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Sajib Nandi

Mumbai: Why is the Municipal Corporation acting the Raja with Praja- Sucheta Dalal

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Sajib Nandi

Why Is the Municipal Corporation Acting the Raja with Praja?

Why Is the Municipal Corporation Acting the Raja with Praja?

 

On 19th January, I was among the five concerned Mumbaikars who petitioned chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, against the Mumbai municipal commissioner’s decision to declare Praja Foundation, a non-government organisation (NGO) with a long and credible track record as persona non grata. What exactly does this mean? Well, Praja has received formal letters from various municipal departments that queries from its employees under the Right to Information (RTI) Act will not be entertained; they also won’t get appointments to discuss legitimate issues with municipal officials.

 

The enormity of this action is apparent, but becomes frightening when put in the right context. BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) presides over India’s financial capital and has a bigger budget than many states in India. Naturally, it is exploited to the hilt by a corrupt and brazen nexus of netas, babus and businessmen, while the city suffers illegal encroachments, pathetic roads and infrastructure, repeated deaths due to fires, illegal construction, proliferation of illegal slums and public health issues. Rules and regulations are deliberately opaque, excessive, outdated and non-transparent, so as to allow corruption to thrive. BMC officials have mastered the art of cover-up by issuing show-cause notices against illegal actions without initiating any follow-up action or stopping it. Even in the recent fire tragedy at Kamala Mills, only restaurant owners have been arrested, while municipal officials, who probably extorted large sums of money, have merely been suspended.

 

And, yet, BMC commissioner Ajoy Mehta’s first reaction to the Kamala Mills fire that killed 22 people was to tarnish activists who had repeatedly pointed to illegal permissions. He claimed that ‘activists’ were part of a corrupt nexus with his officials, without naming names or initiating specific action. This surely wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark; it is part of a worrying pattern of actions meant to subjugate citizens by terrorising and maligning those who dare to protest.

 

The BMC succeeded, when it went after popular comedian Kapil Sharma, who foolishly tweeted about endless extortion while his own bungalow had flouted rules. BMC gleefully retaliated by going on a demolition drive that included his neighbours as well. It was a sharp lesson to celebrities not to be tempted to use their star-power to speak up. The harassment of Bombay Gymkhana by the BMC plays out in the public domain without protest, only because it is seen as an elite club. Very few of its star members and sportspersons have dared to speak out.

 

But BMC’s strategy boomeranged when municipal officers went after radio jockey Mallishka for lampooning Mumbai’s bad roads in the monsoons, when every Mumbaikar’s patience wears thin. The BMC’s attempts to frame charges of dengue breeding at her home caused such a backlash that it beat a hasty retreat. The charges against ‘activists’ after the Kamala Mills fire killed 22 people are in line with this practice.

 

This is where organisations such as Praja Foundation become a thorn in BMC’s flesh. This NGO has been doing stellar work with the same municipal corporation for over two decades. In 1997, it worked with BMC to jointly develop a Citizens’ Charter that was released by Nani Palkhiwala in 1999. In 2003, it collaborated with the BMC in developing an online complaint management system (OCMS), which gave some desperately needed efficiency to the complaints process. It also trained over 200 municipal staffers to handle these complaints. Since 2011, it has trained over 75% of the past BMC councillors and 90% of new councillors on how to ask questions regarding BMC’s functioning. It has conducted training programmes on how budgets are made and how funds are allocated to corporators. It has also produced ready-reckoners on how the BMC functions.

 

All its data are collated by filing over 2,500 RTI applications a year. This data ought to be in the public domain in the first place (Section 4 of the RTI Act mandates it); but even an NGO that wrote the BMC charter has to file applications to get the information from BMC. Nitai Mehta, founder of Praja, says, “We build tools of governance that can be used by all three stakeholders—citizens/citizen groups, elected representatives and the government. Our approach is a dialogue with all stakeholders with the objective of improving the quality of lives of Mumbaikars.”

 

What exactly is the BMC’s problem with Praja, after 20 years of committed work? Apparently, it has an issue with the facts put out by Praja and has accused it of distortion. These pertain to issues such as poor health standards in the city, the number of tuberculosis related deaths, malnourishment among children and a consistent reduction in the number of students attending municipal schools. If the problem was with the data put out by Praja, the answer should have been to provide correct data. If it is with interpretation, the solution is to discuss it and explain. After all, Praja has worked with the BMC for two decades and cannot possibly want to score self-goals by drawing false conclusions. Obviously, the problem lies elsewhere. It is about the BMC wanting to suppress negative reports or slap down criticism about its functioning.

 

This BMC's strategy of demonising and ostracising those who expose it has, hopefully, backfired. The petition to the chief minister was signed by former police commissioner, Julio Ribero, former municipal commissioner, DM Sukthankar, and former central information commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, as well as scores of leading activists. RTI activist, Kamlakar Shenoy, has filed a petition against the municipal commissioner in the Bombay High Court, while advocate Godfrey Pimenta, who heads Watchdog Foundation, has moved the Lok Ayukta for similar action. Mr Sukthankar was critical about the ‘degradation of democratic processes at one of the oldest civic bodies in India’; Mr Ribeiro emphatically condemned the action against Praja while Shailesh Gandhi said it is tantamount to denial of a fundamental rights.

 

The RTI Act has no provision for any government organisation to declare a set of individuals as persona non grata or deny them information. Even prisoners on death row have the right to obtain information and routinely do so. How can a municipal commissioner arrogate such extra-judicial powers to himself that he dares to deny information? Because he probably did not expect to be challenged.

 

Over the past decade, we have seen a sharp decline in accountability of public representatives, regulators and government organisations. This starts right at the top with the empty benches in parliament when pertinent questions affecting citizens are raised. Our elected representatives often fail to notice incomplete or tangential answers to their questions, which were treated with great care and seriousness a couple of decades ago. Regulators forget to table key regulations in parliament for two years (like SEBI’s insider trading regulations) and nobody so much as notices. The government is busy setting up new regulators and institutions at public expense, but cannot be bothered about ensuring the checks & balances that go with it.

 

Ironically, much of the rot, including regulatory capture of institutions accelerated under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Young inheritors and princelings with Ivy League management school degrees passed draconian legislation without bothering about the consequences. The Companies Act 2013, amendments to the SEBI Act giving it sweeping punitive powers and allocation of thousands of crores of public funds to Aadhaar without even a statute, are among the atrocities of that time. Most other MPs are unconcerned about governance, economic and financial issues, with the result that absurd theories, divisive politics and mindless protests hog media space and public discourse.

 

It is time we woke up to what is happening. The manipulation of public sentiment to demonise, malign and ostracise anyone who dares to question or criticise has to be protested most vociferously. It is an attack on our fundamental rights, freedom and democracy itself. What the Mumbai municipal commissioner had officially done to Praja Foundation is unofficially practised against media and activists by many regulators and government bodies. Will we, the people, allow them to get away with it? Or stand up and be heard?

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