This is the final story of a three-part series on how Bengaluru's fragile infrastructure is crumbling in the absence of elected corporators. The series looks at the legal obstacles that have to be overcome for conducting the elections, the political machinations underway to maintain the status quo and how the strength of the ward committees have eroded in the absence of corporators.
As ward committee meetings go, this was an unorthodox one. Members and citizens from seven wards that constitute the Jayanagar Assembly constituency were gathered under one roof to attend a meeting helmed by their assembly constituency representative, MLA Sowmya Reddy. She, along with jurisdictional officers of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited (BESCOM), the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), police and other agencies addressed grievances and hosted queries from the citizens. By most accounts, it was a successful meeting. There was only one hitch. This ward meeting held on April 17, 2022 was entirely contrary to rules established under Karnataka Municipal Corporation (KMC) Act on how ward committees meeting should be conducted. The meeting should have been conducted at the ward level by nodal officers appointed by the BBMP in the absence of corporators. In short, the MLA has no business helming a ward committee meeting unless attending as a citizen and the MLA definitely cannot gather all the members of wards in their constituency under one roof, hold a meeting and call it a ward committee meeting.
The term of corporators ended in September 2020 and the BBMP which was handling public health duties in the wake of COVID-19 had time for little else. As life limped back to normal and no decision was being made about when the BBMP elections would be held, the calls for holding ward committee meetings in 198 wards of the municipal corporation became louder and nodal officers were appointed to hold meetings. But as with every aspect of BBMP, ward committee meetings also descended into a farce making a mockery of decentralised governance and devolution of powers that were ushered in with the 74th Constitutional amendment passed in 1992.
Srikanth Narasimhan of general secretary of Bengaluru NavaNirmana Party fumed at the meeting held by MLA Sowmya Reddy. â€śThe Jayanagar MLA conducted a ward committee meeting for her assembly constituency. There can be no bigger joke than an assembly constituency having a ward committee meeting. A single location where everyone is supposed to come and meet. The MLA has no role except as a citizen. The nodal officer (in the absence of corporators) should be the Chairman and preside over the meeting and the Assistant Engineer (AE) has to be the person who takes the minutes of the meeting. But MLAs seem to be chairing some of these meetings,â€ť he said.
In fact, when Sowmya Reddy tweeted an invitation to her constituency residents on April 13 to attend the meeting, citizens gently pointed out that it was in contravention of the rules and ward committee meetings should not be held at assembly constituency level.
Apperciate yr enthusiasm & eagerness to conduct ward committee meeting. As per my understanding it cannot be conducted at Assembly constituency level & for each BBMP ward has got individual committees. Let us adhere to the ward committee operating procedures to get better results https://t.co/w4UfDGsHBqâ€” Vajapeyam Srivatsa (@VajapeyamSriva1) April 14, 2022
In her defence, Sowmya Reddy said she conducted the April 17 meeting because ward committee meetings were not happening properly since September of 2020. â€śIn fact I had participated in many ward committees meetings myself in a few wards where most BBMP officials were absent and the complaints were not being resolved even after repeated attempts by the citizens. So they requested me to hold a constituency-level meeting which was wrongly termed as 'ward committee meeting.' In fact, one of the wards did not even have a nodal officer. So I requested the Joint Commissioner Jagadish Naik to hold a constituency-level meeting and the nodal officers were present too along with some citizens and Residential Welfare Associations (RWAs),â€ť she said. But the MLAs Twitter invite on April 13 specifically termed it as a ward committee meeting and a look at the notices on the BBMP website for the seven wards under her constituency reveals that all the wards had meetings after September 2020. While three wards had their last meetings in March and April of 2022, the remaining four wards had committee meetings in 2021.
It is a persistent problem
According to Srikanth, Shanthinagar MLA NA Harris did the same thing earlier. â€śIf you have multiple wards under ward committee meetings, then call it an assembly constituency meeting. I attended the Bellandur ward committee meeting and the ex-corporator, a follower of the MLA (Aravind Limbavali) tried to dictate terms. In my own ward C V Raman Nagar, the followers of MLA (S Raghu) tried to take over the meeting. As soon as they entered, the nodal officer and the AE stood up and then these guys told them what they should or should not be doing. This is not how ward committee meetings should be held.â€ť
Conducted ward committee meeting which included a review of the previous weeks concerns along with all department officials ,ward committee members and local leaders of Shanthalanagar, Agaram, Vannerpet, Neelasandra and Shanthinagar wards. pic.twitter.com/vd2xadn7SFâ€” N A Haris (@mlanaharis) December 8, 2020
As assembly elections approach, MLAs who already have other modes of hearing citizen grievances like Janaspandana programme, are also making use of ward committee meetings to catch up with the problems. But the ward committee meetings are not just a forum for grievance redressal. â€śUsually scheduled on the first and third Saturday of every month, the forum has committee members and citizens discussing what has spent last year, the ward budget, monthly money utilisation and any work happening whether it is related to horticulture, electricity or water, works on pavement, road repairs, street lights, garbage segregation and disposal etc. Proposals are discussed and seconded by committee members. Each ward has been allocated Rs 4.5 crore and we have not seen what is being done with this money,â€ť a frustrated Pradeep Mendonca, founder of Bengaluru Nagarika Samithi said. He even wrote to the Urban Development Department and Chief Secretary months ago but is yet to get a response. â€śWe don't know what works have been commissioned in their areas, since it is not being updated on the BBMP website. Citizens should know where their tax money is going. MLAs cannot decide that for us.â€ť The problem, according to Mendonca is that BBMP is unconcerned even if citizens approach the High Court.
