Like every civic body, BBMP had its moment of truth in 2020 because of the pandemic. Revenues plummeted as commercial activity slumped during the lockdown. Public health and medical demands soared. Employees were shunted around for emergency tasks, throwing administrative controls into disarray.
Dividing lines between State and civic duties were blurred: BBMP became a government department delivering welfare services to migrants under a lockdown. State departmental heads monitored and supervised civic functions. Ad hoc staff was hastily added to run COVID contact and testing facilities.
Formal citizen involvement was undermined, social distancing hampered protests and courts became dormant. The government used the opportunity to ram through pending civic measures with cursory public consultation. The BBMP, we see as Financial Year 2021 dawns, is far removed from BBMP circa 2020.
Ward boundaries have moved and new wards created (198 wards have become 243). A fresh Corporations Act based on different notions of control and accountability is now in place. The Council and elected corporators have remitted office and the body is firmly back with an Administrator. Since enabling rules have not been issued and many matters are before Courts (with or without stay orders), civic administration is in a state of flux, while Bengaluru scrambles into the second wave of COVID and wonders what the future might hold.
The budget mirrors these developments; it also ignores truths that were thrown up by last year’s challenges. Sadly, it offers not a glimmer of a brave new world for the city’s residents.
A budget without memory
Has BBMP finally faced up to reality and scaled down its dreams? Instead of planning to spend over Rs 10,000 crore (as it did in 2018-19 and 2019-20), and consistently missing the mark by close to Rs 3000 crore, hopes for 2021-22 are only pegged to a gloomy Rs 9288 crore.
It is not as if COVID has pushed the city exchequer off the cliff edge. Well before the lockdown hit Bengaluru, end March last year, finances were in terminal decline. The budget now shows that in 2019-20, only slightly more than half the planned expenditure (Rs 6752 crore, not Rs 11649 crore) was actually realised.
The coming budget may seem like a climbdown from BBMP’s plans for 2018-19/19-20; the real irony is that it is a third higher than BBMP’s achievement in the last normal year (2019-20)! And Rs 9288 crore now proposed to be spent for the city is only equal to Rs 7000 crore at 2015 prices (the year in which the last elected Council took office with high expectations).
Civic administration in Bengaluru is experiencing its death throes. We have all suffered the broken infrastructure and failing citizen services; the budgetary numbers confirm these experiences. Yet, the effects of the makeover of BBMP’s wards and statutes in 2020 are hardly visible in the numbers or programs of the budget.
There is also no vision or road map for a city emerging from a pandemic. Were no lessons learnt from the bitter experience? And where are the plans to guard us against any repetition?
Clogged revenue streams
Only around 55% (slightly more than half) of the BBMP budget is raised within the Palike from taxes, fees, fines, rents and similar items. There are also State and Central Finance Commission grants, which are fixed at regular intervals, with about one-third of the budget at the mercy of the State government.
Property tax revenue and State infrastructure funding are the planks on which the city’s finances rest. Every year, these are grossly overestimated. Particularly since 2015, when the second elected Council of the extended Palike took office, own revenues have been unsteadily propped on the sole leg of property tax, a source whose growth has not kept pace with the growth of the city.
Since 2019, rosy projections have been made to cross the Rs 3500 crore mark, but the basic tax has only crawled up from Rs 1700 crore to beyond Rs 2000 crore over five years. Yet, this tax and its piggybacked cesses and related items (like late payment fines, interest etc.) have immense potential. A host of suggestions has been made by experts for helping citizens to assess and pay taxes and linking and validating the different data sets of property owners and occupants within and outside BBMP.
The Central government’s Economic Survey of 2017 and the report of the Indian Centre for Social Transformation to the Fourth State Finance Commission of Karnataka affirm that property tax receipts could easily go up to Rs 10000 crore through better administration. BBMP could double its budget by improved property tax collection, opening up a vista of city improvement programs and freeing it from the State government’s apron strings.
Other traditional revenue sources have been killed off through political cupidity and administrative negligence. Tax revenue from advertisements is dormant, almost left for dead. Billboards that defaced the city (and the lucrative publicity business behind them) have disappeared, taking with them one buoyant tax handle.
For five years judicial intervention has been waiting for coherent policy formulation from the government and BBMP. Without this, even public interest advertisements (promoting waste segregation, composting or COVID management) are illegal. The absence of clear-eyed policy-making has also depressed revenue from trade licences while commercial activity grows without supervision or regulation.
Pittance for the pandemic
The pandemic has thrown the spotlight on three sectors: health, education and welfare (ration supply to the unemployed and destitute during the lockdown). BBMP coped with the health emergency by redeploying employees, indenting helpers from other departments and short term contracting for COVID tasks — sanitisation, testing, tracking and tracing programmes and management of ambulances, hospitalisation and vaccination.
It was severely hampered by not having control of primary health centres run by the State government in the 110 villages added to the Palike a dozen years ago. This was temporarily tackled in June 2020 by bringing them under Palike supervision for a year without transferring budgets or other powers. Allocation and expenditure under the Central government’s National Urban Health Mission (NUHM) are cursorily reported in the budget but the data is inaccurate and incomplete.
The statistical confusion mirrors the disarray in the health sector. Although public health and medical services have borne the brunt of COVID, we get no sense of lessons learnt or the way forward. Medical and public health spending has as usual been just .05% of Budget Estimates in 2019-20. And the share allotted in 2021-22 continues to be miniscule (.03%, marginally more than what was spent in 2019-20, half of the 2020-21 budget!).
