Last year, newspapers reported allegations regarding a ‘4g scam’ in Bengaluru. The charges were made by the Bengaluru Navanirmana Party (BNP), a political party launched by a collective of active Bengaluru citizens in 2019. The party has presence only in Bengaluru, and plans to contest the yet-to-be-announced BBMP elections.
BNP said they had stumbled upon the scam while collecting data on all works done by the BBMP in its five-year term between 2015 and 2020. The data showed that half the works completed by BBMP had been done without calling tenders – BBMP bypassed the procedure using Section 4(g) of the Karnataka Transparency in Public Procurement (KTPP) Act, 1999 – and hence the name ‘4g scam‘, said BNP.
The data of all projects in the five-year term had been unearthed by Sanjay Mehrotra, the Head of Analytics at BNP, over three months, with the support of 20 interns. A former operations director at a global telecom company, Sanjay had done the work pro bono. “The data on the BBMP website was incomplete. We used data extraction techniques to collect the information, analysed it and cleaned up the errors,” he says.
This was the first time such exhaustive data on BBMP projects was out on the public domain, and it is an indicator of how BNP’s politics has been different from that of conventional parties.
The data, uploaded on BNP’s Citizen Portal, allows readers to see the details of each work in their ward. Description of the work, budget allocated for it, budget year, date of the work order, name of the contractor and the payment made to them, are all on the site. Contact details of the contractor, ward corporator and nodal officer are also available. The portal also allows citizens to rate the project and upload its pictures.
Sowmya Raghavan, head of research at BNP, says, “Our ward-level volunteers cross-check the data with ground reality. In many wards, we found the works were never done despite the fund allocation. The database allows us and other active citizens to ask questions to officials in ward committee meetings.” In Gottigere ward, for example, residents questioned why roads remained dilapidated despite BBMP sanctioning Rs 80 crore for road and drain repairs in the past five years. In some wards, officials are cooperating to resolve the issues too, says Soumya.
AAP’s Ward Handbook
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is also planning to contest the BBMP elections for the first time, had also come up with a project for transparency and public participation. In 2019, Renuka Viswanathan, a former bureaucrat who is now an AAP leader in Karnataka, prepared a customised ‘Ward Handbook’ for each BBMP ward.
“Since people face problems in service delivery, the ward handbook gave information on what services under each sector come under which authorities, and what specific actions could be demanded from each. We also gave the contact details of all officers of the ward,” says Renuka “The book also gave information on what the responsibilities of corporators are and what citizens could ask them to do.” She says the idea was to inform citizens how to demand services and hold local authorities accountable.
The handbook also specified BBMP’s budget allocation for the ward. “BBMP’s budget document has a section that specifies an annual lumpsum allocation for each ward (say Rs 2-3 cr), but people don’t know how to get this information. There is no clarity on who decides what works should be done with these funds,” says Renuka. As a result, trivial works may get done by a contractor backed by the local corporator or MLA, even if the ward has major problems like broken roads.
“So we put this ward-budget information in the handbook. With this, people know how much money is available for their ward, and they can suggest specific works to the corporator. Then officers can’t say funds aren’t available,” Renuka says.
She says there was demand for the handbook from people in different wards, and hence they prepared handbooks for two-thirds of the wards in 2019-20. “We planned to prepare the handbooks for 2020-21 also, but then there was the COVID lockdown; and now there are no elected councillors or ward committees, and the boundaries of BBMP wards are also going to change with delimitation.” Once the situation stabilises, AAP may prepare the handbooks again, says Renuka.
However, Renuka believes that even if citizens are armed with information and fight an uphill battle for their rights, it may not work if the corporator is not responsive. In her own case, she and some friends went around their ward Doddanekkundi, and identified works that could be included in the ward plan. (Each corporator is supposed to create a ward plan at the start of their tenure, discuss it in the ward committee, and then send it to the BBMP for incorporation in the budget – but this is almost never done.) Renuka says the secretary of the ward committee refused to discuss the ward plan recommendation that she had submitted.
This is why participation in politics is important, according to Renuka. “A party like AAP is necessary so that there are good corporators who do their job,” she says. This attitude reflects in AAP’s state leadership overall – though the party had initially grown on the plank of transparency and anti-corruption, it is now emphasising more on its promise of “good governance”, showcasing its “Delhi model”. AAP has been trying to build a strong organisational network and ground presence in the city.
We’re not the same, say AAP and BNP
The initiatives by AAP and BNP that focus on transparency and public participation – quite unlike the strategies of mainstream political parties – have led to discussions on their similarities. Both parties say that existing political parties have failed Bengaluru. Whereas AAP launched its signature ‘mohalla clinic’ (that offer free diagnostics, tests and medicines) in Shanti Nagar last November, BNP launched mobile clinics through its ‘Nimma Arogya’ programme. BNP’s mobile clinics deliver diagnostic packages to slum residents for free.
