Who’s scared of ward committees?

The ruckus over the formation of ward committees is exposing the failures of city governance in a big way, and pointing to its main cause – the exclusion of citizens from decision-making. But that’s not all. It is also exposing the hollowness of the legislative space, which also needs to be urgently fixed.

I am told that the Bommanahalli MLA opposes the formation of ward committees. I don’t want to pick on one person, but let’s look at the facts objectively. No BJP MLA should ever say that they’re against ward committees. Why? Because they were the ones who voted for the law that created ward committees in the first place.

In 1992, the Government of India passed the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, instituting a framework for city governance in it. The two most important aspects of this framework (separation of planning and execution, citizen participation in decision making) were ignored by the state governments for almost 15 years. Politicians at all levels were opposed to bringing citizens too close to government.

Then came JNNURM. Some people had the bright idea that they would dangle a big chunk of Central funds in front of city governments, in exchange for reforms in governance. But what actually happened? State governments wrote promisory notes to the Centre, agreeing that they would implement the reforms. The Centre in turn treated that promise as sufficient, and released all the money. And the promises to reform governance were quietly forgotten.

Then some of us in civil society pushed JNURM to account for the money that it has released so far, and to show what reforms have been carried out. That worked to some extent – the Ministry of Urban Development at the Centre decided that it would ‘withhold funds’ from cities that did not fulfill their promises.

And under this threat, the Karnataka government also decided to pass the Community Participation Law (it is formally called Karnataka Municipal Corporations (Amendment) Act, 2011). That happened in January 2011. The idea of ward committees and area sabhas, similar to gram sabhas in the panchayats became enshrined in law. But there was a catch – two catches, actually.

One, although the law was passed in the name of ‘community participation’ it included a clause that gives ‘veto power’ in all ward committtee meetings to the corporator. This is completely contradictory to the JNNURM guideline, but once again the Centre went ahead and released funds, wink-winking at the goal.

The second catch was simply blatant. Even after passage of the law, the government did not constitute ward committees. The law is clear that ward committees are to be constituted within two months of the BBMP election, that happened in March-April 2010. We are almost three years away, but still we don’t have the ward committees in place.

Then came the Solid Waste Management crisis, and the public-interest litigation, in which I have impleaded myself too (on behalf of Loksatta party). During the ongoing hearings in this case, the judges were informed by the lawyers that if the ward committees had been in place, it would have been so much easier to educate citizens about the advantages of segregating waste at home. The judge did a bit of probing, figured out that BBMP and the Urban Development Department had simply been delaying this exercise, and came down on them like a tonne of bricks, ordering the ward committees to be constituted within a week.

That’s why we are in the scramble. As for MLAs who oppose ward committees, they should be able to explain a few things. (a) Why did you vote for it, then? (b) Did you place your opposition on record at the time the bill was moved in Assembly? (c) Considering that the law requires ward committees to be established, what does it mean to say that you don’t think it’s necessary? Is it not necessary to follow the law?

I know the answers even as I raise the questions. In political parties, it is no longer permissible for individual members to have their opinions and vote accordingly in Assembly or Parliament. They have to follow the party line, or they will be expelled – that is the anti-defection law, as it stands. By equating all differences of opinion with dissent, the parties have killed off the meaning of the legislatures. (This is one reason why Loksatta’s party constitution does not allow the use of the party whip in legislatures – we believe that elected representatives should have the right to use their judgement too, and not be bound by a single party line on all issues).

What is the solution? Political parties can reform themselves, if they choose to, by allowing their MLAs and MPs to vote their conscience on all bills (except confidence motions, perhaps). In parallel, we are pushing for this in the courts. Only when the elected representative is freed to act on behalf of his constituents can we really have meaningful democracy.

Ashwin Mahesh is a member of Lok Satta Party, the views expressed here are his own. 


  1. Balasubramanian A. says:

    Good analysis of the issue.The idea of ward committees is good, but the present mode of selection and execution is bad. The people who get selected should be experts in some field of activity, and not a representative of caste or community. No one should be empowered with a Veto. All financial approvals should have a pre-audit by the ward committee.

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