Decentralisation is a word that we often hear and appreciate. We, however, see it as a distant concept that operates far from our lives. Images that come to mind when we think of decentralisation are panchayat raj or self-help groups, etc.
We do not, for instance, think of this term — which means dissipation of power from one to many — when it comes to urban issues.
More often than not, we think of the urban settings as organised spaces. To us, everything falls under the realm of urban planning; that gives us a semblance of structure to the chaotic world we live in.
But does this reflect on the ground? Do we see this ‘planning’ in action, when we look around in our cities? Are the issues of water, infrastructure, transportation as intricately executed as we would like them to be?
If not, what do we do about it, apart from cursing under our breath when stuck in traffic? What do we do, say, when an independent study finds out that the water being supplied to our homes by the municipal corporation has higher levels of harmful metals?
In a recent discussion on Governance and Citizen Participation, organised by the Bangalore Apartments’ Federation, panelists talked about the role of apartment associations in the entire scheme of urban governance. Srinivas Alavilli of Janaagraha, Zibi Jamal of Whitefield Rising , and Harish Kumar MP of Namma Bengaluru Foundation were the panelists. Satarupa Bhattacharya of Citizen Matters moderated the discussion.
Unit of governance
“We study Civics in school and then forget about it. It’s only once we start living our lives as individuals and face problems regarding the most basic civic amenities that we realise just how important a part governance plays in our day-to-day lives,” Srinivas Alavalli, who heads civic participation at Janaagraha, remarked.
The commonality of issues that the residents of a particular apartment complex face, brings them together as a community. Coming together to solve a particular set of issues within the apartment society makes the connection stronger and, thus, a new level of governance is discovered.
This community-based approach to solving certain hyper-local issues makes them strong enough to put forward demands and ask for action and accountability from the local municipal corporation, Srinivas said.
Covid broadened horizons
The Covid-19 pandemic was a watershed moment for resident welfare associations, the panelists agreed. Associations had to rise to the task of mobilising themselves and look beyond their immediate needs.
The situation was unprecedented for associations, they said. On the one hand, they were locked up inside their gated communities for months on end, with only limited resources. On the other, they witnessed that those outside, with no social capital, were worse off. While some took a fatalist view of the situation, others extended a helping hand to the needy, they said.
According to Srinivas, the pandemic was when “they discovered the power of the collective power of community.”
Amidst the panic, exaggerated by fake news and misinformation, “it became extremely important for us to connect different communities to share information and bust myths that were going around. That’s how we used our platform,” Zibi Jamal, volunteer with Whitefield Rising, said.
Whitefield Rising itself plunged into relief operations during the lockdown, tapping the resources of apartment residents in Whitefield and surrounding areas. “The pandemic made us realise that instead of being isolated units, we are actually a community that is bound by strong connections,” Zibi added.
On gated-communities and apartments shutting their gates to people like vegetable vendors and domestic workers, Zibi said: “When it comes to treating people well, all of us should use our voice and create awareness about such issues. We need to use our platforms to bring in as many diversified voices as possible.”
Link to government
Apartment associations, given how well they are organised, are now the target of politicians for support and vote-bank politics in urban areas, the panel said. Having fully exploited the potential of segregation on the basis of caste and religion, politicians are now turning to such associations, they said.
That’s precisely the power associations must leverage, by acting as an active link between citizens and government, Srinivas said. “Such associations may be a great thing for rediscovering citizenship and redefining the term decentralisation,” he noted.
“The concept of decentralisation hinges on the fact that local problems should be solved locally,” Harish Kumar MP of Namma Bengaluru Foundation said. Few citizens, however realise how much power they can wield and how many rights they can exercise.
“According to the Constitution as well as Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act chapter 3A, we as citizens have the moral and legislative right to engage. The governing body of Bengaluru has a yearly budget of about Rs 10,000 per citizen. Thus, we have the right to ask and demand how this money is spent. Policy-wise too, we have a say,” Harish informed.
To be able to engage constructively with governing bodies like the BBMP, Harish said, citizens need to know the authorities and what they are doing. “Within the framework of governance, you need to engage with the system and not an individual,” Harish emphasised.
For instance, ward committees are supposed to raise issues that plague each ward. In the event that they are not functional, apartment associations should make ward committees take note of the issues, he said. “We need to have a balance between our engagement with the system (BBMP) and the representatives (ward committee). That’s where apartment associations come in,” he said.