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The unprecedented reign of BMC administrator Iqbal Singh Chahal

Mar 07, 2024 07:38 AM IST

BMC boss Iqbal Singh Chahal's two-year tenure marked by handling Covid well but criticized for lack of transparency and financial mismanagement.

Mumbai: When he is not busy with his day job, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) boss man, Iqbal Singh Chahal, is either readying for or running half marathons. On March 8, the bureaucrat completes two years as the administrator of the BMC, a first in the 150 years of India’s wealthiest civic body. In this second part of the series examining the impact of a BMC being run without any elected representatives, we look at Chahal’s tenure as administrator and its impact on the city.

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Chahal stepped in as the municipal commissioner in the midst of the pandemic in May 2020 and had to function not just as the MC but also as the de facto mayor, chair critical committees like standing committee and the general body meeting which are pivotal for approving development projects for Mumbai.

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While he has been justly applauded, especially for the BMC’s handling of Covid under his stewardship, there are apprehensions also raised about the concentration of power in one man’s hands. His critics stress on issues of arbitrary transfers, financial mismanagement, and a lack of transparency as they call for elections and reinstating democratic governance within the BMC.

Ravi Raja, former corporator and leader of opposition leader in BMC, said that in the early months of the pandemic it was difficult for corporators to meet physically. Chahal’s predecessor, Praveen Pardeshi, got the sanction from the standing committee (SC) on March 17, 2020 to take financial decisions and spend on projects without the standing committee’s approval. “During this period, no new tenders were invited and the only spending done was on Covid. March 30, 2020 was the last date the SC met physically.” Though eventually the meetings resumed on zoom, they lacked the bite and scrutiny of physical meeting and concerns over lack of transparency and fiscal imprudence over Covid-related contracts began to be aired.

The term of the elected corporators ended on March 7, 2022, paving the way for Chahal’s rise as administrator. On April 15, 2022 the Epidemic Act, 2006, too was withdrawn which further consolidated Chahal’s authority, centralizing decision-making within his purview.

“Now, the person preparing the proposal was also sanctioning it. There’s been no transparency or accountability. If a proposal for 400 crore balloons to 800 crore, there’s no one to question the cost escalation in the absence of the corporators,” explained Raja.

Due to the lack of response to the 5,000-crore CC road tenders floated in August 2022, it was decided to redraw the tenders, resulting in a cost escalation of approximately 1,080 crore.

Also, initially, the BMC had estimated the coastal road would cost 12,721 crore, with a no-escalation clause in the contract. However, a decision was taken to widen the distance between two piers of the Worli bridge to 120 meters from 56 meters, which incurred an additional cost of 650 crore.

In June 2022, after the MVA government was toppled, Chahal found himself in the peculiar position of fending off criticism from leader who had appointed him to the BMC in the first place.

The criticism in the civic corridors first began with the ad hoc transfers of deputy municipal commissioners and assistant commissioners. On December 13, 2022, 94 former corporators signed an open letter to CM Eknath Shinde citing lack of transparency, accountability, arbitrary ad hoc transfers, financial mismanagement, and fiscal decline of the BMC. They also urged the CM to intervene and publish a white paper on decisions taken by Chahal and to make the financial affairs of the BMC transparent.

The Enforcement Directorate’s scrutiny into COVID-related contracts further underscored the growing chorus of scepticism surrounding Chahal’s stewardship.

But despite those controversies, Chahal has spearheaded two budgets, the chief minister’s ambitious beautification plan followed by a deep cleaning drive to wash city roads.

Former Congress corporator Asif Zakaria said that while all financial dealings in the past would be debated through the standing committee, “It was free for all now. The administrator is only reporting to the CM and deputy CM and doing whatever it is that they want him to do. BMC is now doing things which is beyond their purview like G-20. From Mumbai they are making roads for Mira Road which is beyond Mumbai limits. There is no oversight on these decisions,” pointed out Zakaria.

While Chahal has the distinction of being the longest serving administrator, in 1984-’85, the BMC had former civic chief DM Sukhtankar serve as an administrator for one year.

Speaking to Hindustan Times, he said, “What’s going on at present is something quite extra ordinary. It is not something that is good for the institution. The BMC is essentially a democratically-governed institution and to have an administrator for two years is scandalous.”

“As an administrator, Chahal has all the powers but after all in a democratic institution, decisions on increasing the water rates or property taxes or what new capital works should be undertaken should be decided by the elected representatives rather than a single individual exercising their discretion.”

Even policy level decisions such as open spaces, he added, should necessarily be taken by the elected representatives and not by the administrator who is essentially a stop-gap arrangement.

During Sukhtankar’s tenure in 1984-85, the Congress was not confident of winning civic elections because the Shiv Sena was gradually getting more and more strong.

Murli Deora who was the Congress Pradesh Committee chairman had then thought of this idea to postpone the elections in the hope hope that political fortunes can be changed. “I was appointed the administrator but this decision backfired on them (Congress),” said Sukhtankar.

Milind Mhaske, CEO, Praja Foundation, said that without an elected body for two years the BMC has lost its vision and is working only in maintenance mode. In the absence of the guiding hand of elected representatives, policy formulation stagnates, and the city’s long-term vision languishes, he said.

With the lack of robust political oversight, the BMC risks devolving into a mere bureaucratic apparatus, devoid of the vitality and dynamism essential for effective governance.

Tomorrow: Politics, not performance takes centre stage in BMC corridors

Box:

Chahal’s highs and lows

Achievements

He was hailed for the way he handled the Covid-19 pandemic in Mumbai. He was even lauded by the United Nations for his successful Dharavi model during Covid-19

Chahal framed guidelines for construction sites to bring down the air quality index in Mumbai in November last year.

In January 2024, Chahal managed to convince the Royal Western India Turf Club members to hand over 120 acres of Mahalaxmi Racecourse land to BMC to build a theme park.

Controversies

In January 2023, he spent four hours at the ED office, responding to allegations that he illegally awarded a contract for medical services for a Jumbo Covid centre to a company run by an associate of Sanjay Raut, Rajya Sabha MP from Shiv Sena (UBT)

Chahal also faced brickbats from the Sena (UBT) over alleged irregularities in tenders for road works for Mumbai worth 6,000 crore

A February 2023 policy allowed MLAs to seek funds from the civic body, by routing it though guardian ministers. Chahal was alleged of showing preferential treatment to ruling party MLAs and former corporators.

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