Ward committee meetings lack proper rules, representation and legal framework

WARD COMMITTEE MEETINGS

Collage of different Ward Committee Meetings
Bengaluru Ward Committee Meetings. Pic credit: Srinivas Alavilli

Citizen activism and public pressure forced BBMP, Bengaluru’s city government to start convening ward committee meetings in 2018. Citizens and officials have since been making efforts to keep the committees functional and effective. But issues like representation and ensuring regular and effective ward committee meetings need urgent attention.

There is the additional issue of the absence of elected municipal corporators since September 2020, since they have to chair their respective ward committees

Ward committees are presently functioning informally. Srinivas Alavilli, Head – Civic Participation, Janaagraha, says a system has been put in place for the proper functioning of ward committees.

“The BBMP Commissioner said nodal officers will be appointed in place of corporators as the five-year term of corporators ended in September 2020,” says Srinivas. “Nodal officers are BBMP officials who mostly live in the concerned ward. It’s an additional responsibility. Consequently, in several wards, nodal officers are not functioning as expected. The other problem is they can be promoted/transferred leaving the ward committees without a head”.

Kathyayini Chamaraj, Executive Trustee, CIVIC Bangalore, says that nodal officers are being appointed in an ad-hoc way as there is no statutory provision for this. “Bottom-up planning for the entire ward, budgeting, and monitoring the usage of ward funds and providing Action Taken Reports are the key functions to be performed by the ward committees,” Kathyayini says. “Only some nodal officers are taking up these broader functions in the ward.”

The appointment of nodal officers was done through a circular, which prescribed certain other members of the committee to be nominated by the nodal officer. The only requirement is there should be a health official, revenue official, engineering officials on that committee. It is also recommended that members of a self-help group or an NGO be a part of the committee. “But the problem was they did not announce a formal list of people who are members of the committee, it was left entirely to the nodal officer,” said Kathiyayini. “I think in most of the wards there was no official recognition for a committee.”


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On the other hand, under the National Disaster Management Act, the Ward Disaster Management Cells (WDMCs) have a much broader responsibility, not just handling the COVID crisis. In fact, when COVID-19 happened, ward committees responded to the crisis. They were designated as ward DETER (decentralised effort triage and emergency response) committees.

Whenever there is a disaster, there is a provision in the law that ward committees become ward disaster management committees. “They have to work not only to respond to a disaster but also before a disaster occurs,” says Kathyayini. “They have to take measures to prevent a disaster and when the disaster happens, they have to respond with rescue efforts. They also have to find ways of mitigating disasters. It has to be a continuous activity. They have to have a Ward Disaster Management Plan and evaluate the disaster preparedness of a ward. These broader responsibilities haven’t been addressed at all.”

A ward committee meeting in Shanthi Nagar (ward 117), 2019. File pic: Rekha Chari

The issue of representation in ward commmittees

An important issue is that of fair representation. Even though a ward committee should include three women, two SC/ST members, two resident welfare associations, and any three other members chosen by the Corporator, how much of this is being followed?

“As the formal composition has not been maintained, one doesn’t know if SC/ST members are attending ward committee meetings,” says Kathiyayini.

Srinivas, however, insists that “With nodal officers there, anyone can attend their own ward committee meetings. There are no formal ward committees until the next elections happen and new ward committees get constituted. If you want to attend a ward committee meeting, no one can stop you.”

But there are no checks and balances on who does and does not become a ward committee member. “It is only those who are known, influential, connected are in the ward committees,” says Geeta Menon, representative of Stree Jagruti Samiti and the Domestic Workers Rights Union. “Many of us working with domestic workers and the unorganised sector tried to approach the BBMP Council that the sector needs representation.

“Women, SC/STs should be represented by truly working-class women, including unorganised workers representation,” adds Geetha. “The corporators claimed the seats were filled according to the rules. However, it’s their own caste/class people they have nominated. There has been no referendum, no information, no calling for names and no information to the public for inclusive participation”.

Strangely, an awareness problem

There is also the problem of lack of awareness among residents about ward committees. “The ward committee meetings are the only place where you will get representatives from all departments, including BBMP, BWSSB, traffic police,” Srinivas says. “Ward committees are where citizen grievances are addressed. In some ward committees that are more evolved, they discuss agendas, following up on action items and even budgetary allocations. There are some ward committees where no citizens attend unfortunately and we need to change this.”

“In the ward committee rules, one week’s prior notice has to be given before a ward committee meeting and it has to be advertised in all public places so that everyone gets to know,” Kathyayini points out. “But this was not happening with the formal ward committees under the councillors and is not happening after nodal officers were appointed. Notices come at the last minute.”

But not all activists agree with this negative opinion. “We conducted a research study from August 2020 to September 2021 on how many ward committees are active,” says Sapna Karim of Janaagraha. “We found that 4,219 meetings were held, over 775 wards held two meetings and BBMP uploaded minutes of the meeting on a regular basis.”

? You can make a difference

Bengaluru is showing the way to other cities on how citizens can get involved in participatory decision making at the ward committee level. It is in your, and your neighbourhood’s interest to be involved and in the know of how your ward committee is working. Here’s what you can do.

