Politics and politicking gained primacy over civic policies | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Politics and politicking gained primacy over civic policies

Mar 08, 2024 08:50 AM IST

After the term of BMC corporators ended in March 2022, administrator Iqbal Singh Chahal faced political turmoil and accusations of favoritism in fund allocation.

Mumbai: After the term of the 227 corporators, the deliberative wing of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), expired on March 7, 2022, the BMC, and effectively city administration, has seen a distinct shift.

BMC commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal
BMC commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal

Amidst this administrative change, Mumbai witnessed a series of events marked by political turmoil and contentious decisions on fund allocation.

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In June 2022, after the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government fell, Iqbal Singh Chahal retained his position as administrator, navigating the complexities of governance amidst changing allegiances. But he was soon embattled as his former bosses began criticising him for his decisions and actions.

For instance, in September 2022, both the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena UBT and Shinde’s Shiv Sena factions tried to secure permission to hold the party’s annual Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park grounds. Not wanting to ruffle political feathers, Chahal turned down both proposals, but Thackeray alleged that the BMC was “misusing its power” and eventually got relief from the Bombay high court (HC).

UBT Sena had also alleged that Chahal was deliberately stalling acceptance of Rutuja Lakte’s resignation. Latke, an administrative officer in BMC, wanted to contest the Andheri by-poll on a UBT ticket but needed to resign from the BMC to do so. Ultimately, once again, the HC had to clear the decks for her to contest the crucial Andheri east by-poll, which she won.

Accusations of favouritism and political interference kept dogging Chahal, particularly in matters concerning the allocation of resources and handling of key civic projects. The macro political flux kin the state now began to mark key decision-making in the powerful civic body.

One such project was the ambitious beautification initiative spearheaded by CM Shinde. Contractors under investigation in other projects secured successful bids for the 1700 crore beautification project. Additionally, concerns arose over the use of funds from BMC’s contingency funds without allocation in the civic budget, coupled with poor planning. This resulted, for instance, in the needless works like replacing perfectly good footpaths across many parts of the city.

Former corporator Asif Zakaria said there were so many expenditures BMC had done which were beyond their purview. “The first phase of beautification that led to spends worth 750 crore is a scam. This cavalier use of corporators funds resulted in people simply jumping ship to the Shinde camp so they could avail of the money.” This, Zakaria added, indicated a complete breakdown of the independent functioning of the local self-body. “The BMC is today working in a chaotic manner and even the lower rung officials are not okay with it.”

The disputes in recent months over allocation of office space and allegations of favouritism has further strained relations between political factions. On December 28, 2022, both Shiv Sena and UBT Sena sparred over office space at BMC headquarters, prompting Chahal to seal all party offices.

Disgruntled opposition parties were further peeved when the office of Mumbai’s guardian minister, Mangal Prabhat Lodha was opened to the public on July 2023, causing controversy since the BMC is not meant to house MLA or ministerial offices. Lodha then assigned slots to former BJP corporators to sit in the office and hear public grievances, denying corporators from other parties the same courtesy.

Chahal however defended the move, saying that Lodha’s intention was to reach citizens through “former corporators” and he emphasised on the need for greater engagement with citizens.

The contentious issue of fund allocation further exacerbated tensions, with allegations of selective disbursement favouring ruling party members at the expense of opposition representatives. A policy allowing MLAs to bypass elected corporators and directly access development funds raised concerns about institutional integrity and democratic principles.

In August 2023, former opposition leader from Congress in the BMC, Ravi Raja through Right to Information (RTI) learnt that only the ruling party MLAs and former corporators were being favoured with fund disbursal.

A February 2023 policy had allowed MLAs to seek funds from the civic body by routing it through guardian ministers. BMC is the country’s richest municipal body and has been without an elected leadership for two years. In such a scenario, this policy allowed MLAs to undertake work ordinarily done by elected corporators. None of the 15 opposition MLAs – from Sena UBT and the Congress – got any money, even though 11 of them had asked for funds.

Raja told HT, “The total budget was around 800cr in 2021 and each corporator would get at least 3 crore. In 2022, when Chahal became the administrator, 200crore was sanctioned. In 2023, he didn’t want to be answerable and sanctioned a proposal that the money would be routed through guardian ministers. 650 crore was spent but none of it went to corporators from opposition parties. At the same time, those who jumped ship and joined the Shinde camp, their proposals were sent to the guardian minister for disbursal of funds.” Raja named 32 former corporators who joined the Shinde faction and received funds.

MLA Zeeshan Siddique said four Congress MLAs including himself, Amin Patel from Mumbadevi, Aslam Shaikh from Malad and Varsha Gaikwad from Dharavi have not yet got the funds despite applying in December 2023. These funds, a small part of the BMC’s 52,619-crore budget last year, were meant for diverse development tasks.

City Congress president Varsha Gaikwad and two former corporators had even moved Bombay high court in January this year challenging the BMC’s decision to delegate powers of recommending allocation of funds for development works to guardian ministers in the city. The court held the view that concerned ministers had ‘duty of oversight’ and there was nothing wrong in putting such a system in place and had dismissed their petition.

The legacy of Iqbal Singh Chahal’s tenure as administrator also reflects the broader tensions within Mumbai’s political ecosystem. The path forward is fraught with uncertainty as the city grapples with the complexities of governance amidst shifting political currents.

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