The BBMP bill – an opportunity to redefine city government?

The disconnect between nature, people and governance in cities, have reduced cities into uninhabitable spaces. This needs urgent correction. The BBMP bill is an excellent opportunity to reimagine urban governance. Moeover, any legislation has to meet the challenges of it's time: A Green Agenda has to be not only part of, but at the core of any urban governance bill.

Note: The edited version of the article, published on 14 Oct 2020, has been replaced by the version submitted and subsequently modified by the author himself. The author had contested the copy edits made by Citizen Matters prior to publishing.

A revamp of the city government was long overdue; our freedom fighters had led a long struggle for Swaraj, ie., Self Rule, which has eluded entire generations, due to the centralized nature of government adopted by our constitution. Cities and towns in India, have in administrative terms, remained colonies of their respective State Govts, giving the residents of the cities little to no say in the way they are governed;  citizens have been forced to remain mere bystanders, as they watched their dear cities degenerate into polluted, congested and unhealthy sprawls.  The 74th amendment, legislated as an afterthought for local govt in urban areas in 1992, has been ignored by all governments, and has not been implemented by a single city. 

The resulting state of disconnect between the cities and its residents have reduced the latter’s relationship with the city to that of consumers/parasites, instead of responsible citizens who feel a sense of ownership or pride in their city!

Why a BBMP Bill?  

The Karnataka Govt has introduced the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Bill in the state legislature as fresh legislation for Bengaluru’s governance. The bill has been referred to a joint select committee to hold discussions on various aspects, but all we hear are noises concerning the mayor’s term and the number of wards. Are these really the key issues, or are there more fundamental questions to ask?  

The Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), although sounding grandiose, has remained a nominal body with no serious legislative, planning, or administrative powers. The demand for such a new law for Bengaluru is motivated by the premise that the present governance paradigm fails on many levels; it is a reaction to the tragic consequences of mis-governance that citizens face today such as: 

  • Pollution and degeneration of our natural habitat 
  • Reduction of our green cover from a healthy 70% to just 3% in 5 decades, 
  • Runaway unplanned development that has turned the once beautiful ‘garden city’ into a ‘concrete desert’, 
  • Lack of stewardship and environmental responsibility that has reduced what was once a ‘city of thousand life-giving lakes’ to one with a few large septic tanks that are best avoided;  DAY ZERO is looming on this once self sufficient city 
  • A complete lack of holistic and sustainable urban planning, resulting in faulty public infrastructure, overpopulation, crowding and congestion

All of these cramp the human potential and quality of life of all residents.

What are the real problems of governance in Bengaluru? Does the proposed BBMP bill promise to be transformative enough to meet the challenge of reviving Bengaluru, of retrieving our dear city from this mess? 

Some historical shortcomings

1) Lack of an aspirational vision:  Our constitution and it’s directive principles spell out a vision for what kind of a nation we need to build. But, do we ever hear of what our city is envisioned to be? Do we build a healthy city? A sustainable city? A green city? A happy city? An inclusive city?  No, we don’t!  And that’s why we have never worked towards these! Luckily for Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bengaluru, his mother gave him that vision in just one line: “Keregalam kattu, marangalam nedu”, ie., “Build lakes, plant trees”. The reason we are here today is thanks to his mother’s vision. But in modern times, our lack of vision has destroyed the beautiful city our predecessors imagined and built for us.  

2) Lack of understanding:  Governance is the art of the practical. A city has limits, a city has a huge physical impact, and if there is no acknowledgment of either, then we set ourselves up for failure. Only a proper understanding of ecology and planning to keep it habitable will ensure a healthy city. Our city govt lacks all of these.  Also, very important is an understanding of the functions of the city, and how populations interact with the city.  A top down approach to development has ensured that the processes and knowledge that defined and evolved this city are totally ignored, be they economic, social, geographical, cultural, or traditional.  Real life activities such as informal markets, street vending, footpaths are ignored, and characterless roads and infrastructure have been replacing them, leading to eternal conflicts.  Sustainable watershed management of lakes has given way to importing water from far away sources such as rivers, etc., 

3) Jurisdiction and manageability:  As a city grows, it impacts the entire district. However, we have had a short-sighted practice of setting city limits for the city govt, and then the surrounding areas are governed by different laws (BBMP, BBMP Urban, BBMP Rural). These differences lead to speculative investments just across the city limits in adjoining villages and taluks; leading to urban sprawl and unplanned development putting serious pressure on those areas as well as creating congestion in the city. Even wards are so badly delimited, the only parameter being population, and no other important parameters such as geography and manageability of the ward, watershed, etc.,