Proper accounting for NUHM and transfer of funds for PHCs in the 110 villages should give us the correct picture. Yet, nothing indicates a new vision or direction for this critical sector, particularly when the pandemic continues to rage.
The budget does not focus on today’s three critical tasks for the health sector: combating COVID, safeguarding communities and restoring health services, which were delayed and neglected while pursuing pandemic duties. PHCs and ASHA workers worked full-time in 2020 but on COVID work alone. Existing glaring gaps in health infrastructure and services have worsened.
Yet, BBMP has no plans to open mohalla clinics (on the Delhi model) or diagnostic labs, fill up vacancies, guide patients to government health insurance and support schemes or improve community health care using ASHA workers and NUHM funds. A mohalla clinic run by a trust in Shanthinagar is delivering these services: providing drugs, consultation, tests, advice and follow up free to patients. Why can’t BBMP? It only has plans to maintain health infrastructure without adding new facilities.
The lockdown blighted the lives of poor children when schools were closed without access to online classes. Educationists worldwide believe that school education should be provided by local bodies, but BBMP thinks otherwise. It has denied its schools funds, permanent well-paid staff, good buildings and equipment, supervision and management. It has leased out prime school grounds in the heart of Bengaluru for private purposes and left posts of teachers and administrators unfilled.
It takes no responsibility for government schools in the 110 villages added to the Palike. It has no plans to repair the damage done by COVID to poor children. As usual, only around 1% of the budget is earmarked for education but thankfully Rs 27 crore has been separately blocked in an escrow account to upgrade the crumbling school infrastructure.
At the ward level, BBMP’s network was used by the State government during the pandemic to deliver essential supplies during the lockdown to poor families and assist migrant workers to travel home. But, BBMP’s welfare budget (3% of the total), is still dispersed over a host of programs for SCs, STs and women with no strategy for post-COVID revival.
Obscure discretionary grants
COVID developments did reduce the pressure on infrastructure spending in 2020-21. Only 55% of the original programme is now expected to be realised. This is not surprising as roads needed less repair last year due to lower traffic, pollution levels fell, and public works slowed down or closed during the first quarter.
The current budget combines four items (lakes, road infrastructure, drains and zonal works) under a single head. Two-thirds of the 2019-20 expenditure was on public works; for succeeding years, it is expected to be below 60%. A State govt grant met a third of the cost in the last two years; unless this increases to half (55% or Rs 3000 crore), there will not be enough money for the current year’s program.
Earlier, most public works (almost one-third of the total budget) were “zonal works” run by zonal personnel. By shifting such programs to statements attached to the budget, this item cannot be identified now. Small ward-wise pending projects, lump sum fresh allocations to wards and “Assembly constituencies” and “discretionary” grants to the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Minister in charge of the city (and members of the Finance Standing Committee) are being managed through this allocation.
The selection and execution of these works are shrouded in obscurity. Standing committees and the Council must authorise these projects. But are MLAs and the Minister in charge of the city, (even the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and others) doing it still? Almost one-fifth of the zonal works budget went to discretionary grants in earlier years but much less was spent last year and allocations have thankfully been scaled down substantially this year.
An equivalent amount covering many “development grants” is allotted to wards to complete older projects and fund new ones. This year Rs 410 crore (less than 1% of the public works budget) have been given in driblets to specific wards and Assembly constituencies.
There is little logic behind individual allocations and fresh funds, and money provided to meet old commitments have not been differentiated. The money is not routed through ward committees, which were set up after prolonged litigation by activists in the High Court, so that they can use it for their own needs.
We are in a year in which hopes for democracy in Bengaluru have receded. Plans for local elections have been thwarted using every excuse, although elections are being held everywhere else, COVID or no COVID. The pandemic taught us that vibrant participative institutions are essential to persuade citizens to accept difficult epidemic controls.
It was also the spontaneous upsurge of citizen activism in Bengaluru that helped to feed and transport stranded migrants, sanitise localities, test communities and enforce regulations. Yet BBMP refuses to co-opt and empower ward committees to select and oversee local works.
Without popularly elected bodies, the budget is only a civil servant’s exercise. A “budget-in-waiting” till political processes resume and corporators who represent citizens and respond to their demands take over. Which can, however, prepare the ground and set up systems for post-election growth. First, by building public confidence through data sharing; linking every work to a sanction order, completion date, agency and funding.
In 2019, customised ward handbooks were prepared by a group of citizens as a working guide for the city; BBMP should routinely update them. Critical information regularly needed by citizens must be put on its website. Property tax administration should be energised by linking databases of different departments-town planning and revenue for example-and building bridges to related offices like BESCOM, BWSSB and land registration so that anomalies and gaps in assessment and collection surface and tax receipts are augmented.
Blueprints for new trade license and advertisement policies should be pushed through swiftly. Takeover of PHCs and govt schools in the 110 villages must be completed and funds and administrative controls transferred. Upgradation needs of schools in terms of infrastructure, permanent teaching staff and syllabus should be assessed, mohalla clinics planned and diagnostic labs opened.
Above all, systems should be laid down to promptly pay essential BBMP staff (particularly health and garbage workers) whose wages are normally in arrears for six months. The Administrator and his deputies are surely capable of these tasks.
Bengaluru can only die if it never escapes the clutches of State control or raises revenues and decides its own future by reviving and putting its civic institutions to work. Executive decisions should never be executed through discretionary grants managed by city leaders away from the public gaze. The State Department and the Minister in charge of the city must not drain away city revenues; intervention should only be by legal methods under exceptional circumstances. Citizens and their representatives must be trusted to decide the city’s future.