Massive defections, the obsession of all the political parties to field criminals and the unabashed display of wealth — even after demonetisation — were among the highlights of the just-concluded electioneering in 10 municipal corporations across Maharashtra. The exercise underlines how miserably we have failed in urban governance.
Ten cities — including the megapolis Mumbai, Thane and Pune — are slated to elect corporators for the next five years. The fact that a fourth of the state’s 288-member legislative assembly comes from these cities explains the importance of these elections. Maharashtra has been witnessing rapid urbanisation making these elections all the more important. Of the 10 municipal corporations, Mumbai, needless to say, is the largest and wealthiest not only in Maharashtra, but in the country. With an annual budget of around Rs 40,000 crore, Mumbai’s budget is more than that of six states in the country — not including the tiny seven Northeastern sisters. So it is not surprising that the city witnessed a fierce battle with the Shiv Sena and BJP, partners for 25 years, pitted against each other. The elections brought out the worst in every party, including the BJP.
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Take, for example, the number of criminals in the fray. A detailed report compiled by two prominent non-government organisations, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and the Maharashtra Election Watch (MEW), indicates that about 220 candidates, of the total 2,275, contesting the 224-member Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections have criminal cases against them. The two NGOs analysed 1,641 of the 2,275 candidates’ affidavits obtained from the state election commission. Of the 220, 154 candidates have serious criminal charges like assault, murder and kidnap against them.
The Shiv Sena tops the list: Twenty-eight of its candidates face serious criminal charges. Following in its footsteps is its off-shoot the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) with 22 such candidates. The Congress and NCP have fielded 16 such candidates and the BJP is not far behind with 14 such candidates. The report also notes that some candidates have multiple cases against them. For instance, a Shiv Sena candidate in Mumbai has as many as 12 criminal cases against him. These cases include extortion, cheating and rioting, Another contender, who represents the MNS, has six cases against him. Outside Mumbai, in areas in neighbouring Ulhasnagar, the ruling BJP has done the honours by roping in the convicted criminal Pappu Kalani’s clan. It isn’t also shy of fielding a number of candidates who have been accused in various corruption and criminal cases.
When it comes to spending, the BJP tops the list. It has flooded the media space — electronic and print — and also has the maximum number of hoardings and posters on highways, railway stations and airports across the state. All BJP posters have Chief Minister Devendra Fadanavis accompanying a smiling PM Narendra Modi reminding voters about corruption-free (cashless too?) elections. The party has officially expressed its pleasure that it has “fielded the least number of candidates with serious criminal charges”.
The presence of a large number of candidates with criminal records highlights one important point: The failure of the existing model of running our urban centres where a majority of people are completely indifferent to administration of their city. Citizens are likely to know the name of the MP of their area but many would be least bothered to find out who their corporator or nagarsevak is. As cities witness more and more ghettoisation — where the rich and influential prefer to live — the disconnect gets stark. It should also be noted that for a large number of people, the only connect to the government is through one document, the passport.
This leaves our cities at the mercy of uniformed, uneducated nagarsevaks. They are mostly hand-in-glove with contractors and officials who, in the absence of citizens’ participation, find easy ways to make money. It suits political parties too; for them, such weak municipal bodies serve as money-making machines. The ongoing elections in Maharashtra tells us how miserably the current model has failed. It has failed in running cities and it has defeated the democratic spirit as well.
It’s time we evolve a mechanism where people in urban areas are allowed to participate in managing the cities they live in. This can be achieved by two amendments: One by allowing citizens to elect their mayor directly, and two, by allowing this elected mayor to select a team of experts to handle various responsibilities such as health, sanitation and transport. This mayoral committee shall work with a state-appointed official, called municipal commissioner, and shall be accountable to the local citizen and the state government unlike the current situation where accountability is not fixed. This will also encourage citizen participation in local issues. As of now, cities have only two ways to generate their resources — property tax and water supply charges. These are meagre to say the least. The proposed changes will also encourage citizens to find more ways to fill up municipal coffers because it will be the mayoral committee’s responsibility to keep the body financially healthy and replenished.
It will not be surprising if these suggestions are dubbed naive and impractical. However, it’s high time we open a debate to find efficient and inclusive ways to run our municipal bodies. Because cities are too important to be left to corporators.