Bengaluru, get ready for area sabhas in your wards

If you felt powerless in Bengaluru, it is not without reason. Karnataka passed a community participation bill last month to fix this, but experts have severely criticised the government.

If a new road in your neighbourhood is desperately needed or the local BBMP contractor is burning waste locally instead of transporting it, or if you want to use your ward’s BBMP funds to spruce up a rundown local playground, what will you do? Where will you start?

You’ll likely talk to your residents association office bearers and then one of them or you directly will try to reach your BBMP ward councillor. But let’s face it. There are roughly 25000-50000 residents in a ward. How many such requests will your councillor be able to handle? Besides, councillors have their own preferences, and many are corrupt. If you felt powerless in Bengaluru, it is not without reason. 

Pic: A Janaspandana meeting in progress in south Bangalore. Meetings like this have brought citizens, MLAs, mayor and councillors together to address grievances. They have no formal recognition in the law, are few and far between. There is little follow up. Citizens usually come because they have no other choice. File pic: Citizen Matters.

Government makes an attempt 

After years of this, last month the story took a twist. Just before the recent assembly session ended the government passed a bill for ‘Community Participation’ in municipalities including Bengaluru. It defines area sabhas, area representatives, and ward committees.

The idea is this: What if instead of 1 councillor for every 40000 citizens there was one representative per 4000? 4000 is like an urban village, or neighbourhood or ‘sabha’. This ‘sabha’ could be formally defined as a body of voters living around a polling booth or set of booths. And let’s say this ‘area’ or ‘sabha’ has a representative. S/he will be more accessible and works for his or her area as opposed to the ward councillor. In addition, let’s say the representative also sat on a committee of similar such representatives from other such sabhas. This is called the ward committee, chaired by the councillor.

In politics, this is called ‘community participation’. People in a small manageable area (part of a ward) must have a formal place to come to discuss and decide matters of that area. That is the ‘sabha’.  If the area sabha representative is directly elected and has decision making powers, it goes deeper, and is usually termed ‘decentralisation of power’. Guess what, in rural Karnataka, there is already an elected panchayat representative for every 400 people, as opposed to one for every 40000 in urban, modern, upscale, Bengaluru.

In the government’s bill, Area Sabha representatives are nominated by the councillor, not elected by sabha voters. They are essentially proxies for the conuncillor in sabha meetings and report sabha decisions back to the councillor. Area representatives are also not decision makers and not part of ward committees. The city council nominates ward committee members separately for each ward into the committee. The ward councillor is chairperson of the ward committee and can veto majority decisions.

In effect, the Karnataka bill created area sabhas and sabha representatives and ward committees, it left most real power with the councillor.

Bill criticised severely

Upset in particular at the veto clause and delinking of area representatives from the ward comittees, the bill has been slammed by who’s who of the city. Kathyayini Chamaraj of CIVIC, a long-standing city-based NGO pushing for decentralisation, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Chief Minister Yeddyurappa’s ABIDe task force members Ashwin Mahesh and R K Misra (Chandrasekhar is the convenor), and Janaagraha co-founder Ramesh Ramanathan have all been critical of the bill, one way or other.

Kathyayini calls it ‘community participation law without community participation’. Misra in particular did not mince words. The bill is “nonsense and a sham”, he told Citizen Matters over the telephone.

Flow of power from citizens to sabhas to ward committee to city council in the Nagar Palika bill sent to all states by JNNURM. This was not followed by Karnataka in its community participation bill. Pic: Janaagraha.

Ramanathan is also technical advisor to the central government for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), and a tireless advocate of decentralisation. Ironically, the Karnataka government passed this bill to meet funding conditions under JNNRUM for its city projects. Ramanathan says he has since written to the state government that the bill fails to meet the JNNURM’s conditions for an acceptable community participation law.

The Community Participation bill itself is not in public domain. This same lack of transparency would follow when the ward committees are formed. Also, a few high profile RWAs would represent the ward and the interests of low income communities and slum dwellers would be ignored.

“The Urban Communities Development model in Pune would be a good model to follow – this is only for low income communities, wherein each household is taken into account. This model can be extended for different communities in each ward here in Bangalore. Without such inclusion, ward committees would only be increasing the already existing inequality.”

