Under the present Karnataka government, three of BBMP’s essential functions have been proposed to be divested.

Bengaluru logo installed before the Vidhana SoudhaRepresentational image
news Governance Friday, August 27, 2021 - 12:18

In May 2021, Karnataka’s then Deputy Chief Minister and head of the state COVID-19 Task Force Dr CN Ashwath Narayan was exploring the idea of divesting Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) from its public health care functions. He proposed a separate parastatal be formed to fulfil the purpose. Unlike the BBMP, which is a civic body, parastatals like the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) have no publicly elected local corporators.  The Dy CM’s proposal had stemmed from the BBMP’s apparent inability to cope with the devastating onslaught of the second wave of the pandemic as seen in many parts of the country. A swift public opposition to the idea by citizen activists had then settled the matter in favour of the status quo. 

Similarly, waste management, an essential function of civic bodies in the country according to the 74th Amendment of the Constitution, is also being proposed to be divested from the BBMP in the name of efficiency. The state government has already floated the Bengaluru Solid-Waste Management Limited (BSWML), a company for that purpose, but the process is now under scrutiny by the Karnataka High Court. The deliberations of forming the company had taken  place behind closed doors without much citizen consultations or a transparent process. Sources following the developments say that the idea of this separate company, too, has been pushed by Dr Ashwath Narayan. However, the former Deputy CM is not alone when it comes to proposing new parastatals. Earlier this month, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai hinted at forming a new entity to manage the city’s major road networks much to the dismay of the active citizenry of Bengaluru. For all these ideas, ministers suggest that a specialised agency would be better suited in serving specific functions efficiently but the city’s own experience has been mostly otherwise, say activists.    

But do the existing parastatals work?

While promoters of the idea say a separate body built for the specific purpose will deliver better results, the reality has been rather bitter. Srinivas Alavilli, head of civic participation, Janaagraha (a non-profit working for urban governance), pointed out that even after floating a company like Bescom there is no area in the city which has uninterrupted power supply in Bengaluru. “The biggest problem with any parastatal is lack of political accountability,” he argued, suggesting that there is no one that will lose an election on that count. “Parastatals report to the state government and ministers and not to the mayor or the city council. The state government officials have to deal with the entire state and therefore their focus cannot be on any one city. BBMP is our elected city government but if we keep hiving off functions of BBMP, like solid waste management and roads and water and electricity and transport, what will be left to govern? Who will represent the public voice in policy making?” he questioned. 

Many activists in the city like Srinivas want the local bodies like the BBMP to be more empowered as enshrined in the  74th constitutional amendments, which mandates the setting up and devolution of powers to local bodies. Srikanth Narasimhan, General Secretary of BNP, a new political party, questioned how divesting BBMP from its functions will help the public. He said, “What is the point in saying the BBMP is not efficient when the Council is run by the same political parties and officers are appointed by the state government.” Instead he suggested the BBMP should be further empowered to make it more efficient.

Against decentralisation

Srikanth argued that the proposed move was against decentralisation, with the state government wanting to further concentrate its powers. “Under the current laws (KMC Act), the state government has limited control over the BBMP, so by these parastatals they want to exercise absolute control on all big money projects— like waste management and major roads. By doing this, they no longer have to negotiate with corporators of their own parties and can have absolute control over huge sums of public money,” Srikanth alleged.

Public policy analyst and activist Leo Saldhana says this is a disturbing trend backed by certain lobbyists who want to privatise essential services. “So in the name of increasing efficiency there was wide-scale corruption. Rather than making the government set up more efficiently through interventions, there was a push for the private sector to take over. Worldover privatisation of essential public functions have always resulted in disasters,” he said.

“This all started in 1999, when the World Bank advocated that private agencies are more efficient than their public counterparts. In effect, these were an extension of the liberalisation policy where government companies were being privatised. So at that time technocrats like Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Nandan Nilekani supported this. And the SM Krishna government implemented all this. So over the next two decades, we worked against this in the interest of improving the working conditions of pourakarmikas among others. When the exploitation of these workers came to light, none of the celebrated industrialists took responsibility for it,” he alleged. 

Leo is also one of the many at the Karnataka High Court petitioning against the formation of BSWML in connection with other existing non-compliance issues regarding solid waste management laws. In a memo as part of this case, he had listed out several reasons how and why the formation of the company is in violation of several legal provisions including the 74th Constitutional Amendment. A bench led by former Karnataka Chief Justice AS Oka (now Supreme Court judge) on July 29 had held, “BBMP being a local body, prima facie, continues to be bound to perform its obligations under the said (Union govt SWM) Rules of 2016 notwithstanding the incorporation of the said company.” 

‘Integration, not disintegration’

Sandeep Anirudhan, founder of Citizens’ Agenda for Bengaluru, said all these decisions boil down to constitutionality. “The state government by divesting BBMP is ignoring the 74th Amendment of our Constitution. The amendment directs the government towards devolution of powers instead the state government creates parastatals to control more and more of the functions of the local government. First and foremost, the elected representatives need to remember that they swore on the Constitution. So, why aren’t they implementing the 74th Amendment?” he said. 

“And what has this culture of creating parastatals resulted in? Bengaluru is now like a headless chicken without direction. A citizen has to run in ten different directions to get the most basic of issues addressed. Is this governance?” he added. 

Similarly, Srinivas pointed out how the creation of multiple separate entities have led to mismanagement and misuse of resources. “The fact that expensive white topping roads are being cut open for metro construction tells us that parastatals are a terrible idea for planning and coordination,” he argued. 

Like Srinivas and Srikanth, Sandeep too advocated merging of all parastatals and service providers under a city government, there will be a more responsive and participatory governance. “Another parastatal will not solve anything! Our city is an unplanned mess. The need of the hour is integration, not disintegration,” he added.

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