Twenty six years ago, on 1st June 1993, the 74th Constitutional Amendment or Nagarapalika Act was effected to give “power to the people” in urban governance. Under the 74th CA, ward committees had to be set up in all municipal corporations with population over three lakh, to ensure decentralisation, citizen participation and accountability.
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In the municipal corporations of Karnataka, elected representatives have posed total resistance to the setting up and functioning of ward committees. In Bengaluru, with constant pressure from citizens, more than 50 percent of wards now have ward committee meetings, though infrequently. But how are these meetings being held?
Ward committee members are supposed to analyse works done in the ward, create a development plan, decide on budget allocation for works, and so on. But in many wards, the meetings are erratic, councillors make unilateral decisions, and committee members have no say.
In several wards, the meetings have turned into mere grievance forums, and even the grievances are not registered or resolved. In October, we, at the non-profit CIVIC, took initiative to set up a Grievance Redressal Desk in Shanthinagar ward office. The desk would operate for an hour before the official ward committee meeting, so that the latter runs smoothly.
But a lot more needs to change for ward committee meetings to be effective. Here are some major concerns on how the meetings are being held.
Meetings not publicised
In most wards, notice of the meeting is issued just a day before. But as per the Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Ward Committee) Rules, 2016, the notice should be issued a week before the meeting.
Also, the notices are not publicised on BBMP’s website, ward office, or other government offices in the ward, as required under the Rules. Hence many citizens are unaware of the meetings.
Not held on first Saturday of the month
The meetings are to be held on the first Saturday of every month, but are often postponed to weekdays.
With some honourable exceptions, it seems councillors are doing this to make attending the meetings difficult for ward committee members and public, so that their need to be accountable to the latter is reduced.
Ward Committee Secretaries cannot unilaterally issue meeting notices; Rules require them to issue notices only “in consultation with the chairperson (councillor)”. Even if the councillors don’t give a date for the meeting, it is the hapless secretaries who get hauled up by the court.
Many councillors seem to perceive the compulsion placed on them by laws and court orders to be answerable to their electors, as an insult. They are accustomed to merely being garlanded and fawned upon by their sycophants.
No agenda or set procedure for meetings
As per Rules, ward committee members should suggest agenda items a week before the meeting. Citizens can also approach them or the chairperson, and submit concerns to be included in the agenda. But many citizens aren’t aware of this.
Often, as no agenda is set, the meetings happen without any set procedure such as reading minutes of previous meeting, providing Action Taken Report on the previous meeting’s resolutions, giving information on the programme of works and budget allocation etc.
No data given to ward committee members
Ward committee members are unable to fulfil the responsibilities assigned to them. As per the KMC (Amendment) Act of February 2011, they have to prepare the ward development plan, monitor ward works, ensure proper use of funds etc. But often, they are not even given information on these aspects officially.
During the meetings, councillors or their proxies only make oral statements about a planned ward work or budget allocation. They don’t give supporting documents to establish the veracity of their statements.
Councillors make decisions unilaterally
Also, councillors finalise plans unilaterally in ‘Maharaja mode’, with no inputs from ward committee members or citizens. For instance, in Shanthala Nagar ward, the councillor asked to divert the entire ward grant of Rs 2 crore for setting up a dialysis centre – a capital investment. Hence no money was left for maintaining roads and footpaths in the ward.
In Shanthinagar, broken slabs on the footpath were causing pedestrians to fall into drains and break their legs. But the ward committee secretary said she did not have even Rs 10,000 to replace the broken slabs and make them walkable. The councillor’s husband claimed, “Everything will be fine on this road as I have budgeted Rs 10 crore for white-topping this stretch under TenderSURE”. So, until this work gets completed in about two years, citizens are expected to keep falling into the drain and break their bones!
It is reported that many ward committee members, being followers of the councillor, remain silent during meetings and do not raise questions. Also, the practice of husbands of women councillors managing the show and indirectly chairing ward committee meetings is rampant.
|The history of ward committee meetings in Bengaluru
Bengaluru is the only municipal corporation in Karnataka where ward committees have been set up. And here too, it took decades of citizen efforts:
Meetings turning into grievance forums
Section 6(5) of the Ward Committee Rules says meetings are open to the public. But since the meeting has to be conducted as per a set agenda, citizens speaking in between would be disruptive. Citizens can only be observers, just as they can watch the proceedings of the BBMP Council from a gallery. However, they are allowed to videograph the proceedings and upload it on social media.
But many councillors have converted the ward committee meeting itself into a grievance meeting, and allow citizens to raise their grievances orally. Without proper moderation, many meetings are chaotic, with citizens standing up and raising issues simultaneously; multiple conversations happening between the councillor, ward committee members, officials and citizens at a time; or some members and attendees talking on their mobile phones loudly through the meeting.
Worse, the grievances raised are often not registered. The complainants don’t get acknowledgements with tracking numbers, or Action Taken Reports, which makes the whole meeting fruitless. Many citizens complain that their grievances remain unresolved with no follow-up, even as fresh issues are raised; or old grievances are repeated, for which oral assurances are given again.
Surely, face-to-face interaction between the ward committee and citizens is needed. But there is no provision in the Rules for citizens to directly raise their grievances with the councillor and ward committee members.
In 2010, the-then BBMP Commissioner Bharat Lal Meena had issued a circular directing ‘Janaspandana’ programmes to be held in every ward under the chairpersonship of the councillor, in the presence of all officials of BBMP, BWSSB, BESCOM etc. The programme was to be held on the first and third Saturday of every month, from 9-11 am, but was never implemented.
Along these lines, allocating a separate slot for registering or responding to citizens’ grievances is a necessity, so as not to disrupt the formal ward committee meeting.
In Shanthinagar, CIVIC made a prior announcement and set up the Grievance Redressal Desk on 19th October. The desk functioned from 10.30-11.30 am, an hour before the formal ward committee meeting was to start. Citizens submitted their written grievances to councillor Soumya Shivakumar, and the ward committee secretary gave a tracking number and acknowledgement for each grievance.
Action Taken Report on the grievances will be followed up at the next ward committee meeting. As per Rules, ward committee can recommend to the BBMP Commissioner to take disciplinary action against officials who fail to implement its resolutions. But this can be done only if there are written records of the grievances received and resolutions passed.
The Shanthinagar councillor has agreed to devote one hour before every official ward committee meeting to receive citizens’ grievances. If all wards adopt this model, ward committee meetings will become more systematic, less chaotic and more fruitful.
Information Centre on schemes needed
Additionally, a single-window Information Centre should be set up in every ward to receive applications for schemes under various line departments, and also grievances pertaining to these. This would ensure that citizens, especially the urban poor, do not have to run from pillar to post.
This idea was conceived in a Social Accountability Bill that a consortium of civil society organisations, including CIVIC, had presented to the Karnataka government in 2017. The Bill also foresees mechanisms to escalate unresolved grievances to the zonal level and further to the BBMP head-office.
A similar Public Accountability Bill is poised to be passed by the Rajasthan government. The Rajasthan government has also launched a People’s Information Portal along with ward-level information kiosks, making information on schemes available at the click of a button.
Though several ward committee meetings are now being held in Bengaluru, these have to be effective. Unless elected representatives realise the need for a paradigm shift in the way they perceive their roles – as representatives chosen to meet citizens’ aspirations rather than as elected Maharajas – they will soon find themselves discarded as outmoded relics of a feudal, sycophantic system. They need to re-tune themselves to respond to an awakened citizenry which is no longer begging for patronage, but is demanding their ‘Right to Public Services’ as returns on the taxes they pay.