"Who's in charge of the roads in Mumbai?" It was an innocuous question from the middle-aged Los Angeles-based Jonathan Barzilay on his first visit to the megapolis he had heard so much about. The question was prompted earlier this week after Barzilay, director of the Ford Foundation's freedom of expression wing, negotiated a 15-minute drive from the tony Bandra-Kurla complex to the office of the foundation's grantee, Partners in Urban Knowledge Action & Research (PUKAR), a group that works on issues of health and redevelopment in Mumbai.
It's a difficult question to answer, even for a pucca Mumbaikar. In his 15-minute ride, Barzilay commuted on roads managed by three different agencies. Roads across the city, totalling some 2,000 km, are owned and managed by a fair number of agencies: the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the state government-run Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) and Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), and the central government's National Highway Authority of India (NHAI). Jurisdictions are unmarked; few can tell who's in charge.
The buck used to stop at the BMC till the mid or late 1990s; then, as ambitions to develop Mumbai as Asia's financial hub took root, the BMC's charter of responsibilities began shrinking. The urban local body, with a history that pre-dates Independence, was replaced by government bodies and special purpose vehicles (SPVs) like the MSRDC in several key areas of the city's development. The BMC, with an elected general house of 227 corporators, and by that virtue the most representative voice of the city on matters concerning the city, has had little to do with the planning and execution of big-ticket projects. "No one talks of the planning department here anymore," says veteran corporator Vinod Shekhar (Congress). Indeed, the 'Vision Mumbai' document was drafted in 2003 with hardly any inputs from BMC.
Come February 16 and Mumbaikars will vote to elect a new general body of the BMC. How ironical then that the state government should make plans to strip the BMC of a few more responsibilities. As it stands, the BMC, Asia's richest urban local government, is responsible only for water supply (hydraulic department), and garbage and sewage removal (solid waste management). A proposal to divest it of the hydraulic and solid waste management departments has begun doing the rounds; an international consultancy firm was assigned Rs 49 lakh to prepare a report in six months.
Sources say chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan desires an independent authority, which will operate directly under the state's urban development department, in place of the hydraulic and sewerage departments. Traditionally, this department has been the prerogative portfolio of the chief minister. "Our study showed that in decision-making and financial devolution, the tendency is for the state government to centralise rather than decentralise," points out Dr Amita Bhide of the School of Urban Habitat, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "Corporators get reduced to being in charge of only their own development fund and area issues."
The idea of a diluted BMC hasn't gone down well with the Shiv Sena, but its fightback has been minimal. The Sena-BJP alliance has been in power in the BMC for three successive terms. It's fighting hard this time to retain power, given its track record of backing blacklisted contractors, the belligerence of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and a super-ambitious coalition of Congress-NCP that dreams of wresting BMC back so that its reign in the state government and the local body can become seamless. Congress cites the Sena-BJP's "inefficient civic management" as a reason for change, but party leaders offer no response when asked about the state government "usurping" the powers of the BMC.
The unsaid part is the huge budget at stake; BMC's 2011-12 budget was a whopping Rs 22,000 crore—equivalent to that of the northeastern states and Goa combined. The previous years budgets read Rs 20,417 crore (2010-11), Rs 20,000 crore (2009-10), Rs 16,792 crore (2008-09), and Rs 12,866 (2007-08). It helps to be in control of such a budget, though the last few years have witnessed nearly 70 per cent of it going towards the wage bill. The corporation's main revenues are from octroi and property tax. "This shift has not been in the interest of the city as it effectively demoralised the BMC," says Sudhir Badami, well-known activist, an IIT alumnus and member of MMRDA's technical committee. "BMC offers a better platform for citizen participation and involvement in development than the state government agencies which have practically no direct connection with citizens."
Obsessed as they are with internal party politics and the jostling for seats, given the 50 per cent reservation for women this time, politicians struggling for a seat in the BMC do not even bother about the devolution and dilution of BMC's powers. The state's Nagar Raj Bill, or the 74th amendment of the Constitution to strengthen municipal governance—well what's that?