Why does it matter if Bengaluru has no corporators? Well, look around the city — the roads are in tatters, civic projects are left unfinished, garbage dumps are overflowing — all this due to the lack of proper leadership and accountability in the BBMP.

BBMP elections: FIle image of voters standing in a queue for a panchayat election in KarnatakaFile image of a voters queue at a polling booth in Karnataka
news Governance Tuesday, May 10, 2022 - 17:13

This is the first of a three-part series on how Bengaluru's fragile infrastructure is crumbling in the absence of elected corporators. The series looks at how the strength of the ward committees has eroded in the absence of corporators, the legal obstacles that have to be overcome for conducting the elections and the political machinations underway to maintain the status quo.

For the past 20 months, the fourth-largest municipal corporation in India has had no corporators. The term of the corporators of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), who were elected in 2015, ended on September 10, 2020, which means the elections should have been held before September 2020. However, till date, the Karnataka State Election Commission has not been able to schedule the elections — leaving the municipal corporation in the care of MLAs, bureaucrats and civic officials who are stretched thin.

Why does it matter if Bengaluru has no corporators? Well, look around the city — the roads are in tatters, civic projects are left unfinished, garbage is overflowing and citizens have no one to reach out to — all this due to the lack of proper leadership and authority in the BBMP.

If a drain in a locality is broken, or garbage is overflowing in a corner, if there is a stray dog problem, if there are constant power outages within a ward, if the roads are not properly maintained, if you want more public amenities like bus stops and parking spaces — a corporator is the citizen’s first link to governance and a better standard of living. But Bengalureans have been living without this access for two years now. So why has there been a delay in holding elections to the BBMP and what is holding up the process?

A new act 

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) governs the Greater Bengaluru metropolitan area. It was established under the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act, 1976 (the KMC Act). In March 2020, the Karnataka government introduced a new Bill — the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Bill, 2020 — to change provisions within the KMC Act, and to bring in a new governing structure for the city. The amended Act came into force on October 3, which was already a two-week delay after the polls’ scheduled date. 

The law decentralised power in Bengaluru —  increased the term for Mayors and also increased the number of zones within Bengaluru — from eight to 15 — which were further divided into wards. The city limits were extended by a 1km radius, in order to bring some tech parks inside the city limits. 

Read more about the Act here: Bengaluru's new BBMP Act: How the city's governance changed 

On October 14, 2020, the Karnataka Government issued a notification announcing that Bengaluru will have 243 wards — in place of the current 198 wards. The government said that the increase in the number of wards was necessitated by the fact that the population and demographics of the city have undergone vast changes since 2009, which is when the number of wards was increased to 198. 

A delayed delimitation

And thus began the process of carving out these additional wards from the existing ones — the delimitation exercise. A delimitation commission was set up by the Karnataka government in 2020, under the then Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa. This delimitation exercise was massively delayed, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. After five sittings, a year’s delay and three extensions from the government, the delimitation commission’s draft findings were submitted in January 2022. 

The main reason for this is that under the Karnataka Municipal Act, the delimitation exercise is carried out by the state government, and not the state election commission. And this exercise, therefore, is highly influenced by politics. There has been a lot of political tussle over the delimitation draft with dissonance among MLAs and political leaders across parties who were unhappy with the distribution of the wards. Some MLAs of constituencies in the outskirts of BBMP have sought more villages to be included under BBMP limits. This only added to the delay. 

While all this was going on, the Karnataka High Court was hearing petitions seeking that the elections be held on time in Bengaluru. The state election commission had moved the High Court in January 2020 asking that the Karnataka government draw up a notification of the 198 wards. Then, on September 9, 2020, a day before their term ended, two councillors of BBMP moved the High Court, seeking directions to the state government and the state election commission to hold the elections of the BBMP before the expiry of the term of BBMP, as mandated under Article 243U of the Constitution. Another petition was filed by an advocate with the same demands. 

On December 4, 2020, a Karnataka High Court headed by then Chief Justice AS Oka directed the state government to hold elections for the 198 wards, as the Act passed to divide the wards into 243 was issued after the due date of the elections. The court held that as per the Constitutional mandate, the elections ought to have been completed before September 10, 2020. The court also said that the process of delimitation of the 198 wards of the BBMP was completed on June 23, 2020, much before the amended Act was introduced, and that final electoral roll was almost ready. “If it is held that the election of the BBMP which is now overdue ought to be held in accordance with the provisions of the said Act of 1976 as amended on 3rd October 2020, the provisions of the Amended Act will infringe the Constitutional mandate.”

However, the Karnataka government then moved the Supreme Court against this High Court order, saying that the BBMP elections should be held for the 243 wards and not 198. 

But this will be an extremely lengthy process, as the HC had noted. First, the Delimitation Commission will have to make recommendations for constituting 243 wards for BBMP. Then, after recommendations are made, the state government will have to pass an order for the determination of 243 wards, and then a mammoth exercise will have to be undertaken by the state election commission to prepare the draft electoral rolls of each 243 wards, which will take the Commission four months.

“There is of course a political angle to this. The will is to not conduct elections and stall the elections. They say delimitation is important and needed but if the Karnataka government wanted to increase the number of wards or change the limits of BBMP, it should have done it in 2018 or 2019. But because they are not keen to hold elections, they proposed a delimitation after the scheduled date of the elections,” says Srinivas Alavilli, who leads civic participation at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. 

Entangled in this political and legal tussle over who will wield the power at the city level are Bengaluru’s citizens. Moreover, Karnataka is infamous for delaying civic body elections — in 2007, too, the elections were delayed for three years and were held in 2010 only because the High Court directed it.

“The problem is that the city government is not seen as a very important part of the government. Our Constitution also does not empower city-level government as it should have. Nobody wants to share power with a level below theirs. This is the root cause of all evil. The distinction between MP and MLA is understood, but the distinction between city MLA and corporator is blurred. Without elected representatives, Bengaluru residents have nobody to hold accountable for civic issues. Loss of agency of citizens of Bengaluru is the biggest issue,” Alavilli adds.

This is the first of a three-part series on how Bengaluru's fragile infrastructure is crumbling in the absence of elected corporators. 

Read part 2 here: Real reason BBMP polls are delayed: Bengaluru MLAs are lobbying against it

Read part 3 here: In the absence of corporators, Bengaluru MLAs muscle their way into ward committee meets