This is the second 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. Read the first part here.
In Bengaluru, there probably is not a single day when one does not get frustrated with the city’s crumbling infrastructure. As poor planning and even worse implementation of the city’s development continue to pose a serious hazard for mobility in the city, the delay in holding elections for the local municipal corporation, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), is compounding the city’s civic woes. The Karnataka government has cited administrative reasons for not holding the elections despite the term of the council lapsing in September 2020, but the actual reason for the delay is political, according to several sources who spoke to TNM.
The elections to the BBMP are being delayed for several technical reasons, if you were to go by the Karnataka government’s version. The Karnataka government introduced a Bill in March 2020 — the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Bill, 2020, which was passed by the state Assembly and is commonly known as the Bengaluru 2020 Act. This Bill brought in several changes to how the city municipality will be governed, including the Mayor's term getting an extension, and an increase in the number of zones in the BBMP limits.
The state government had approached the Supreme Court (SC) challenging a Karnataka High Court order directing the State Election Commission (SEC) to hold elections to 198 wards within six weeks in December 2020. In response, former corporators filed a petition with the SC demanding that elections be held at the earliest. The state is citing reasons of ward restructuring and BBMP limits expansion as the reasons for delay in holding elections.
And then there is the issue of the OBC quota. The SC, in a judgment recently, asked state governments to provide data to explain why Other Backward Classes (OBCs) should be given reservation in local bodies. The state government has cited this as yet another reason for asking for the BBMP polls to be pushed further and critics have, once again, accused the government of using this as an excuse.
So what are the real reasons for the state government’s lack of will for not swiftly resolving issues? The short of it is politics.
Not having an elected council in place has given several powers to legislators, powers that would have been restricted if corporators were elected.
Several independent sources tell TNM that the legislators, who want to control Bengaluru administration for money and power, have been systematically working towards diluting the powers of corporators and strengthening their own. A BJP leader says that around 20 legislators across party lines have been collectively paying the advocate’s fee to have the BBMP polls delayed, to the tune of Rs 25 lakh per head.
“The political reason for why BBMP elections are not being held is because MLAs do not like the presence of corporators anyway,” says Srinivas Alavilli, a civic activist. “They view them as another level of people who they have to deal with. But it is not the job of an MLA to get into day-to-day civic issues. There is a difference between state and city level leadership,” he says.
This viewpoint is endorsed by many others including former corporators. BJP leader and former corporator NR Ramesh says that if corporations are there, the public will not go to an MLA for issues like bad roads, garbage, water supply etc. In addition, he says, MLAs want to keep the corporators in their control. “Regional committees are headed by the local MLA and there are at least ten to fifteen wards under each committee. So when corporators who come under this committee ask for basic infrastructure, the MLAs can use their discretion to release funds (from MLALADS). If it is a corporator from their party, an MLA usually releases funds immediately. If the corporator is from an opposition party, then it usually takes over a month to even get a Rs 2,000 bill released,” he says.
A BJP MLA who admits that legislators have been lobbying the state government to not allow the BBMP polls to be conducted soon, says that the worry for MLAs is that if elections are held during the monsoon season, roads across the city could get flooded and people will be furious with the ruling government and possibly vote against them. “If the elections are held after, then roads will be battered and be pothole ridden. Which will also go against us," he says. "And with Assembly elections so close, we cannot risk attracting the people’s wrath, not just in the 28 constituencies in Bengaluru but also in other urban pockets,” he says.
Two former corporators have approached the SC seeking a directive to the state government for the polls to be held immediately. One of the petitioners, M Shivaraju of the Congress, alleges that the government is making every attempt to drag its feet on resolving issues that are standing in the way of conducting elections. “The government initially said they will increase the number of wards in the city by taking in areas around Bengaluru which are not currently in the BBMP jurisdiction. When the Karnataka HC did not allow that, they said they will proceed with delimitation. Till today, they have not demarcated the boundaries of BBMP. They have not even readied the voter identity cards. Neither the government nor the State Election Commission is taking any interest in conducting the elections at the earliest,” he says.
Shivaraju, too, says that the legislators’ lobby is the reason for the government’s disinclination in paving the way for polls. “MLAs have been insisting that the BBMP elections be held after the 2023 Assembly elections. There are three or four aspirants per ward for the BBMP elections. If they give a ticket to one of them, the others will rebel and work to defeat the sitting MLA in the Assembly elections. With just a year to go for the Assembly elections, they are scared to take this risk,” he says.
Representatives of the government claim that despite an elected council not being in place for over 20 months now, developmental work and governance have not been impacted. They say that with officers and legislators working in tandem, bengaluru citizens have not had to suffer in the absence of the council. Srinivas Alavalli scoffs at this. “This argument is like saying let the Governor govern the state of Karnataka. Will we ever accept that? We are demanding a democratically elected council,” he says.
“In the absence of political leadership, there is no accountability,” he says. “Recently, a father and his daughter died due to a short circuit because of an electric line dangling. If this had happened when there was an elected representative responsible for this, the person would be voted out in the next elections. Right now nobody pays a political price for the state of affairs because there is no clear ownership,” he adds.
Shivaraju says, “This delay in holding BBMP elections has led to people suffering immensely, especially during the pandemic. If there were corporators, people could approach them when hospital beds, vaccines or any other issues came up. Officers do not feel obligated to answer the people because of which they neither pick calls of citizens nor meet them in their offices. But if corporators were there, people would hold them accountable." Shivaraju also alleges that the ward committee meetings, in which citizens could raise concerns regarding civic issues in their areas, were more frequently and effectively held when the council was in place. “Now, nobody is responsible for holding them,” he says.
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