In most ward meetings, the MLAs and their supporters make sure that they are not attending officially, which is why their names do not make it to the minutes of the meetings, which are hosted on the BBMP website. â€śIt is up to the citizens to keep a watch on it and report it back to BBMP and stop it. Which is what we intend to do. From the next meeting, we are trying to get as many people from our party to attend just to see what is happening where and where it's being hijacked and we intend to give a report to BBMP. We have done this a few months ago for 130 wards, but then the MLAs interaction was very minimal and not so bad as it is now,â€ť Srikanth commented.
Pradeepâ€™s NGO has also hit upon the same idea. Their members now attend all ward meetings in Chamarajapet Assembly constituency. â€śOur team members will sit in the ward committee meeting, then we will prepare a report along with pictures and share it with the BBMP Joint Commissioner (West) including pictures. Ward committees are absent in almost all the wards. There is also no participation of people because after Covid-19 and the end of councillorsâ€™ tenure, they are not even aware of meetings happening. We are sitting there and questioning the ward secretary and nodal officer only because we are aware of the rules,â€ť he added.
Disinterested nodal officers
What irks civic rights activists is that it has become easier for MLAs to muscle in on ward committee meetings, because in many cases nodal officers appointed by the BBMP are disinterested, unaware of what they have to do. For these nodal officers who are above the rank of an Assistant Engineer, conducting ward meetings is an additional job.
Explaining the uphill battle, Srikanth said, â€śMany claimed they were not nodal officers, some did not know what they were supposed to do. Now we are at a stage, where nodal officers agree they have been appointed. From here, we have to force them to have regular meetings and the next level is to ensure the MLA does not hijack it.â€ť
A senior officer who has recently moved out of BBMP said they received complaints when ward committee meetings resumed after Covid-19 lockdown. â€śSome of the areas from where the complaints came, the MLAs happened to be ministers. Residents pointed out that these MLAs or their people should not be involved in the meetings as they were trying to control what was being discussed and they should not be conducted as an assembly constituency ward meeting. We then had to call the nodal officers for a meeting and tell them that they alone should be calling and chairing the meeting and then used to check upon these wards to ensure that no one interfered with it,â€ť the official said.
Civic rights and animal rights activist Arun Prasad lamented the way ward committee meetings have turned irrelevant. He said, â€śNodal officers are not being briefed on projects associated with that particular ward. They have turned into mere grievance redressal systems. Nodal officers have become namesake officers. They keep changing and all they do is take grievances and pass it on to their superiors. It is a clever way to mislead the public. Earlier projects would be discussed at ward committee level which would then go to the Corporator and then the Council would approve it after debate. Now engineers design the project and get approval and begin implementing it without us even getting to know about it.â€ť
BBMPâ€™s patchwork policy
It is the ad-hoc nature of how BBMP fixes things, whether it is potholes that pop-up with an alarming frequency or the subways and underpasses regularly submerged in rainwater, that has given unchecked access to elected constituency representatives. It is why an MLA was able to conduct an assembly constituency meeting and call it a ward committee meeting. In her defence, Sowmya Reddy said she conducted the April 17 meeting because ward committee meetings were not happening properly since September of 2020. But the MLA's Twitter invite on April 13 specifically termed it as a ward committee meeting and a look at the notices on the BBMP website for the seven wards under her constituency reveals that all the wards had meetings after September 2020. While three wards had their last meetings in March and April of 2022, the remaining four wards had committee meetings in 2021. What irks civic rights activists is that MLAs have enough avenues to interact with their constituents like Janaspandana, constituency meetings and various meet-and-greet events, without having to encroach upon the rights and responsibilities of the local ward residents.
Post-Covid-19, in many wards, citizens who were actively participating in ward committee meetings have not returned or even tried to find out what is happening. Many are not even aware that nodal officers have taken over the role of corporators. Former mayor G Padmavathi commented that all the political parties were united in making sure that Bengaluru does not want elections to BBMP to be conducted. â€śWhen they do not want corporators at all, do you think they want ward committee meetings to take place?â€ť she questioned, while confirming that no ward committee meetings had been scheduled in her ward Prakashnagar for months now.
In the other wards, committee members have not been appointed, because BBMP has not made it clear whether the nodal officer (like the corporator) is also empowered to appoint ward committee members.