The Lord Mayor: Set up for failure

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Imagine this. In the coming general elections, we all decide to do our duty as citizens and line up to vote in big numbers on voting day. After all the votes are counted, it becomes clear that one party has won a comfortable majority. But, by a strange twist of the rules of Parliament, a member of the losing party is made the Prime Minister. How democratic would that be?
Not a lot of people realised this, but the just concluded mayoral elections were not too different from this odd-ball scenario. A corporator from the Opposition Congress party was elected the Deputy Mayor. Why?
Because the rules say that a person from the Scheduled Tribes category must be elected the Deputy Mayor this year, and the ruling BJP does not have an ST member in the council.
This is not the only weird thing about the election. Each Mayor's term is one year. But the last one served 16 months. And the one after the current Mayor will have no more than 8 months. And after that, there may be no BBMP at all, let alone a Mayor.
Most Mayors are also virtually unknown outside their own neighbourhoods, and disappear back into the limited local relevance immediately after their term ends. And while they’re in office, they can’t do much either. All the things that we really care about- bus service, water supply, sewerage, power, healthcare, education, these are all controlled by the state government. The Mayor is just a kind of supervisor-in-chief for road construction, and drains. And even those are built to 18th century standards.
There’s more. After each new Mayor is elected, another round of chaos begins to elect the members and chairpersons of various Standing Committees. One of them, from the Taxation and Finance Committee, will propose a budget, usually about three times the money that BBMP actually has. Most of the work that is announced with great fanfare will never be carried out or, at the very least, it will take many years to do what was announced to be done in one year.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can make it much more sensible, if we want to. And if we do that, we might even get a city that is more liveable. All it takes is a few clear choices.
One, the Mayor of the city must be elected by all the citizens of the city.
Two, the Mayor must serve a reasonably long period of time so that some useful outcomes can be achieved during his period in office. Three, the Mayor must have oversight of all the public services delivered by different agencies.
These choices are so evidently sensible that it defies logic that we have not made them. In fact, most other Indian states have long ago improved the structure of urban government, but Karnataka, which was a pioneer in reforming rural governance through panchayati raj, is lagging in urban reforms.
We should understand why. The cites, and Bengaluru in particular, have become the financial playgrounds of the MLAs and the ministers. Therefore, these representatives do not want to devolve power to the city. They want to make sure that no powerful political figures emerge from local government. Think about this — in more than 20 years of city administration around the state, it is difficult to point to a state-level leader who first made his name as a Mayor of any city.
The Constitution is partly to blame for this. The 74th Amendment Act, which introduced urban governance on a large scale in the country, has been extremely difficult to implement. But if other states have found ways to do it, we can, too.
In 2011, the ABIDe Task Force proposed the Bangalore Metropolitan Governance Reforms Bill — to introduce greater powers for the Mayor, integrated planning by urban experts, better contracting, more citizen participation — all without violating the 74th AA. But this law has remained on the shelf, with neither BJP nor Congress wanting to really improve the city.
Now comes the final twist. The state government has been talking about the need to break up BBMP into smaller cities, because the city is too large and ungovernable, according to them.
Only eight years ago, the legislature decided to merge the eight cities in the region (BMP, plus the surrounding CMCs) into a single large corporation because the smaller units were not governable, according to them, at that time. Now, we have come full circle.
The real, unstated, reason for splitting BBMP now may be to completely put off holding city elections, so that the MLAs can rule the roost.
—The writer is president, Lok Satta, Karnataka

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