  • Know the details of your ward and ward committee. This will be available on the municipal corporation’s website. (www.bbmp.gov.in)
  • Make the effort to get names of your ward committee members and try to meet them once in a while. The committee will have a secretary whose responsibility it is to announce the meeting dates and publish minutes.
  • Be aware of when the monthly ward committee meetings are scheduled (check with the secretary or the corporator) and make the time to attend whenever you can.
  • Create awareness in your immediate neighbourhood about the need for more participation by citizens at these meetings. And motivate them to attend.
  • Ensure that any grievances faced by your neighbourhood are given in writing to the committee or any of its members (and get a signed copy for your record). Talk to your ward committee member if no response is forthcoming.

A first: wards get Rs 60 lakh each

BBMP allocated Rs 60 lakh for civic work to the 198 ward committees in August 2021. This was after citizens submitted their response in Janaagraha’s #MyCityMyBudget (MCMB) campaign on how ward budgets needed to be spent. Kathyanyi says that when the BBMP councillor is not there, there are no elected representatives and this becomes a bureaucratic decision. “It should be a consultative process among all representatives, including the poor, to decide how the money should be spent”.

Janagraha however insists that initiatives like MCMB are a great opportunity for citizens to participate. “At no point are we saying that the system is functioning seamlessly when it comes to working with citizens to implement this allocation. Having said that, this is an important beginning and one that will highlight all related issues that need to be fixed to strengthen the system of ward committees and citizen engagement.”


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Functioning of ward committees

The ward committee is supposed to be a mini council at the ward level. “Usually, in a BBMP council meeting, citizens cannot intervene and can only observe as there is a set agenda,” said Kathyayini. “They should have framed by-laws on how the ward committees should function once the Act came into force in 2011. Right now there are no details or set procedure on how a ward committee meeting should be conducted. Each councillor was doing it in his/her own way”.

The role of the citizen in the ward committee meeting is also not specified. “They were not following a set agenda,” added Kathiyayini. “No grievances were being recorded and there was no tracking number; it’s simply an open grievance forum where oral assurances are given but no Action Taken Reports are provided as per the rules. According to the rules, everybody can present a grievance a week before in writing to the ward committee secretary or members. Currently, there is no formal way of receiving the grievances and addressing them.”

Dr C N Radhakrishnan, a member of Koramangala RWA, also feels that ward committee meetings are not held the right way. “For a ward committee to function properly the first thing you have to have is a corporator who should be responsible to the citizens and not to the MLA,” said Dr Radhakrishna. “Nothing of substance is decided in the ward committees. The ward committee is the supervising authority in the ward, they can even penalise contractors for bad work, but nothing of the sort happens. RWAs should take a stand to ensure democratic functioning of ward committee meetings.”

“There is neither the political will nor the bureaucratic will to make wards committees function at its optimum level,” adds ex-IAS officer TR Raghunandan. “The original design of the wards committees is flawed but we cannot blame the people for that because at that time the 74th Amendment Act was just an afterthought and the composition of urban wards committees were left to the states. Most states did not constitute wards committees and when forced to, opted for non-transparently nominated committees rather than democratically elected ones”.

Officials and citizens at the ward committee meeting
Ward 84 – Hagadur ward committee meeting. Pic credit: Manoj

Conclusion

Opinions inevitably are varied. But all the conversations this writer had points to the fact that even though there are concerns over the proper functioning of ward committees, the fact that there are efforts by citizens and civic organisations to ensure its optimum functioning makes Bengaluru an example for other cities to follow.

A timeline

Despite Rules being framed in 1997, ward committees were first constituted in 1999 and existed till 2001 till their term came to an end along with the term of the BMP Council. But after the 2001 BMP Council elections, ward committees were constituted only in 2003. They existed till 2006 till the council term ended.

“So It is not true to say ward committees started happening only in 2018,” said Kathyayini Chamaraj, Executive Trustee, CIVIC Bengaluru.

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1993 had mandated the setting up of ward committees in all municipal corporations with a population of over three lakh. In 2005, the Ministry of Urban Development circulated a Model Nagara Raj Bill. As per JNNURM conditionalities, states were to amend their municipal corporation Acts to bring in ‘one ward committee per ward’ and constitute Area Sabhas at sub-ward level.

The Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act has since been amended many times over the years to fulfil the JJURM conditionalities. But it was only in 2017 that BBMP constituted ward committees.

What has changed since then? In October 2018, when Gangambike became Mayor, CIVIC and Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) met her and asked that she announce that all ward committees should meet regularly on the first Saturday of the month. The BBMP Commissioner issued a circular in this regard in November 2018.

Even after this, only about 25% of the ward committees used to meet regularly. Also, no Area Sabhas have been constituted in Bengaluru till date though the provision is there in the KMC Act since 2011.

In the new BBMP Act of 2020, ward committee decisions were made ‘recommendatory’ or advisory in nature and hence not binding on the councillors. The BBMP Act 2020 thus further weakened the role of the ward committee.

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About Sravasti Datta 7 Articles
Sravasti Datta is a freelance journalist.