A political demand to appoint two separate municipal commissioners for the city and suburbs in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the proposed bifurcation of Mumbai’s biggest administrative ward — the first such division in the last two decades — have put the focus back on the challenges before the country’s biggest municipal corporation to provide civic services efficiently in India’s biggest city.
According to the BMC data, the population of Mumbai was 1.28 crore (12.8 million) by mid-2020. It is contained in an area of 483.14 square km, making Mumbai one of the densest cities with 26,500 persons per square km (excluding the area marked off as “no development zone”).
The island city has the highest density of 44,170 people per square km. It is 24,500 square km in the western suburbs (Bandra to Dahisar) and 22,110 square km in the eastern (Kurla to Mankhurd and Mulund) suburbs.
Just to give a sense of how big Mumbai has (in terms of population) grown, it is bigger than Sweden (1 crore) and Denmark (58.1 lakh). Within the country, at least 10 Indian states, including Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh are smaller than the BMC.
History of administrative bifurcation
The BMC, which was formed as a “town council”, had its first-ever meeting in September 1873. Having a history of over 145 years, the BMC has grown administratively with the city’s expansion to the north. Currently, there are 24 administrative wards through which the municipality is dealing with civic issues in the island city (Colaba to Mahim and Sion) and suburbs.
According to the book, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and Ward Administration, written by retired Deputy Municipal Commissioner Dr David Anthony Pinto and Dr Marina Rita Pinto in 2008, after the corporation’s formation in 1950, suburbs from Bandra to Andheri and Sion to Ghatkopar, and in 1956 the remaining portion of Andheri to Dahisar and Ghatkopar to Mulund were merged in the municipal corporation.
Later, in order to provide better facilities to the growing population, six divisional wards were further divided into 21 administrative wards under the regional decentralisation process in 1964. The last bifurcation of administrative wards was done in early 2000, taking the total wards up to 24. The book also mentions that in 2007-08, the BMC had 1.15 lakh employees, providing civic services to 1.2 crore population. Apart from an increase in administrative wards, the number of administrators have also increased gradually from one IAS officer to five now handling the corporation.
There are certain wards that have a population of more than nine lakh and huge land areas where it is a challenge to provide civic facilities. For example, P-north ward (Malad) alone has a total population of 9.67 lakh and 17 corporators following L ward (Kurla) with 9.26 lakh and 15 corporators. There are 227 corporator electoral wards in 24 administrative wards.
In the past several years, civic officials have been vocal about re-organisation as they have been tasked with other responsibilities along with their core department role. In recent instances, civic officials have cited work pressure before the Bombay High Court.
In December 2020, the court imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh on Assistant Municipal Commissioner of C ward (Chandanwadi) Chakrapani Alle over contempt of court for not giving a proper hearing to a restaurant owner from Dhobi Talao and ordering the demolition of his structure despite the court saying that the owner should be given a hearing before action.
Defending the BMC, senior advocate Anil Sakhare, had said it was a bonafide mistake by Alle due to work pressure as he was managing 17 internal departments and an additional charge of B ward.
Similarly, in another case of action against illegal construction by Deputy Municipal Commissioner (DMC) of zone 2, Vijay Balamwar, the BMC had said the civic staff is overworked.
Currently, many top civic officials are holding additional charges for other departments along with theirs. With about 27 per cent vacancies, the country’s richest municipal corporation is already facing a staff crunch, and employees often complain about being overworked. According to the BMC figures, there are nearly 37,800 vacant posts across civic departments. The civic body has 1.43 lakh sanctioned (status till June 2019) posts for technical, and administrative officials and sanitation workers, of which 1.05 lakh are filled.
BMC’s plans of re-organising wards
In 2017, then municipal commissioner and current principal advisor to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Ajoy Mehta had proposed re-organisation of administrative wards, taking note of difficulty in handling big wards by only one administrator (assistant municipal commissioner) during elections and on regular days with services.
According to Mehta’s proposal, all 24 ward boundaries would be redrawn to bring parity in the number of electoral wards. In Island City, administrative ward B (Dongari) and C (Chandanwadi) would be merged into E ward (Byculla) and D ward (Malabar Hill) respectively.
Both B and C wards have only two and three electoral wards respectively. Similarly in western suburbs, P-north (Malad) will be divided into two–P-east and P-west wards. In the eastern suburb, L-ward will be divided into L-south and L-north. However, the re-organisation is yet to take place.
City urban planners said that the focus should be more on ensuring service deliveries and small administrative units will actually be helpful in this regard.
“In other countries, planning units are as small as 1,000 families which is helpful in managing services. Mumbai city is quite unwieldy and large. For better service delivery, we have to identify areas where it is not happening instead of talking about dividing wards and asking IAS officers to sit in suburbs. For example, if there are 60 students and one teacher, then each student will not get the attention that they deserve, but for 20 students, it is possible. The same thing is with governance where if you can bring a small denominator then it will be good for service delivery,” said Principal Director, Urban Centre Mumbai, Pankaj Joshi.
