Community Participation Bill leaves out the community

In order to not lose the funding from JNNURM, Karnataka government passed community participation bill without any discussion. But it was a watered down bill, giving little power to citizens.

Citizens of Sagayapuram (Ward 60) of Bangalore recently prepared their own programme of works for their ward.  They had wanted – among other wishes – community toilets, nursery school renovation and footpaths for 24 lakh rupees, but the BBMP sanctioned 27 lakhs just for street name-boards. This shows the stark lack of community participation in decision-making even 18 years after the passage of the 74th Constitutional  Amendment (74th CAA) or Nagarapalika Act, which  mandated "Power to the People" in urban areas. 

Amendments that do nothing to strengthen community participation

The 74th CAA was to bring in decentralisation, proximity, transparency, accountability and people’s participation in urban governance, but these objectives are far from being realised yet.  While there has been some change in rural areas in this direction under the parallel 73rd CAA or Panchayat Raj Act, urban areas have seen little progress in this regard.  

To make recalcitrant States fulfill these objectives, the central government-run Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) imposed a conditionality on state governments that to receive funds under the mission: States should fully implement the 74th CAA and bring in a Community Participation Law (CPL) to supplement its provisions.  Karnataka dragged its feet even on this, but faced with the prospect of not receiving further JNNURM funds from the centre, drafted amendments to the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act in great secrecy to bring in community participation.  

The Model Nagararaj (CP)  Bill circulated by the Centre’s Ministry of Urban Development under JNNURM  calls for the division of each ward into ‘areas’ comprising a polling area of a few contiguous polling stations.  All persons registered as voters in that ‘area’ shall be members of the ‘area sabha’ and shall elect their Area Sabha Representative (ASR) who shall be a member of the ward committee.  

Contrary to this, Karnataka’s CP Bill says that the ASR, instead of being elected, shall be ‘nominated’ by the municipality on the recommendation of the Councilor.  The nomination process will make the ASR a mere ‘henchman’ of the councilor, unaccountable to the people of the area.  Moreover, the ASR  shall not be a member of the ward committee which is the main decision-making body.    This will de-link the Area Sabha and ASR from the ward committee and render them decorative and powerless, created merely to fulfill the conditionality under JNNURM.    

CIVIC procured a copy of the Bill and held a public consultation on it.  However, even before the changes suggested by citizens at CIVIC’s discussion could be incorporated, the Bill was passed in the Assembly with no debate and with the Opposition staging a dharna outside.

The irony is that there has been no community participation in framing the community participation law!  

What the ward committees are supposed to do

According to Karnataka’s CP Bill, the ward committee is supposed to consist of a different set of ten members. Of the ten, there shall be at least two SCs/STs, three women and at least two representing residents’ welfare associations or other interest groups.  But even these members shall be ‘nominated’ by the Corporation instead of being selected by the various interest groups themselves.  All this makes a mockery of the concept of citizen participation.   To top it all, the Councilor shall be given veto powers over ward committee decisions, strengthening the prevalent wrong perception  that elected representatives are our ‘rulers’ and not our ‘representatives’. 

A progressive South African booklet on ward committees cautions against political parties influencing how ward committees are appointed on the ground that it may simply reproduce the views of political forces already represented in the Council and it will therefore become difficult to hear anything new from local civil society.  When ward committees are seen to be controlled by a single political party, interest groups and individuals aligned to other parties inevitably become alienated from the ward committee and feel that there is little point in participating as their opinions will not be listened to.

The need for Area Sabha Representative

There is much opposition among elected representatives to the idea of ‘elected ASRs’ as they are perceived to weaken the powers of the directly-elected Councilor.  The point is that one needs elected ASRs to plug the weaknesses of the 74th CA compared to the 73rd CA.  

The 74th CA does not provide for proximity to the elected representative (in a GP, there is one representative for every 400 people, whereas there is one elected representative for 30,000 people in urban areas like Bangalore.  Bureaucrats themselves admit the lack of proximity when they say that a Councilor cannot attend all area sabha meetings.   This is the reason why there is need for a greater degree of representation in urban areas by having elected ASRs for every 3000 people at least. One could even think of indirect election of the ward Councilor by ASRs, like in GPs.

On the concern that there that there might be conflicts between elected ASRs and the directly-elected councilor; if rural areas can be considered to need one elected representative for every 400 population, why not the urban populace? 

The functions envisaged for the ward committees in the CP Bill are also minimal.  If ward committees are to work for social justice, which is their mandate under the 74th CAA, they committees need to be empowered  to plan and supervise all institutions in the ward, such as the ration shops, PHCs, dispensaries, family welfare centres, primary schools, anganwadis, day-care centres for 0-6 and the elderly, livelihood centres, workers’ facilitation centres, residential hostels/schools for SC/STs, OBCs, etc., social housing, etc. over which the ward committee has jurisdiction.

Ward committees should have the power to impose financial penalties on such government officials, who report to ward committees and with whose functioning the ward committee is dissatisfied.

Given the need to fulfil the enlarged mandate given by the 74th CA of ensuring social justice,  the ward  committee should plan and ensure that there are sufficient affordable rental housing units, no homeless persons, that all eligible are provided social security, adequate skill training facilities and credit facilities at low interest rates, wage-employment on municipal works for all those unemployed, implementation of all labour laws.

Diluted powers to the ASRs

The 74th CA and the current CPL do not give the ward committee or ward sabhas the powers given to GPs and grama sabhas in rural areas.  If rural areas can be given the privilege of having self-governing insitutions with a great deal of participatory and direct democracy, why are the urban people being denied the same privileges?  

The Area Sabha has been given the functions of merely ‘suggesting’ plans and remedies for deficiencies in a few basic services, such as water supply, sanitation and street lighting, and ‘assist the activities’ of public health centres ‘promote’ harmony, ‘cooperate’ with the ward committee, etc.  

It shall also select eligible persons for beneficiary-oriented schemes and forward for ‘approval’ by the ward committee or corporation.  This is contrary to the concept that the people are sovereign in a democracy and should have decision-making powers over their areas which other higher levels shall not have the power to change or overrule.

Why the opposition?

Opponents oppose this on the ground that ours is a ‘representative’ and not a ‘participatory’ or ‘direct’ democracy.  However, one needs to move towards greater participatory democracy rather than mere representative democracy given the crisis of confidence in our elected representatives prevailing in the country.  In the current situation, it is necessary to keep checks and balances on the elected representatives, who one is seeing are indulging in one scam or another on a daily basis and have become totally unaccountable to the people, with a few exceptions only. 

More direct democracy is also required by giving more powers of decision-making to the people themselves through area sabhas, keeping in view the large-scale disregard of people’s rights to life and livelihood taking place in the country in the name of development, and the displacement and loss of land and assets that is happening.  All these regressive decisions are being taken by elected ‘representatives’, but these are not what the people really want.  The elected representatives are perceived to be not behaving like our ‘representatives’, but like our ‘rulers’ or modern-day maharajas. 

The cynicism with the current state of political affairs is because the so-called development happening appears to be a euphemism for the loot of the nation’s resources and a transfer of assets from the poor to the rich through a nexus of the elected representatives, bureaucrats and corporates.   This prevailing context of the country makes it imperative to think out of the box to make the 74th CA more effective and not be status quo-ists harping on technicalities, which those in power appear to be doing.

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