Thursday, September 15, 2016

What makes our municipal bodies a den of corruption?

It was hardly surprising when star comedian Kapil Sharma tweeted a bribe complaint against Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation officials. At the same time many questioned what a Prime Minister has to do with graft charge against officials of a local municipal body and as the elected head of the country PM’s concerns are much larger issues affecting the country. While that may be true the fact is that even the Prime Minister’s intervention could hardly have done anything much beyond saving the day for Sharma to address the larger malaise ailing our municipal bodies. In India, like elsewhere some departments are inherently corrupt, municipal bodies being one of them. It doesn’t matter where and in which cities or state these municipal bodies are situated, one common thread connecting almost all of them is that they are all highly graft-prone.

Let’s take the case of BMC. The body is one of the most cash rich municipal bodies in the country with an annual budget of whooping Rs. 37,000 crore. Controlled by the Sena-BJP alliance it covers an area of 480.24 sq kms and touches lives of more than 1.2 crore Mumbaikars daily as per the census of 2001. Among many other things needed to create and maintain the megapolis’ civil infrastructure, the agency is also tasked with business licensing, health services and disaster management.

It is no more a classified fact that corruption is well entrenched in the BMC. So much so that a 2005 Transparency International Report had to conclude that municipal services in Maharashtra including the BMC rank among the top five corrupt services in the country. It does not stopped there, in a stinging indictment of the agency a division bench of Bombay high court in September 2011 called it as one of the most corrupt institution. Maharshtra’s own Anti-corruption bureau in its annual report ranked it a top offender in corruption cases in 2008.

Time and again claims have been made by the state government and top BMC officials that they are doing as much as they can to get the agency rid of the malaise, but much of it has not got beyond a mere lip service. The seriousness of their efforts was laid bare recently when a RTI reply showed that the agency did not initiated any action against as many as 27 officials who were found to be involved in corruption cases between 2005 and February, 2016 but rather reinstated some of them. It is on record that every year a large number of BMC officials are trapped and arrested for demanding and accepting bribes. A news report published today says that just in the past one year, the state ACB has arrested 20 people working for or associated with the civic body for graft charges.

It is not just about the BMC, the fact is it’s just one of the symbols, and governments world over are struggling to find a way out to get rid of corruption in local governance in their respective countries. Take a name, Africa, Latin America, Asia, even European countries - almost all of them are struggling to cope with the graft affliction in their local governance. Forget treatment, in reality with time scams are becoming larger, the corruption money is growing exponentially from quite a few lacs to now in hundreds of crores.

The question also is that why it is so challenging to the extent of nearly impossible to get BMC rid of the corruption cancer? Let’s take it one by one:
-     Size: Is one of the largest local governments in the Asian continent with more than 1.2 crore population under its wings. With more officials, it is harder to keep tabs on each one and establish a decent administration and to monitor their activities.

-     Politics: BMC has an established political culture with politicians brazenly known to influencing plum postings with the most lucrative departments being Building Proposal Department, Slum Rehabilitation and Road Construction. Attempts to rein in the corrupt officials have stumbled due to political interference and had to be abandoned.

-     Transparency: While of late rules have been tweaked to ensure greater transparency but not much has changed. In 2010 CM Prithviraj Chavan said "The BMC lacks transparency”.

-      Accountability: There’s no proper and established mechanism to fix responsibility. For eg. engineers intentionally delay sanctioning projects to pressure builders to pay up.

So, what is the solution? No one will disagree to the fact that Mumbai with all its manifestations still remains the singular super-tall symbol of a rising aspirational India. The Maximum City accounts major portion of India's foreign trade and government revenue, from being one of the foremost centers of education, science and technological research and advancement. The soft power of its cinema industry has mesmerized millions world over and has helped in nation’s global outreach. And therefore leaving its local governance into status-quo mode does not bode well for the future of the city.

The fact is in days to come we will see more steady devolution of powers from the centre down to the municipal level. From health, education to social welfare and commercial licensing, municipal agencies are now playing a far greater role in devising and delivering key public services to the last mile.

First and foremost a strong political will to change things coupled with transparency and active citizen participation is a need of the hour. A proper auditing and monitoring must be ensured to achieve accountability and transparency. And lastly, a size as humongous as the BMC is not conducive to counter corruption. The smaller, the better governance.


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