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Promoting people's participation in urban governance

By Kalpana Sharma

The 73rd and 74th amendments were supposed to give citizens a direct say in decision-making. While this has begun to happen at the panchayat level, it has not happened with area sabhas in cities. The Nagar Raj Bill is one way to put in place a democratic, bottom-up system of governance for our urban areas

In June, when residents of some localities in Delhi blocked the roads because they had received no water for 15 days, the question that arose was not why they were so irate.  That was obvious.  But whether there was any other way in which their problem could have been resolved. 

Indian cities, large and small, face chronic shortages of water and power.  What they also face is the absence of effective systems of governance to handle these problems.  As Arvind Kejriwal, the Magsaysay awardwinner, stated so eloquently during a television discussion, “The role of people between elections is limited to pleading, pleading and pleading before politicians and bureaucrats.  Till this changes and people have a direct say in day-to-day decision-making, democracy will not function.” 

On paper, people are supposed to have a direct say in decision-making. The 73rd and 74th amendments, passed in 1992, were designed to devolve powers so that citizens would actually have their voices heard and play an active role in governance.  At the panchayat level, through the implementation of the 73rd amendment, this has begun to happen.  Its efficacy is not uniform and varies from state to state.  But at least the institutions to facilitate participation, such as the gram sabhas, have been established. 

In urban areas this has still to happen.  Although some aspects of the 74th amendment have been implemented, such as reservation of seats for women, the three-tier structure of governance remains on paper in most states. 

Under the 74th amendment, each urban local body, whether a municipal corporation or a municipal council, was supposed to set in place ward committees.  The sixth report of the second Administration Reforms Commission suggested another tier, that of area sabhas comprising voters of one booth in a constituency. These would be similar to gram sabhas in the rural areas. 

During its previous term in office, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to fund infrastructure projects in 63 cities.  One of the preconditions laid down for receiving funds under the programme was that the state governments in which these cities were located had to ensure that area sabhas were set up and that devolution of powers as envisaged under the 74th amendment actually took place.  

To facilitate the process, the Centre drafted a model Nagar Raj Bill that was circulated to state governments.  This spelt out how the three-tier structure would work and the specific responsibilities and duties at the area sabha and ward committee level.  Area sabhas could be as small as covering just one polling booth or could be made up of voters from two or more polling booths in a ward. Thus their size would vary from 1,000 residents to several thousands.  But the smaller size was recommended as it facilitated greater participation. The model bill also laid out the process of selecting the area sabha representatives who would participate at the ward committee level. 

This structure was also supposed to facilitate participatory budgeting.  Recommendations for how funds should be allocated would travel up from area sabhas to the corporation or council and the final budget would be a sum total of these recommendations.   

Such participatory budgeting has been done successfully in several cities around the world and was pioneered by Porto Alegre in Brazil.  Since 1989, this system is a regular feature of Porto Alegre where an incredible 50,000 people out of a population of 1.5 million actively participate in the process.  The cycle begins in January and moves from the neighbourhood to the region (equivalent of our wards) to the whole city.  Assemblies are held where residents elect ‘budget delegates’.  These individuals then identify priorities for budget allocations and vote on them.   

This process has already resulted in dramatic improvements for people. For instance, sewage and water connections grew from covering 75% of households in 1988 to 98% in 1997.  The process helped correct inequalities in a city where one-third of the population lived in slums.   One can see the relevance for such a process in most Indian cities where people have no say in the priorities of the municipal budget and where inequalities are stark.  

In many Indian cities, there is civil society participation in urban issues. This includes environmental groups that take up single issues, such as noise pollution or protecting mangroves or open spaces to groups fighting for the rights of slumdwellers and others who have fought against privatisation of common resources like water. But these are individual efforts and are not organised enough to make a lasting impact.  Their success depends on the openness of the bureaucrat running the municipal corporation or the political strength of the party in power. 

One of the exceptions to this rule was the success of the Citizens’ Consensus Candidate in the 2005 Mumbai municipal elections.  Here a concerted campaign by the organisation Loksatta to make people aware of their rights in one ward resulted in the nomination of the candidate and his victory in the polls.  He beat established political opponents who had won previously from that ward. 

Loksatta has also been at the forefront of the campaign demanding the passing of the Nagar Raj Bill.  They have distributed pamphlets, done street plays, organised college debates and human chains to inform people about this law.  In the recent elections to the Lok Sabha, independent candidate Meera Sanyal made the Nagar Raj Bill one of her important election planks during her campaign in the Mumbai South constituency. 

Pressure from New Delhi and probably the persistent campaign by civil society groups has finally resulted in the Maharashtra government passing the Nagar Raj Bill, called the Maharashtra Municipal Corporation and Municipal Council (Amendment) Act, 2009 on June 13, 2009.  It deviates in some instances from the model bill suggested by the Centre but is substantially the same.  Instead of one area sabha for each polling booth, the act lays down that residents of five polling booths, or 5,000 residents will be in one area sabha. Each area sabha will have an area sabha representative.   

At the next level, there will be a ward committee that will include the area sabha representatives of the ward as well as several nominated civil society members apart from the elected councilor from the ward who will be the chair. 

The Maharashtra law gives the municipal commissioner the right to remove the elected councilor if she or he fails to call a meeting of the ward committee at least once in six months as required.  Some people have objected to this provision, claiming it gives the commissioner too much power and there are already demands for a change in this provision.  But the significant point is that the law has been passed and now residents have to monitor its implementation.  

The importance of this kind of devolution cannot be emphasised enough.  In small and medium towns, you can see a visible difference where communities have been organised to intervene in issues such as solid waste management.  Even in towns where the local body is not financially sound, many localities are clean because people have worked out ways of keeping them clean by using municipal resources and adding their own. In some towns, such initiatives have been backed by the municipal authorities and have led to successful private-public partnerships that have benefited the city as a whole.  

But such examples are not the norm.  Municipal budgets are made by bureaucrats, sometimes modified by the elected representatives if they are knowledgeable enough and passed with little debate.  In the smaller towns, most elected representatives have little knowledge about how budgets are made or who dictates the priorities.  As a result, precious resources are often wasted in projects that are temporary, or that benefit only a small section of the population.  Given the inequalities in resource allocation in most urban areas, where the better-off benefit from higher allocations while the poor have to make do with smaller revenue flows, there is an urgent need to change the process of decision-making. 

The idea of area sabhas and active ward committees means that development proposals can be generated in neighbourhoods, thereby having a direct relevance to people’s lives.  For instance, often just before the end of the financial year, there is a rush by elected representatives to use up their discretionary funds which would otherwise lapse by engaging in some works in the ward.  In Mumbai, towards the end of the financial year, there is a frenzy of works that involve paving roads and pavements.  Although such investment is often welcome and makes life better for people in the locality, it is possible that there are more urgent needs that could have been addressed with the same funds.  But as residents are not consulted, or only a few vocal groups get their say depending on the political party to which the elected representative belongs, precious funds are wasted on cosmetic projects.  

Just as active gram sabhas have begun to make a material difference to the use of development funds at the panchayat level, one can anticipate a similar result if area sabhas begin working in cities like Mumbai. It will not be as straightforward as it appears on paper as cities have diverse populations and highly active political groups that can subvert any system. But an effort must be made to put in place a democratic, bottom-up system of governance for our urban areas.  

Infochange News & Features, June 2009