4) Lack of planning:  The 74th amendment prescribes that a Metropolitan Planning Committee duly constituted with people’s representation, which consolidates ground-up planning by area sabhas and ward planning committees, generate the Masterplan for the city. But the State Govt has been appointing parastatal agencies like BDA to create the Masterplan, which is illegal. The bigger challenge is resolving the disconnect between the planning authority and the executive.  Even worse, there is no capacity building, there are no urban planners or transport planners employed by the city govt or any agency that plans for the city; as a result, every intervention in the city is on a project oriented approach, which breaks down the functionality of the city, that has evolved over centuries.  At one level this leads to mindless projects, and at another level it leads to the collapse of entire systems, such as the rajakaluve-lake system which supported the water security of the city for centuries.

The lack of an integrated, holistic masterplan, which includes a transport plan, sees the city administration and state govt resort to ad-hoc projects that do not solve any problem systemically; this leaves the field open to vested interests to interfere and influence the city through dubious consultants, lobbies and infrastructure peddlers, in the garb of NGOs, and the city is at the mercy of the infamous consultant-contractor-politician-manufacturer NEXUS.  Solutions are imposed on the city to benefit some business, and then later authorities try to match problems to it.  Examples are the expensive Metro project, which is ill-planned, and imitates the existing rail network.  Heinous examples are the hare-brained projects such as Steel Bridge, Elevated corridors and Taxi Pods projects, which citizens thankfully protested against and stopped.  

The city thus keeps getting more and more dysfunctional, and excludes rather than includes all of its population, disempowering various segments, particularly vulnerable, poor, aged, sick, women and children.

5) Lack of legislative and executive powers:  The BBMP at present is only an executor of laws created by the state legislature and in a very limited domain. It has absolutely no powers to legislate on the myriad issues that play out in its jurisdiction. Hence, it becomes a paper tiger and the political class also does not take it seriously. 

6) Lack of citizen engagement: Citizens are neither engaged not consulted in any decision that affects their lives directly, be it land use planning, control over commons, decisions that affect the ecology, or policy decisions that impact the city in every way. This has disconnected citizens to a point where they live a parasitic existence in the city. The non-involvement of public in decision-making reduces oversight, resulting in rampant corruption and poor decision-making.

7) Bengaluru is a parastatal jungle:  Let’s face it, Bengaluru’s governance is a total mess, due to the multiplicity of agencies, that do not even talk to each other.  The state govt keeps intervening in the city by creating parastatals to carry out projects, overlapping and undermining the city govt; some of them are the BDA, BMRDA, BWSSB, KRDCL, BESCOM, BMTC, DULT, BMRCL, and various depts of Karnataka Govt also employ direct authority.  Effectively, this translates into multiple governments in this city; the local govt has no primacy over the city, and no control over how the city is managed. Information exists in islands, often replicated or conflicting.

8) Outdated methods: As one of the IT capitals of the world, it is shameful that the power of GIS mapping and modelling and are not utilised for planning this city itself. Information is created in islands and is not available to all arms of govt or to citizens, leading to mismanagement, replication and very often conflicts. While there is a huge wealth of information and knowledge among citizens, the Govt does not leverage this to improve governance.

So, the big question: Will the new BBMP bill attempt to solve these?  If not, it’s just another wasteful exercise!   

A few recommendations: 

Time is running out, the city is crumbling; the Karnataka Govt needs to take the bull by its horns.  This is what it needs to do:    

1) Any legislation has to respond to the challenges of its times.  

We are going through a critical time, facing both global and local challenges, such as the Climate Emergency, pandemics, deforestation, degeneration, pollution, water security, liveability, and widespread health challenges.  The BBMP bill has to re-imagine the idea of a city government and reposition the BBMP as the steward of the city, one that is tasked with the sustainability and regeneration of the city.  Nothing less is acceptable.  A green agenda should not just be part of, but should form the core of any urban governance bill.  An ‘Ecology plan’ should form the basis of the ‘Master plan’ for the city, with a strong emphasis on ‘localization’ and ‘community engagement’, especially for water and waste management, food security, energy, mobility, land use, etc., It should include a directive for capacity building through employment of ecologists, urban planners and transport planners in every department, to ensure sustainable planning and development.

3) Define limits:  A clear outer limit needs to be set on the growth of the city. Establish laws that do not allow growth beyond the ‘bio-limit’ of the city’s geography. Establish a framework of development that is within sustainable parameters, based on local resources and ecology.  

4) Responsibility:  A metropolis has impact way beyond the city itself, it affects life and environment for hundreds if not thousands of Kilometres beyond its boundaries, due to its hunger for energy, and resources. Hence, it has a responsibility towards the world. Laws must be instituted to penalize the import of resources and incentivize the use of local renewable resources, to encourage sustainable living, and to limit its carbon footprint.

