The gulf between local politics and city reforms

"Who are these people, these former IAS officers and all, to compare London to Bangalore and propose these changes?"  he thundered on the phone. His tone and outburst were astounding, and for a moment it appeared that he had mistaken the Citizen Matters editor for someone else. "What is the paristhithi in Bangalore?" he then shot off, implying that Bengaluru was simply not London.

The speaker was Jayanagar MLA B N Vijaykumar. Citizen Matters had asked him what he thought of ABIDE’s proposal to have direct elections from neighbourhoods into ward committees, which was being vetted by his party colleagues in the state cabinet for passage as law. Clearly, Vijaykumar was a making a not-so-veiled reference to former state chief secretary Dr A Ravindra, member of ABIDE who has been pushing for decentralisation reforms for Bangalore along with his colleagues.

For those less familiar, ABIDE is the chief minister’s own committee created amidst some controversy as the task force ‘for Bengaluru’s development’. ABIDE proposed direct elections for the city’s mayor and deepening local representation by electing people from neighbourhoods into ward committees, as opposed to discretionary nominations subject to systematic abuse of power.

Merely a few minutes after this exchange, Congress MLA N L Narendra Babu, a former corporator himself, told Citizen Matters that he agreed with the need for elections to ward committee: "Nominations don’t work, it leads to use of discretion".  Elections are better than nomination, are they not, he asked?

Two key BJP leaders and cabinet members – R Ashoka, Katta Subramanya Naidu – have not come out in support of ward committee elections.

This isn’t to say that Congress MLAs alone are for these reforms. Narendra Babu was quick to add this was his personal opinion and that his party had not taken a formal position. Former mayor P R Ramesh (Congress) has told Citizen Matters he rejected the idea.

In the meantime, highly placed sources told Citizen Matters that there has been less opposition to the other key ABIDE reform proposal – direct election of mayor – from senior cabinet ministers. The ministers would in fact like expanded power for the mayor, as opposed to the current ceremonial one.

In other words, at least some key politicians in power want one half of the reform, but not the other half that deepens local representation – ward committees.

This gulf between politicians and decentralisation reforms in Karnataka is not new. And therein lies the crux of the whole thing for Bengaluru.

Months after the proposals were floated out, the BJP, as the governing party, has not even held one publicly-announced party meeting on this topic to flesh out the issue. Citizens and experts would have been eager to attend such a meeting, or even help with an all-party gathering on these key reforms.

For their part, the mainline opposition – Congress or JD(S) — has not given the government a real challenge in the assembly. They could have forced a discussion on ABIDE’s recommendations, even if for one-day. After all, any new law will have to come to the legislature after cabinet approval.

Nothing has happened

We really need a bridging of this big gap – not with more grade separators but unifiers – between party consultations and citizen-expert recommendations. Until then, yet another committee report will be consigned the same old fate – punched, filed and forgotten.

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