– Sridhar Pabbishetty, 31, Corporate Consultant, Vidyaranyapura

Developmental works are usually taken up according to the whims of the corporators, and are sometimes even harmful to residents. Residents know more about the needs of an area. Corporators do not hold any meetings with RWAs now, whereas RWA office bearers are elected by the residents.

“It is good that RWAs will have representation in ward committees, but they should have more power. Corporator should not be able to proceed with a work if the majority members in the committee disapprove of it.”

– Parameshwar Bhat, 63, Secretary of Panduranga Nagar RWA, off Bannerghatta Road, South Bangalore.


Key views against the bill

* Area Sabha representative must be elected, otherwise the corporators’ cronies will become area representatives.
* Area Sabha representative has to a member of the ward committee. Otherwise the representative link betwen the area and the ward committee is lost.
* Councillor cannot be given veto powers over ward committee majority decisions.
* Without decentralising representative power, participation is meaningless.

The thrust of the criticism appears to come from one premise. That city councillors have not sufficiently been able to represent their wards and if rural areas could have one elected representative for every 400 citizens, so should urban areas.

Government’s defense

Stung by the criticism, Urban Development Minister Suresh Kumar was forced on the defensive. He met city-based groups as well as ABIDe members who asked for the bill to be amended.

However, a top official in the state government, who was closely involved in drafting the bill has offered a rebuttal. In doing so he has laid out the government’s thinking about the bill. He spoke to Citizen Matters on condition that he not be named.

“There is conceptual confusion in the minds of people criticising the bill. The goal of the bill is to encourage participation, not increase representation. The government is addressing the participation deficit and not a representativeness deficit.”

– Top state government official who drafted the bill

This official argues that the goal of the government’s bill is to encourage participation not increase representation. The bill addresses the participation deficit and not a representativeness deficit, he adds. He also says that the government’s take is that accountability has always been the larger challenge in the current elected setup, not the lack of enough elected representatives.

“There is no evidence to prove that having more elected representatives in cities beyond ward councillors is going to improve accountability. One the other hand the goal of the bill is to increase participation and through that (sabha meetings and decisions) bring in greater accountability”, says the official.

Key defense by government

* Participation is separate from represenation.
* Since the sabha is enshrined in the law and meets regularly to take decisions collectively and this is formally recorded, the corporator cannot simply ignore sabha decisions.
* The area sabha representative is meant to merely convene the sabha meetings as a direct representative of the councillor, that is why the corporator nominates him.
* The ward committee will have, in addition to the councillor, members nominated by the city council. There is room now for RWA members, planners, architects, heritage experts, etc. to become members of ward committees. This will also promote accountability and increases participation.
* Councillor has to have veto power over ward committee decisions because s/he is the only elected representative for the ward, and is finally accountable for committee decisions.

“Veto power to the councillor is provided for only as an exception. It is expected that normal decisions in the ward committee will be majority decisions”, says the official.

In effect, with a clever piece of bill writing, Karnataka has passed a bill that claims to bring in community participation through area sabhas without actually decentralising power. Activists and decentralisation advocates are upset.

The bill has been sent to the Governor H R Bhardwaj, Minister Suresh Kumar told Citizen Matters over the phone. “If necessary we will make amendments in the next session”, was all Kumar would say. ⊕


  1. Manoj Gunwani says:

    The functional hierarchy shown above simply does not make sense unless the area sabha representative is on the ward committee. Without this link in the hierarchy, how can it be argued that participation is being enhanced ? And to participate effectively in the ward committee, the area sabha representative cannot be a nominee of the concillor. This is clearly a sham.

  2. urgita lolla says:

    In our area the councillor is a lady never comes out and is being represented by her brother-in-law as proxy and takes all decision on her behalf, In such scenario how this sabha is going to be held, and who is going to record proceedings and what is mandate about its governance(ie whether it is compulsory for the councillor/ward representative to hold the sabha or take decision by creating his own group

  3. K Rajasekharan says:

    The passage of community participation bill for creation of Area Sabha, a parallel structure that weakens the smooth dynamics of flow of citizens’s power from bottom-up, is an affront on real decentralisation. It is an attempt to substitute cronyism or subservience in the name of citizen’s participation.It shows another clear case in which power holders speak about decentralisation or grassroots democracy and do everything against it in practice.
    Nice that a group of NGOs are there to fight this issue out. Let me express my solidarity with those activities.

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