“These packages cost only Rs 100 per person and we crowdsource money for this. We also arrange consultation with doctors, and have started medicine supply now,” says Srikanth Narasimhan, General Secretary of BNP. As of February, 15-20 mobile clinic camps were held in slums located in areas like Old Airport Road, Ramaswamy Palya and HSR Layout; 70-80 people are benefited in each camp, he says. The camps are also held for pourakarmikas, and for domestic workers and security guards in apartments. BNP projects this as a programme that BBMP can replicate across the city.
However, Srikanth emphasises that they are not doing the same things as AAP: “We are not talking about education, power supply, etc. like AAP does, because these domains largely come under the state government, not BBMP. Our focus is exclusively on Bengaluru, and we will contest only in BBMP elections. We don’t face the kind of distractions and compulsions that other political parties do.” He adds that BNP has supporters across various political parties – BJP, Congress, JD(S), AAP – because it doesn’t take a position on national issues. “Members of these parties can become BNP members too.”
In their website, BNP positions itself as a citizens’ party to improve Bengaluru’s governance through four principles:
- Fighting for BBMP to be vested with the powers and responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution
- Push for councillors to be accountable to citizens
- Making budget and accounts of BBMP transparent, both at city and ward levels
- Ensure citizen participation in implementing initiatives on the ground
BNP also promises efficient tax collection, and to have annual budgets that are built up from the ward level. Srikanth says the party has presence in over 100 wards, and has leadership groups in some 50 wards.
“We have a pretty decent chance in around 25 wards, we are aiming for this to go up to 100-130 wards by the time of election,” he says “We are focusing on basic grassroots issues like clearing garbage, fixing roads/streetlights/drains, increasing tree cover, and delivering healthcare at people’s doorsteps. If we can win even one ward, we can showcase a model ward.”
Prithvi Reddy, President of AAP Karnataka, says BNP’s participation in politics is welcome but whether the party is viable is a question: “You have to be a political force. Over the past few decades, many well-intentioned people fought but didn’t win elections. The problem with many new-age parties is they intellectualise too much, but what people want to know is how a party can change their life.”
In the past few months, AAP has held protests in the city on fuel price hike, BESCOM power tariff hike, on the lack of salary payment to KSRTC employees, etc., and have held press meets on issues like school fees.
Shanthala Damle, AAP Karnataka’s Vice President and Campaign Manager for BBMP election, talks about the party’s campaigns over the past year: “We had started campaigning for BBMP election before the COVID lockdown. After lockdown, in December-January, we started ward-level meetings in Bengaluru. Now we have street-level meetings – we go to a street and listen to the issues of the people there. These meetings are led by the aspirant for the ward seat.”
In these meetings, AAP members explain how replicating their “Delhi model” would bring gains to citizens. “Suppose a family spends Rs 1 lakh annually to educate their two children. We tell them that good quality education would be free for them if we have schools here like those in Delhi,” says Shanthala.
The local problems that people discuss in these meetings will be collated, so as to create localised manifestos, says Prithvi. “We will have an agenda for the city. But our manifesto will be ward-wise, which in turn will have data on booth-level issues. For example, in a booth, a high-lying area may have a water scarcity problem while a low-lying area may have a flood problem.” This data will be captured; and If elected, AAP will give a yearly report to the public on solving those local problems, says Prithvi. Otherwise the manifestos of all parties look the same for local elections, he says.
AAP leadership believes they have a better chance this time compared to their previous attempts from Karnataka in the 2014 national election and the 2018 state election. Shanthala says, “We didn’t have a strong organisational structure here at the time. It has been built in the last few years. We are starting to have people down to the booth level now. Also, AAP winning a third term in Delhi gives us credibility.” In a conversation in February, Prithvi said they had people in 70-80% of the existing Bengaluru wards, and in all assembly constituencies except three.
Are mainstream parties influenced?
Leaders in the Congress and BJP believe AAP and BNP pose no threat to them. Both parties are planning to finalise ideas for their election manifestos by end of March.
Ramalinga Reddy, Congress MLA from BTM Layout, says he has not heard of BNP and that AAP does not have a chance in the election: “AAP has done good work in Delhi. But whatever their ideas are, they don’t have a strong leader in Karnataka or Bengaluru. In Delhi, many of their leaders have joined the BJP. This BBMP election is between the Congress and BJP only.”
N R Ramesh, former corporator and BJP President for Bengaluru South, says transparency will be a key point in BJP’s BBMP election manifesto. “There are 21 key departments in Bengaluru. Our promise is to implement paperless governance in all these departments; everything will be online.” He believes AAP cannot replicate the Delhi model in Bengaluru: “In Delhi, Centre gives funds for many development works like roads. Hence AAP has been able to use taxes to give free water supply, etc. This isn’t possible in any other Metro”
He said BJP’s BBMP manifesto would promise bringing all property under the tax net. He believes the city can collect property tax up to Rs 7,000 crore, and this money could be used for development work. He believes the public is concerned about internal security issues such as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and hence would vote for BJP. “Parties like AAP and BNP don’t focus on this issue,” he says.