Bengaluru: “404 – File or directory not found.” That’s the message on the screen of the Bengaluru civic agency’s website when looking for the ‘List with Details of Councillors’.
One can’t blame the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), because India’s fourth-largest municipal corporation has been without an elected council for exactly a year.
The last BBMP council’s term ended on 10 September 2020, but with elections not being held since, the city’s civic agency is being run by government-appointed officials — an administrator, a commissioner and nodal officers, who look after the existing 198 wards.
But here’s the real problem — despite residents of Bengaluru having gone without elected representatives for a year, braving two waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government is yet to decide on when the civic body elections can be held.
Muddled and hurried expansion plans, a delayed delimitation process, lack of intent, deliberate stalling of due Constitutional process are just some of the allegations levelled against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government by the opposition, citizens’ groups and even the State Election Commission.
Why does Bengaluru not have corporators?
No. It isn’t the pandemic. The Karnataka State Election Commission(SEC) has successfully held local body elections during the pandemic — the most recent one being polls to the three municipal corporations of Kalburgi, Hubballi-Dharwad and Belagavi.
The problem with BBMP is different. The elections to BBMP were supposed to be held before September last year but the state government brought in a bill to expand the BBMP’s limits, thus putting a wrench in the State Election Commission’s plans.
“In January 2020 we approached the high court seeking directions to the state government to begin the process of delimitation and reservation,” B. Basavaraju, Commissioner, State Election Commission, told The Print. “The high court gave an order in our favour and asked the state government to start the process in 198 wards since we were running out of time and dragging it violated the Constitutional mandate.”
“The state government carried out a delimitation exercise in 198 wards and also announced a reservation list,” Basavaraju added. “Only the final notification was pending when the government suddenly introduced a bill to expand BBMP and presented it to the court.”
In December 2020, both Houses of the Karnataka Legislature passed the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Bill 2020.
The bill intends to change the administrative structure, expand the municipal limits by a one-kilometre radius.
One of the key aspects of the bill is to increase the existing number of wards in Bengaluru to 243. Currently, BBMP’s limits extend to 714 square kilometres.
The process will involve subsuming village panchayats, town municipal councils and other local bodies in areas around Bengaluru. That means, the delimitation process and redrawing of wards will have to take place — a process the government is yet to complete. Additional wards also mean recalculating ward reservations for SCs, STs, women candidates.
“We wanted to hold BBMP elections as soon as possible too but we cannot hold elections just to 198 wards. That would mean all the municipalities and gram panchayats that we intend to bring under BBMP will also have to go to polls,” J.C. Madhuswamy, Karnataka’s Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs. told The Print.
“Once polls take place, these local bodies cannot be merged with Bengaluru for another five years, and we will have to wait for the tenure to end.”
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‘Lack of will, refusal to decentralise’
The projected population estimate for Bengaluru urban, according to the Karnataka government’s directorate of Economics and Statistics, is 1.4 crore people.
If not all, most of these citizens come under the administration of the BBMP. And for one year, citizens have not had elected representatives at the grassroots level where day-to-day affairs directly affect them.
“Not having a council means citizens don’t have a voice in the way the city’s budget is made or the city is run. Let me give you an example, Bengaluru was the only city to ban hoardings and the decision was taken unanimously when corporators irrespective of parties agreed to ban it,” Srinivas Alavilli, head of Civic Participation, Janaagraha — an NGO for urban governance in Bengaluru — told The Print. “As soon as the council’s term ended, the government has tried to bring hoardings back multiple times. Will a state government-appointed administrator follow the diktat of the government or the voice of the people? There should be a principle of subsidiarity and federalism.”
He pointed out that while officers of the BBMP, who have been appointed as nodal officers, have managed the Covid-19 crisis effectively it is not a sustainable model given that they do not have authority over engineers, contractors, and workers like councillors do.
“The government wants to exercise control over the BBMP. MLAs and MPs end up becoming drain engineers and super corporators. They need to be removed from city affairs. It boils down to real estate in big cities because politics runs around real estate,” Alavilli insisted.
Opposition parties too echo concerns of citizen groups. “I will not argue with the government on holding elections just for 198 wards being non-feasible. But what stops the government from completing the process of expansion, delimitation and reservation? They could have completed it 7-8 months ago but they don’t want an elected body since their MLAs don’t want a BBMP council,” Krishna Byregowda, former law and parliamentary minister and Congress MLA told The Print.
The legal battle
In January 2020, nine months before the end of term of the Council, the State Election Commission had approached the Karnataka High Court. The SEC sought the court’s direction to the state government to cooperate and comply with the constitutional mandate of holding elections before the term of the then incumbent council expired.
On 4 December, 2020 the Karnataka High Court pulled up the state government for delaying the BBMP polls and directed the SEC to declare elections to 198 wards within six weeks of final reservation notification. The court, while upholding the constitutional validity of the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Third Amendment Act (2020), which was brought in to increase the number of wards under BBMP from 198 to 243, said that elections to the existing 198 wards ought to have been held in line Article 243 of the Constitution.
The state government challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court, which stayed the high court order on 18 December, 2020. The State Election Commission is now waiting for the Supreme Court’s final word on the matter.
The delay, however, has left former corporators, cutting across party lines, miffed.
“It’s a violation of the Constitution to not have a council for more than six months — that too in the rarest of the rare case when elections aren’t held before council’s term ends. I have raised concerns over the new BBMP bill on party platforms as well as in courts via petitions. MLAs, MPs of all parties do not want a BBMP council and that is illegal,” former corporator and senior BJP leader N.R. Ramesh told The Print.
He added that the new law puts all the power over Bengaluru’s administration in the hands of MLAs and MPs and renders corporators toothless. “The new act violates the 74th Constitutional amendment that strictly prohibits MLAs and MPs from interfering in the local body,” Ramesh said.
Former BBMP mayor Congress leader, Manjunath Reddy, agreed with Ramesh. “People have nowhere to go with their problems. They make a beeline outside former corporators’ residences everyday,” he told ThePrint. “We try to help them as much as possible and call in favours from officers we know. It is a huge disservice to democracy to not have an elected council at the BBMP.”
Even incumbent BBMP commissioner Gaurav Gupta, who took charge of the civic body as administrator when the council’s term ended last September, felt councillors will make a difference in governance.
“We have been coordinating with MLAs of Bengaluru apart from MLCs and MPs from the city, resident welfare association, and NGOs among others. Yes, with elected councillors we have a better ground level feedback system. Nodal officers have been appointed to head ward committee meetings that should be headed ideally by councillors. No doubt it calls for dexterity to understand different people, their requirements,” Gupta told The Print.
The BBMP that was focused on tackling Covid-19 and streamlining the vaccination drive, Gupta said, is finally able to divert attention towards infrastructure and civic projects in the last two months. “We are in the process of designing a unified user interface where information, grievances redressal, compliance and licensing etc can be accessed. We have begun work on many fronts that the corporators can take over when they do come back,” Gupta added.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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