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The missing corporator is a vital citizen connect lost

Mar 06, 2024 07:48 AM IST

Iqbal Singh Chahal completes two years as the longest-serving state-appointed administrator of BMC, raising questions on accountability and transparency.

Mumbai: As March 8 approaches, Iqbal Singh Chahal will complete an extraordinary milestone: he will complete two years as the longest-serving state-appointed administrator in the history of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Chahal’s journey as municipal commissioner began amid chaos, inheriting a city grappling with a devastating Covid wave, before he transitioned to running India’s richest municipal corporation as state-appointed administrator.

The missing corporator is a vital citizen connect lost
The missing corporator is a vital citizen connect lost

The transition in the BMC when it was run by elected representation to Chahal’s sole administrative authority has raised questions of accountability and transparency. The once-vibrant checks and balances system has given way to a singular decision-making apparatus, where proposals are conceived, approved, and executed under Chahal’s unilateral purview. The BMC today is facing an unprecedented challenge as it operates without its complement of 227 sitting corporators, marking the longest period of vacancy in its 150-year history.

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In this series, we explore the impact this change has had on the functioning of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and thereby of the city.

Each of the 227 electoral wards, until recently overseen by a corporator, plays a crucial role in local development. From addressing infrastructure issues to managing essential services, corporators are the frontline responders to citizen concerns. This could be a pipeline burst, unattended complaints of garbage not being lifted, water shortage, or roads riddled with potholes. Corporators are considered the most accessible elected representatives in times of crisis because they engage with decisions that affect the day-to-day life of citizens.

The vacuum created by the absence of corporators is keenly felt in many parts of the city. At Kalina, for instance, residents faced prolonged water scarcity without corporator representation. In April 2023, when the city was reeling under a 15% water cut for 23 days due to a builder’s illegal digging of a borewell for construction of an IT Park at Thane which, in turn, damaged a major water supply tunnel, taps at Kalina ran dry for 25 days. But residents had no recourse, no corporator to turn to.

Over November, December and January, senior citizens at Kalina protested with placards outside the ward office, alleging the continued water shortage was on account of lower-rung BMC officials tampering with the water valves and diverting water to the newly constructed towers in the area.

“Previously, corporators were the medium to bring local issues to light for speedy redressal even though they too may have been corrupt or have had their agenda,” said Charles D’Sa, president, Voice of Kalina. “But in their absence, voters are like orphans.” The H east ward with a population of roughly 300,000 has had at least five major cut cuts in the last one year, added D’Sa. “Many a times the main pipelines were broken intentionally to help the tanker lobby. Pipe breakage is always about collaboration with the tanker lobby,” he said adding that when citizen approached him, the local MLA sent them to the BMC office while the local MP remained unavailable.

The councillor’s absence also erodes traditional channels of engagement between citizens and the BMC. Routine processes like public grievance (PG) meetings result in lack of meaningful interaction or resolution. They have been reduced to lip service, complains D’Sa. “Though they are held on Mondays and Fridays, the ward officer often skips them citing summons from Mantralaya.

Every year each corporator used to receive 60 lakh as part of the corporator fund and 1 crore as development fund every year. This money was generally used to provide dustbins and benches, to attend to minor road repairs, and address garbage and water related complaints. That money is now routed through the guardian minister and is utilised by MLAs and MPs who want to look at larger projects, rather than ward-level issues. The other grouse is that corporators from the ruling alliance get preferential treatment over corporators and MLAs from opposition parties when it comes to allocation of funds. Congress MLA Zeeshan Siddique said the 4 MLAS from his party –himself, Amin Patel from Mumbadevi, Aslam Shaikh from Malad and Varsha Gaikwad from Dharavi had yet to receive funds.”I had made a request for 25 crore for the H east ward when we met Chahal in December 2023 but it has still not been approved by the guardian minister,” he said.

Rajkumar Sharma, chairman, Advanced Locality Management And Networking Action Committee (ALMANAC) in Chembur and a trustee with AGNI said most residents don’t even know which department in the BMC they should go to, to resolve their different issues. ‘Not my department’ is the oft-heard refrain, he points out. “Citizens do not know when garbage is supposed to be lifted or whether that comes under BMC’s maintenance or the conservancy department. And if the drain is choked with garbage neither of these two departments will clean it as it falls under the sewage department. For a common man, lifting of garbage only means solid waste management department. That’s where the corporator’s role is essential,” said Sharma.

“Where are these funds being routed through the guardian ministers going? MLAs or MPs after all have nothing to do with the corporation. They are supposed to function at state level, and not at the local level,” he said.

Beyond service provision, the absence has broader implications for civic participation and oversight. Initiatives like Advanced Locality Management (ALMs) have faltered without regular engagement, further distancing citizens from the decision-making process. “We used to have ALM meetings every month. They were the direct link between civic officials and the people. But that system has also gone.,” added Sharma complaining that all decision-making is now top-down instead of the grassroots level. He cites the example of the road-repair work at Diamond Garden in Chembur which started in Diwali last year and is yet to be completed. “There is water stagnating there leading to mosquito infestation. When we complained, we were told the road repair is not being done at the ward level. Who does the citizen turn to in such a situation?”

Former BJP corporator Makarand Narewekar from Colaba says he is still in touch with his voters and was directly involved in the BMC’s ambitious beautification project. But he is helped by the fact that his brother Rahul Narwekar is the speaker of the Maharashtra legislative assembly. The political links, including his sister-in-law Harshita Narwekar who was the corporator from A ward—makes his path unusually smoother as compared to other corporators. But Narwekar says corporators anyway do not have executive fiat so why whine? “We are advisors to the corporation and now too we do the same and the government is quite forthcoming,” he said.

Narwekar says the main causes of delayed BMC elections are the dispute over OBC reservation and delimitation that are still stuck in court. “It is not that things are not happening. There is a sea change in the beautification and development in South Mumbai area but yes, it is not a healthy sign that people’s voices are not deliberated in the House.”

Tomorrow: Reading Chahal’s scorecard

BOX:

Councillors’ Role at the City Level:

At the city level, councillors play a crucial role in various functions outlined in the MMC Act, 1888. That includes looking at micro-level issues like potholes, garbage removal, water supply, roads, drainage and other civic issues.

Additionally, councillors oversee BMC operations, formulate public policies, and allocate budgets through BMC committees. Special statutory committees cover areas like education, health, and women and child welfare. The Standing Committee, responsible for financial decisions exceeding 50 lakhs, holds significant sway, managing tenders, contracts, and BMC funds.

Ultimately, councillors convene weekly standing committee and monthly Corporation (general body) meetings to collectively address civic issues, ensuring comprehensive governance and decision-making.

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