He added: “The focus should be to ensure a mechanism for service delivery to the last person. It can be done by one commissioner also only with an organised structure.”
In 2017, former Congress minister and legislator Arif Naseem Khan had raised the issue of dividing the BMC into three municipal corporations – Island City, Western Suburbs and Eastern Suburbs – for effective functioning, on the lines of three municipal corporations in Delhi.
Khan had raised the demand following a fire in a shop in Sakinaka in suburban Mumbai that claimed 12 lives. “The city’s population has increased a lot. The suburbs have the highest population density compared to the island city. Due to the shortage of officers, the civic body is not able to provide services effectively to the citizens in suburbs,” said Khan.
“It is not about dividing Mumbai but the division of the BMC’s administrative work is required to offer better civic services to people. It can be done by having two separate commissioners for city and suburbs on the lines of the two districts collectors in Mumbai,” he added. However, Khan’s demand was opposed by the BJP and the Shiv Sena in the state legislature. The parties alleged that the division would be an insult to the hundreds of martyrs who fought for Mumbai.
Mayor in council in BMC
Following the BMC elections in April 2017, then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had formed a three-member committee to suggest ways to bring in transparency, efficiency and accountability in the civic body and other municipal corporations in the state. The committee submitted its report in 2018 and had suggested adopting a directly elected mayor system on the line of the US presidential elections. The committee had also recommended vesting the mayor with all decision-making powers. However, even after three years, no decision has been taken. The committee was composed of former BMC Municipal Commissioner Sharad Kale, former Housing Secretary Gautam Chatterjee and former Pune Municipal Commissioner Ramanath Jha.
A retired bureaucrat, who had held key posts in Mumbai and Pune, on the condition of anonymity said the mayor should be directly elected and given more powers with accountability.
“Our cities are in a state of war. Because if you have a huge population coming in and daily issues to be resolved then the decision-making process in such an organisation must be very quick. But in the current system of the municipal corporations, you have a very large consultative process. By the time the decision is taken, the situation changes. To strengthen the organisation’s decision-making process, we have to make sure that the chief executive officer should be very powerful,” he said. He added: “Also, we have to ensure that there is a mechanism of transparency and accountability that helps you run the system properly.” The former bureaucrat is also of the opinion that decentralisation is a viable option at the wards level to ensure better services and quick decisions.
“It should be examined if at the ward level more decentralized is needed. The splitting of large wards that have populations of a municipal corporation is a good idea,” he said.
In the past, Mayor Kishori Pednekar has been vocal about more powers for mayors and had written to Thackeray on the issue.
Politics on BMC
The demand for the BMC’s division always attracts strong political reactions from the Shiv Sena which has been benefitted from the issue for decades.
In 1985, then Chief Minister Vasandada Patil had made a statement, creating a suspicion that the Centre was planning to bring Mumbai under its administration and thus separating it from Maharashtra. The Sena picked up the issue as its weapon for the BMC polls and emerged as the single largest party nearing the majority mark in the election. Since then, the Sena has been raking up fears of separation of Mumbai from Maharashtra, an emotive issue in the state’s rural parts, time and again.
Recently, Congress leader and Fisheries Minister Aslam Shaikh stoked a controversy by demanding two municipal commissioners in the BMC and justified it on the ground that it would be easier for the civic body to provide basic amenities to the people in Suburban Mumbai. However, the demand was rejected by the Congress, stating that it was his personal view and not the party view. Subsequently, Shaikh and the BJP corporators have demanded that the additional municipal commissioners of IAS officer level should sit in their respective zones – Western and Eastern Suburbs- for better redressal of civic issues.
Sena sources said Shaikh’s demand for two commissioners was a result of a fallout between him and the municipal commissioner over some issues in the civic body. However, the BJP immediately accused the Congress of conspiring to divide Mumbai.
Shiv Sena leaders said there is no change in their stand of not allowing Mumbai’s separation from Maharashtra. “There is no change in our stand,” said Transport Minister and Shiv Sena leader Anil Parab. He added that since the Congress has already clarified that it is not a party demand, it is no longer an issue.
“The BJP, which is desperate for power, is raking up the issues these days to enjoy power everywhere, including chawls and local resident committees,” he alleged.
A senior Shiv Sena leader said the feasibility of the demand of asking additional municipal commissioners to sit in their respective zones needs to be studied.
“If it helps the administration, we will have to see its feasibility as all the senior civic officials sit in the headquarters in South Mumbai where all decisions are taken,” said the leader. Even if no action is taken on dividing the BMC into three municipal corporations, engage two commissioners or on other demands, it is likely to become an issue in the upcoming BMC elections to be held early 2022.
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