Judging by the online discussions generated by citizens of Bengaluru, on the pros and cons of the agenda drawn up by the Bengaluru Political Action Committee(BPAC) it is clear that there are quite a few residents who are interested in finding solution to the multiple ills that beset the metropolis – from mounds of garbage to choked traffic and scams in every department of the administration. And since not everyone who is concerned about this degeneration makes online inputs, the number of citizens who would like to lend a hand with pulling Bengaluru out of the current mess, must be substantial.
So how do we take this forward, to translate concerns into action? In a city of millions it is anything but easy to arrive at a consensus. Forming groups like BPAC is a good idea, to wrest control of the decision-making from apathetic corporations and committees – that is the majority opinion (except among those who caution about BPAC becoming yet another top heavy group led by ‘big names’ that may not necessarily show sensitivity to the needs of the car-less, middle income, low profile aam admi). From my experience, I know that even NGOs sometimes have their own agendas that do not reflect the needs of the community’s majority. So, point number one: we have a social trust deficit, born of long years of being taken for a ride by all and sundry.
Point number two: choosing spokespersons and leaders (political as well as volunteers and corporate representatives). There seems to be an understandable sense of hesitation about letting high-profile business leaders decide the city’s priorities (long term needs of highways and fancy rails, or short term urgencies – clean, garbage-free environment, helplines accessible and responsive to the lowliest of residents, not merely on paper, in terms of a website that sends out a polite acknowledgement as an end in itself. Granted that we need to heed citizens’ preferences and priorities, zooming in on this can itself be a contentious exercise, given the number of people the city needs to cater to. But there are some areas where clearly, the citizens’ convenience has been ignored – for example, in spending crores on skywalks that are dud investments because pedestrians cannot use them. We had a fancy over-bridge for pedestrians at the Jayanagar fourth block terminus, which was not used and had to be pulled down – causing a criminal waste of public funds, first in erecting it and then in pulling it down.
But then, it is also true that taking note of every single suggestion from ‘concerned citizens’ can lead to chaos too. Ideally, we should have neighbourhood groups (including residents welfare associations) bringing inputs based on consensus, to the political action groups like BPAC, but this can only happen if RWAs are more active. Barring a few, most are apathetic; so we need to take the blame too, as residents. If exercising our franchise was a duty, so is the participation in decision making.
When we complain about not having been consulted, we do not take it up to the next level, of insisting on accountability being pinned on those responsible for such oversight followed by penal action. I have seen RWA meetings that draw poor attendance, because this is not seen as "important" even by those who complain about mounds of garbage or potholes. The excuse is – Enu aagolla (nothing will change) or ‘neevey maadibidi’ (you do it, I can’t be bothered).
The most telling rebuttal of this is the case of CVS proposed a few years ago, to replace SAS (self-assessment scheme) for property tax. Strong opposition from citizens who saw serious flaws and unfair premises in CVS ensured that the BBMP backed out.
If we muster enough strength through numbers and follow up, we CAN make a dent in the administration’s apathy and arbitrary rulings. We need to elect clean, capable and genuinely concerned representatives. For that we need to know their backgrounds, true.
The media did, and does, expose scams galore, every single day, so we do have information about who is tainted, or under investigation (or even spent time in jail) but still such candidates manage to get tickets. The voters did register their annoyance, against a party that had seen the city turn into a stinking dump during its tenure at the helm, but others with questionable ethics did win, by wooing the slum-dwellers with bribes. We had better vigilance this time, to prevent malpractices but I know that two nights before voting day, the Congress party chose a woman, from a slum itself, to go round after dark, knocking on doors in that slum quietly distributing money. Last time it was the BJP that came to this same slum with saris and cash. Hotline numbers are published in the newspapers for complaints about such corruption but who tells the illiterate slum population
that does not read newspapers, about where and how to complain? Why would they complain, anyway, if they are getting much-needed cash?
There’s the rub – the process is not clean, and we do not get competent MLAs because the corrupt get away with cashing in on ignorance. Those keen on providing clean administration, got paltry numbers of votes because they could not woo the poor with bribes. Perhaps groups like BPAC, instead of debating about fancy long term projects, could begin with a massive movement to educate this section of the residents (the low income groups that get attracted by freebies) and putting together a corps of volunteers who will create awareness about citizens’ rights and entitlements. I tried this in an individual capacity last time and was warned that I could be targeted by goons who keep track of who goes round saying what, in the slums. If we became a corps, we could perhaps, with the backing of the groups like BPAC, overcome this and become effective.
This feeds into point number three – true, most of the non-mainstream party contestants (for want of a better phrase) did not have the money to match the resources of the dominant parties. Does anyone fund them?
My point is, there are dimensions of this ‘cleaning up’ effort that do not really require money – creating awareness, for instance. Even the illiterate are capable of making their views known through the ballot, provided they had a choice (not only in terms of multiple names on the ballot paper but also their own vulnerable economic circumstances). Is a one-time gift of a sari, a bottle of liquor, cash, or even a laptop, preferable to an alternative administration that genuinely seeks to guarantee basic needs to all? Are we, as educated citizens, reaching out to create discussions on this, outside our own residents’ groups? If not, why? Can BPAC help?
After all, their focus is on facilitating a cleaner administration. Is it that difficult to find a dozen reliable, sincere and honest middle class citizens who could link up with BPAC and other groups, even if they are led by high profile professionals from the corporate world?
The shopping complex at Jayanagar and Malleswaram markets are being replaced at great expense. As if there were no other urgent claims to the funds. Citizens had no say. This is where groups like BPAC could give voice to public sentiments.
As one online comment points out, unfortunately candidates like Sridhar Pabbisetty could not make a dent. During a citizens’ meeting before the elections, I quizzed him on a few points and was impressed by his analyses and answers. We could strengthen the work of BPAC by identifying candidates who seem promising and offer an alternative. And that work begins, not just before the next round of elections, but NOW. Because pulling a city out of a mess is not just an election exercise, it is an urgent, immediate priority.
Finally, do we need a separate minister for Bengaluru? Not necessarily. You can have half a dozen ministers exclusively for the city, and still see little improvement, so it is a matter of public vigilance in terms of overseeing what the politicians and decision-makers do, with the money we contribute as taxpayers. We all pay up 3 per cent cess and 14 per cent VAT, but when it comes to paying up 5 or 10 per cent of our time, to strengthen vigilance, we shirk, and do not want to volunteer. Ponder over that. If Mohandas Pai can, why not the educated middle classes too?⊕