Janaspandanas or ward committees: calling the bluff

Around 18 years ago, a piece of paper carried the following sprited words, as a reasoned explanation for a series of amendments to a hallowed document. Here’s how the words read:

"In  many  States  local  bodies have become weak  and  ineffective  on account of a variety of reasons, including the failure to hold regular elections, prolonged supersessions and inadequate devolution of powers and  functions.   As  a  result, Urban Local Bodies are  not  able  to perform effectively as vibrant democratic units of self-government."

Recognise Bengaluru in the situation there?

The hallowed document is our Constitution and the words in the quote above are the first para of the Statement of Objects and Reasons to the 74th Amendment, 1992. This is the amendment that famously wrote in obligation of the States to devolve local powers to muncipalities. A key part of the amendment was that states would have to setup ward committees. Ward committees, if setup right, can let citizens have a real say over their own local public life from infrastructure to shopping to traffic issues to community matters.

But the amendment (in shortsightedness) allowed the state governments to decide on the composition of the ward committees themselves. Karnataka, like other states, kept the public out these committees. And Bangalore, particularly during the last ten years of reckless and unplanned growth, has already paid the price for it.

Still, taking off from the spirit of the amendment, at least four major bodies – two setup by successive union governments (NDA and UPA) – as well as two in our own back yard (the Kasturirangan and the ABIDE committees) have put down that the ward committees must comprise of citizens directly elected from the ward, chaired by the ward’s councillor.

None of the recent Karnataka governments have actually done this, yet. Instead, what do we have?

In 2008, the current state government instituted a series of civic get-togethers of local residents, officials, and MLAs to ‘solve local problems’, nicely called Janaspandanas. Such meetings may indeed help people voice their grievances and even move officials to fix streetlights and pavements, but beware: the Janspandanas leave untouched the current setup of power in the hands of MLAs and officials, and they are a distraction from the real work of setting up ward committees.

We are not against Janaspandanas. Better have some civic forums, than not at all, some will say. Still, it’s best to call a spade a spade and not get tricked into settling for less.

Your turn. Ask your MLAs – wherever you are — to explain why they have always blocked ward committees from having people like you in them. Let them tell you that they, and like their ‘juniors’ who will soon enter the Bengaluru city council, are the ones who are afraid of sharing real local power with you. And for our part, we will ask them too.

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