Sunday, November 26, 2006

Election Time

The following piece appeared in last week's Hafta. Comments welcome. I think Mumbai's civic polls could well be a big turning point for the city.

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The Brihanmumbai Mahanagarpalika, or Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, or just plain old BMC, goes to the polls early next year, to be precise, on 28th January with a provisional date of Feb 4th, both of which are Sundays as per norm. With a budget of Rs9,865crores (or more than US$ 2billion), the BMC is the richest civic body in India. Understandably so, considering its mandate is to keep Mumbai running. To use the BMCs own words:

"The primary agency responsible for urban governance in Greater Mumbai is the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). MCGM is the most affluent and the most efficient local body in the country and one of the biggest local governments in the Asian continent. It is responsible for provision of municipal services, provision of infrastructure including public transport and supply of electricity. Its planning department is responsible for the Development Plan of the City and enforcement of the Development Control Regulations. It is not directly involved in public housing, however, it is responsible for providing basic amenities to slums, which are encroaching on its own lands or other lands within its jurisdiction."

The other, and more relevant, aspect to the BMC is taking the blame for every breakdown this city has (and God knows how many of those we have everyday). Yet, Mumbai's civic polls are all set to be a major turning point for the cities fortunes, or perhaps the lack of them.

It’s all about politics
For close to two decades, the BMC has been run by the Shiv Sena-Bhartiya Janata Party combine. However, with the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party Combine winning the State Elections in 2004, power over the city has been split. This is because the MMRDA – the other organization responsible for almost all conceivable infrastructure projects – is run by the Congress with the Chief Minister being the MMRDA Chairman.

With opposing parties running Mumbai's largest and most important organizations, there have always been spats, face-offs and blame games between both organizations, and hence political parties, for all the ills plaguing this city. Crater filled roads ? Blame the MMRDA for digging up all the roads for the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP). Choked up drains ? Blame the BMC for not clearing the pipes before the monsoons. And so on and so forth the blame games between both organisations have continued for some time.

With the Shiv Sena-BJP in disarray for a variety of reasons, the Congress-NCP combine is sensing a real chance to take over the BMC, and pretty much getting a full house for all city-related matters for the next two years (before state elections in 2008). There is also talk that both parties – the Congress and the NCP – could even contest elections on their own.

Staying ahead in the race
Ahead of the civic polls, both political combines are raising their decibel level to show how committed they remain to Mumbai. They would want us to forget their collective incompetence that bought the city to its knees during the 26/7 floods. Even though public memory is short-lived, the blame for 26/7 disaster will remain on Mumbaikars mind when they vote next year. Memories of a hapless Chief Minister, and a BMC Commissioner in denial, are hard to forget

Hence, both combines will try hard to make us forget those bad memories and instead focus on how these parties, through their organisations, remain, er, committed to the city. The Chief Minister, Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh, would want us to remember all the work the MMRDA has done, including the Mumbai Metro and the MUTP. Also throw in two Prime Minister visits in the last six months to that list and Central Government approval for funding the Brimstowad drainage project. Mr. Anil Deshmukh(NCP), Minster for Public Works, wants us to remember work underway for the Bandra Worli Sealink and his approval of the Peddar Road Flyover.

On its part, the BMC – and hence the SS-BJP combine – doesn't have any so many headline projects on its report card in terms of major achievements. No wonder then that recently the BMC cleared (not spent) city projects worth Rs463crores in October. This was an exponential jump over earlier months and is attributed to the fact that this kind of profligacy will not be possible once the Election Commission releases its Code of Conduct for the civic polls.

In the run-up to the polls, we can also expect newspapers to be full of both parties flaunting their achievements. On the sidelines, smaller parties like Raj Thackeray’s MNS and the Samajwadi Party will largely be restricted putting up posters of their leaders and holding rallies to flay incumbents and opposition alike over the usual issues of rising prices and depressing quality of life in the city.

What’s new
Are there any alternatives to the above political parties ? Interestingly enough, yes. Count among these, the entry of Lok Paritran in Mumbai. Lok Paritran has held initial meetings in Mumbai in the last couple of months and is finalising strategies ahead of the civic polls.

Then there is the independent Vote Mumbai campaign which is making a serious attempt at introducing an alternate urban governance system for Mumbai as a solution to its manifold ills. One suggested solution that could find takers is that of a Directly Elected Mayor, as against the current system of a Mayor who is largely ceremonial and who fills the newspapers for all the wrong reasons (for example, leading a rally to stop trains during a bandh).

Finally, citizens groups will be going into overdrive as civic polls near, to raise citizen awareness on candidates and key city issues. An interesting – and significant – effort is that of Citizens Roundtable (read more here) which will comprise two former Municipal Commissioners, urban experts and activists. AGNI, a leading Mumbai NGO and a member of this forum points to an interesting fact “in one third of the constituencies, the margin of victory in the last civic elections was as little as 1000 votes, sometimes only 25 to 40.”

Indeed, Mumbaikars would do well to listen to groups such as Citizens Roundtable before exercising their franchise on January 28th 2007.

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