- Ashwin Mahesh
The President's turn
Looking back at the struggle to improve governance in Bengaluru, it is painful to see how many opportunities we have missed. Each time, when it seemed that a new dawn was within reach, a new obstacle too was discovered! With the result that we are now going into an election to the city council without knowing if the council will exist at all. It is amateurish, and has been brought about by a single-minded focus on power instead of what is good for the city. The realisation that we have failed to implement many of the constitutional provisions for urban governance is not new. Although the 74th Amendment Act was passed in 1992, in 23 years we have not established a proper planning body for our cities, we have not transferred power from the state government to local bodies, and we have kept citizens at a safe distance away from governance. The courts have been pressing the government on this, but by moving one inch at a time, the state government has managed to delay this by over two decades now. The idea that a very large corporation (now of 11 million people) would become ungovernable unless we make some vital reforms is not new, either. Three years ago, the then Urban Development Minister, convened a meeting to discuss the challenges and possible solutions, including the division of the BBMP region into smaller municipalities. He publicly put forward his own belief that restructuring city governance is necessary, although no one else in the BJP seemed to agree. The idea that restructuring takes time and attention to detail is also not new. We saw this during the creation of BBMP itself, when eight different municipalities and 100+ villages were consolidated into a single corporation. That led to three years of delay in holding local elections, and civic agencies like BWSSB are yet to take full responsibility for the whole area, even a decade later. With all these things well known, we should never have landed up in a situation where there has already been some delay in the holding of local elections, and the one that is now proposed to be held may become invalidated almost immediately, when the restructuring process begins. But here we are, incredibly, stuck in the very visible quicksand of terrible politics. To avoid these delays, in 2011 itself the Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development (ABIDe) Task Force proposed a new law, the Bengaluru Metropolitan Region Governance (BMRG) Bill. That law, if passed, would have put in place a statutory planning body for the city, created greater powers for local government, and given citizens more control over their neighbourhood projects. And all this would have been done in time to hold the next election without delay. But it didn't happen. The Chief Minister, B S Yeddyurappa, took the view that the Bill could not be passed without the support of his city ministers. One of those ministers was made chairman of the legislative sub-committee to examine the Bill. He was later accused of massive looting of lands in the city, and forced to resign, but Namma Bengaluru's well-being was put in his hands while he was in office. And the reforms went into cold storage. Through the turmoil of Sadananda Gowda's term and Jagadish Shettar's later, there was simply not enough time and bandwidth to put things back on course. And so we stumbled, looking for an alternative, into the Congress regime. In the second half of 2014, almost nine months before the end of BBMP's first term, we began to hear once again that "BBMP has become ungovernable". This is a kind of well understood but coded speech, which in translation means that the state government is considering ways to delay the election to the local council under the pretense of reforms. I pointed out then that there was plenty of time to complete the restructuring if the state government acted right away. For three months nothing happened. Then the Chief Minister appointed a Restructuring Committee to propose what should be done next. This committee could have finished the most critical aspects of its work in three months comfortably, and if it had done so the elections could have been held on time. But not only did it takes nine months instead, in the end, a lot of its recommendations were not new, and some important bits might turn out to be unconstitutional. Amidst all this, the usual backroom work of administration began to chart its own course. Out of the blue, with just hours remaining in the term of the BBMP, the state government dissolved and superseded the council, pointing to gross corruption in its performance. The corruption is true enough, but that was visible within a few hours of the beginning of the council itself; one need not have waited for the end of its term to spot it. The real reason for superseding the council was that the state government hoped to gain more time to put things in order. And during this time, the city would be conveniently under the direct rule of the state. And to give itself further room for stretching this delay, the government also introduce a new law, proposing to abolish BBMP altogether, and restructure city governance. The idea of reform never had so many friends !! Meanwhile, the directly affected community - i.e. the BBMP corporators - became restless, and sought to use the courts to force the state government to hold the elections on time. To tackle them, the state government changed the ward reservations of some of the key opponents, indirectly telling them that if they insisted on holding elections now, they would find themselves ineligible to contest again. Many got the message and backed off. In the legislature, meanwhile, the state government's bill abolishing BBMP passed easily enough in the Assembly, where it has a majority, but got stuck in the Legislative Council, where the government is in a minority. The debate moved to a Select Committee, which took three months to indicate its opposition to the law, but strangely changed its mind within three days, as the government seemed determined to implement the law anyway. And then the action moved to the Governor, to see if he would sign the bill into law. All this even as preparations for the election were underway !! He decided not to lean one way or the other, and instead referred the matter to the President, who now finds himself in the strange position of using his constitutional power to decide an administrative matter of the state. And so we have come upon nomination day, when the process of selecting new corporators to the BBMP Council begins. Except that there is no clarity on whether there will be a BBMP at all. At any time between now and election day, the President's assent could terminate the election process in one stroke. And if his assent were to come after the election, then too the election would have come to naught. After city ministers, urban development ministers, chief ministers, corporators, MLAs and MPs, and the legislature and the governor, Namma Bengaluru's endless journey to better itself now finds itself before the highest office in the land - an ironic place to be reminded of the many failures of local governance.