Citizens must unite for change

Feb 15, 2012, 08:06 IST | Ranjona Banerji

India's richest city goes to the polls tomorrow. At stake are a budget of Rs 22,000 crore -- bigger than some state governments -- and the political legitimacy of the Shiv Sena.

India's richest city goes to the polls tomorrow. At stake are a budget of Rs 22,000 crore -- bigger than some state governments -- and the political legitimacy of the Shiv Sena. Together with its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Sena has ruled the city for 17 years. The problem for the alliance is that in those years, Mumbai's facilities and living standards have noticeably deteriorated.

Enormous infrastructure projects have been undertaken and none have been completed. After the devastating floods of 2005, few of the promises made have been kept. The general public appear to have forgotten. Of course, the state government -- ruled by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party -- is not blameless here either. Under Vilasrao Deshmukh's stewardship, portions of the key functions of the BMC -- like some roads and some infrastructure development -- were handed over to other agencies like the MMRDA.

Only way forward: Initiative like The Ungli Campaign started by youth
organisations aim to encourage voting among citizens who tend to stay
away from polling booths

Whatever the thinking behind this move, the fact is that the BMC, the most experienced and knowledgeable about Mumbai city, was left hampered with haphazard responsibilities. The result of this separation of powers was chaos -- ego clashes, facilitation troubles, lack of communication and so on.

But even after all that, the larger and the greater responsibility for looking after Mumbai city lies with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. And the BMC has successfully taken Mumbai from being one of India's best-managed cities to one of its worst. Infrastructure has not kept pace with the city's growth. Roads, drainage, water supply, healthcare and education have all taken a beating. And the worst of it is that all the rules have been bent, tweaked, ignored just to accommodate builders and developers.

The state government has not been any less concerned about helping builders and developers but the state government is not on test here: it is the BMC and the political parties which control it. Over the years, the stock and standing of the municipal commissioner have both plummeted. This means that control over municipal corporators and their demands has slipped.

In return for favours, the city's bureaucrats have let the citizens down. A few years ago, there were calls for an elected mayor with more powers or for Mumbai to be made a city state like New Delhi but the crux of the problem lies elsewhere. As we have seen with all politics, unless the overriding custom of money for favours is challenged and exposed, nothing will change. A new system will just supplement the old one.

One of Mumbai's biggest success stories in local government however has been the participation of citizens through Advanced Local Managements and residents' associations. The lessons are simple -- if you engage, you increase your chances of getting results.

Will the greater number of non-political citizens standing for elections make a difference? A lot of that depends on how far they are willing to take the entire city along with them, rather than sticking to their own class and constituency. Too much of the electorate is polarised voting by class, region and ethnicity -- that there is space for identity politics in a municipal election shows the depths to which we have no problems plummeting. To this we can add a polarisation of middle class versus slum dwellers, as issues get seen only from one perspective.

Try and assess the middle class obsession with getting rid of street vendors and for more roads over public transport and you can see how skewed pressure points can lead to skewed development: because livelihood and convenience are both forgotten when you think only about an issue from a narrow perspective. The larger truth is that we are all stakeholders and voting intelligently is one way of hoping for better maintenance and development over even more chaos.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter@ranjona

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