority and one master plan which provides for and balances the needs that come from population growth, housing, public transportation, commercial real estate, water supply, roads and lighting, schools, hospitals and more. Astoundingly, this ‘one authority’ is provided for in our own Constitution and it is called the metropolitan planning committee or the MPC.
But our city region, equally astoundingly, Dr Singh, does not have this MPC. No party in power created one. Instead, we have four planning authorities, all run by papa. I call them papa’s "B* planning club". They are the BDA, BMRDA, BIAPA and the BMICPA. Forget the expansions, in case you are wondering. It does not matter. BDA is for city limits, BMRDA for the greater Bengaluru region, BIAPA for the airport area and BMICPA for the NICE corridor. Independent of these four is our state’s premier land-grabbing authority, the KIADB. The KIADB chooses to override the city master plan (to favour crony developers) whenever it feels like.
The MPC never happened. Worse, parts of our city’s master plan were found illegal in the High Court last year and the justices ordered the city to revert to 1995-2005 residential zoning. How does a world class city get world class infrastructure if its master plan is pulled into the courts?
This is not all Dr Singh. Not letting you go that easily.
A world class city government knows how much water is needed every day, sources it and supplies it clean and potable to everyone. It bars massive new housing and commercial estates to come up where is neither groundwater nor piped water. But our city government does not even control the supply agency that distributes water to the city. Papa runs the agency.
A world class city government has its electricity agency under it. In our city, papa runs this too.
So papa arranges for water, power, roads, underpasses, everything for our city.
Show me one city in any large country in the democratic world with world class infrastructure without a world class city government.
What we got instead from the approach all major parties including yours take to ‘world class infrastructure’, Dr Singh, is a city on steroids. Bulging muscles everywhere, and no nourishment. Most lakes dead, the few left are in trouble. The good news is that real Bangaloreans are fighting back. Learn from the citizens that steroids don’t work long term.
So Dr Singh, let me keep this simple.
Division of power between centre and states was always there, we call it federalism. But decentralisation of power from state to city is what allows cities to build the right capacities with the right people in office. I.e. it allows cities to grow up.
But Dr Singh, our cities, and Bengaluru in particular, are good examples of fat-bloated children who have grown, but not grown up into responsible adults to manage most of their own affairs. Over-parenting is our culture here, and we have taken it so seriously that it shows in our approach to government too.
Because all parties, including yours have only done lip service to empowering cities in this nation of amazingly talented people. Bengaluru, Dr Singh, is an aspirational city with the best of the world’s talent. Architects, artists, activists, human rights advocates, planners, entrepreneurs, political innovators, engineers, environmentalists, lawyers, scholars, pragmatists, visionaries, administrators, whistleblowers, watchdogs and most of all, volunteers. See the work of the Ugly Indian, and you will know.
You have only let us down, Manmohan Singh. True, your party’s former leader of the 80’s gets the credit for amending the Constitution of India to bring in the clause that mandates state governments to let cities run their own affairs. But then vested interests to control cities took over. Your whole approach to giving world class infrastructure to cities without an MPC is therefore unconstitutional and plainly put, illegal. World class cities do not have illegal methods.
Dr Singh, do not talk of infrastructure in this premise-less, spiritless, undemocratic kind of way. This election is a chance for your party to set that right if it comes to power.
The old cliche bears repeating here. Teach a man to fish, don’t feed him fish.
I do not want your world class infrastructure, Dr Singh. I want a world class city government. The infrastructure will come on its own. And it will be better than the ill-planned and unjustly provisioned patchwork that papa doles out.
To read part-2 of the series Bengaluru on poll mode, click here.⊕