5) SWARAJ and Decolonisation Agenda:  Devolution of powers to Local Govt needs to be complete. In all matters related to planning, legislation, execution, and administration of the city, the sole power should be BBMP, it should include vital functions such as law and order, mobility/transport, essential public services, social development, community building, education, health, power, water, food security, environment, etc., And take the state govt out of the equation. 

Nomenclature, positions and power structures that were inherited from a centralised colonial administration/thinking need to be dismantled, the commons have to be returned to the communities.  True decentralisation needs to percolate to the lowest levels, empowering area sabhas, wards, etc., with elected members in each of these, and the BBMP council should transform into a city republic. Local wards and area sabhas not only should have powers, but also responsibilities to steward and manage local ecological services and resources.

Citizen engagement should be an essential part of decision making. Public Consultation should be mandatory for all legislations and projects.

6) Remove conflicts:  Merge all parastatal agencies with the BBMP to streamline administration.  Restrict State agencies and departments from city administration and from planning and executing projects for the city.

7) Public Information and data access:  Unify all databases and geographical and spatial information maps infrastructure. Open source them, and have them in the public domain to ensure transparency and to inculcate public ownership. Use latest tools for GIS maps and solution modelling and planning.

8) Holistic jurisdiction:   it would be wise for the bill to address the entire district of Bengaluru under one law, to avoid the tangled mess of multiple jurisdictions, and to allow for holistic planning of the district, applying ecological principles, and establishing distinct urban zones, and green zones, rural zones, etc., with specific restraints, to prevent urban sprawls, and unplanned growth.  

9)  The Planning Imperative:  A fresh new way of planning needs to be prioritised, that treats the city as a living entity.  Planning should follow life and processes of the community, instead of imposing on it.  Local traditional wisdom that ensured resilience for thousands of years, should be re-adopted, infusing life back into the concretised landscape.  The organic growth of the city and its surroundings, as a city of villages, needs to be honored, and leveraged as a framework.  Each village/ward needs its own planning zones and resilience, defined by its own planning committees. Capacity building to undertake this in terms of education and awareness generation should be the priority of the BBMP.

9) Unschooling of Democracy:  Where do citizens learn governance and public leadership? Democracy like all other relevant life skills, cannot be imparted in schools or by NGOs or through books or civics text books. It is learnt by immersion in real activities, by participation in the community and processes of governance, interacting with public departments, dealing with people, environment and issues, and lobbying with representatives and govt mechanisms to shape decisions and policies, ie., by taking ownership of the community’s destiny! The Area sabhas and Ward committees are the nearest arm of real governance for a citizen, to both engage and shape a community’s future. This is where citizens can cut their teeth in democratic participation, and those publicly inclined can progress further in politics with a sound foundation.

The ward committees and Area sabhas, need to be democratic exercises, the members of these committees need to be elected in local elections, instead of being nominated. This would further provide opportunities to novices to obtain experience in the real dynamics of public representation, and inculcate the spirit of democratic traditions among both the members and citizens. It would provide learning opportunity at the grassroots, the BBMP thus functioning as incubators for democracy, and the breeding grounds for capable and visionary future leaders for the state and for the nation! Committee members, corporators, councillors are the future mayors, MLAs and MPs of the country.

This is potentially the most important role of the BBMP, in fostering democratic learning and culture among citizens, as it is the most immediate arm of the government.  If we lack quality politicians at the state and national level today, it is the price we have paid for not empowering the foundation of our democracy – ‘local government’. 

10) And finally… The mayor’s term and the number of wards: By now it is obvious that these are the least difficult of all the questions;  the answers to these are really simple: 

  • Yes, we require a full-term mayor.
  • And wards have to be of manageable size, smaller the better. Converting the de-facto old village boundary to ward boundary might be the simplest and most effective solution.
  • There should be no limit to the total number of wards. 

But wait, its not final… “Where is the democracy in this bill for democracy?

There’s just one more vital point to consider: This is an exercise to enhance our democratic culture. Do we need to be stress that the legislation should itself be framed democratically through a comprehensive and transparent public consultation? Lest we lose sight of the objective of the bill, which is to create an inclusive governance paradigm that allows every resident to take ownership and pride in being Bangalorean.  

So, in ending, “Where is the ‘Public Consultation’ oh employees of the people?

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This article is an expanded version of one that was published in the Times of India on the 4th of Oct 2020:


  1. Rajashri says:

    The author has been posting all over social media that he has withdrawn permission to publish this article. Why are you publishing it and violating his wishes/rights?

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