What’s killing Bengaluru is just one word: Politics
Leaders will not do what is best for the city because that means sacrificing their own interests.
Bengaluru happened. With the main water source over a 100 kilometres away, it was never meant to be this bustling a megapolis under serious stress with over 10 million population fuelled by the largest decadal growth of 48 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Trading outpost, military cantonment, pensioner’s paradise, garden city, India’s Silicon valley, garbage city, foaming lakes - all applicable monikers at different points of time. This snapshot of Bengaluru by Indian Institute of Science and Centre for Ecological Sciences captures the environmental havoc caused by the super charged growth of the last two decades.
Managing Bengaluru during a rapid growth phase would have tested the best and brightest leaders and administrators working under a strong institutional structure. In its absence, Bengaluru has encountered the ‘perfect storm’ despite being in a landlocked environment. Three data points are indicative of the urban stress that Bengaluru is facing. Firstly, there is Zipf’s law which suggests a rank-size rule that expects the largest urban centre to be twice as large as the second largest urban centre, thrice as large as the third-largest urban centre and so on. Mysuru, the next largest urban centre in Karnataka, is just a tenth of Bengaluru’s population. During the period between 1991 and 2011, out of every 10 persons added to an urban centre in Karnataka, Bengaluru got 2.4 persons in 1991-2001 and 5.7 during 2001-2011. A study by WRI India showed that in the last six years between 2011 and 2017, Bengaluru city ground-level built-up area has grown by 13 sq km per year on a base of 712 sq km.
Today, it is difficult to say which the centre of the city is. Half of Bengaluru lives outside the Outer Ring Road (ORR) and the growth there is over 3 to 4 per cent per year, while core Bengaluru (within ORR) is witness to near-stagnant growth rates. The infrastructure provisioning is mainly in the core city while the outside areas languish on roads, water, sewerage, transport and more. By any yardstick, Bengaluru will touch 20 million within the next two decades and the challenge to manage this growth is daunting.
Bengaluru is a global brand among the pantheon of cities across the world. If it is to retain and strengthen its brand equity, it needs to work on being a great live-and-work city and focus on improving the quality of life for all its residents. Currently, the common civic woes cited are traffic gridlock, potholed roads, visible garbage, polluted lakes, health/safety concerns and declining public spaces among others. Despite this, there is an influx of people seeking economic opportunities and over 1,200 private vehicles continue to be purchased every day to add to the current 0.7 per person private vehicle ownership. There is an urgent need to embrace new models to grow the city in a sustainable manner.
What Ails Bengaluru?
Cities across India are vassals of the state government. Bengaluru is no exception. There is an overriding influence of the state manifested through weak, one-year ‘titular’ mayors. Control is exercised by the Corporation Commissioner and the multiple state agencies such as the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, transport corporations, power corporations and development authorities. These multiple agencies act as fiefdoms and consequently positive citizen outcomes which need inter-agency planning and coordination (think road cutting/restoration or traffic) are impacted.
Citizens have no voice in the current system with farcical ward committees. There is a trust deficit and over half the property tax potential is not realised. Corruption is rampant and rarely is anyone held accountable for the state of the city. Competent urban professionals in the system are rare and there is negligible training for existing staff. The operations and finances of the corporation and other civic agencies are opaque and shrouded in secrecy. The static Master Plan process with its focus on land use and zonal regulations has failed the city. In three decades of master planning, open spaces have declined from 25 per cent to 4 per cent.
Solutions Since 2000
During 2000-04, the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF) was set up by the Chief Minister. BATF took the route of half yearly accountability summits and working with seven government agencies on specific city projects including property tax, infrastructure, waste management, Geographic Indication System and public toilets among others. In 2008, the Kasturirangan Committee report for Bengaluru’s governance was tabled. It recommended setting up of the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) as set out in the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), a directly elected mayor and more citizen participation. Agenda for Bangalore Development (ABIDe) was set up during 2008-13 which made suggestions through a Plan Bengaluru 2020 and introduced direction-oriented buses. In 2014, the state government set up a three-member expert committee to restructure the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in an effort to fix Bengaluru’s governance and administration. One non-governmental effort in Bengaluru through Bangalore City Connect during 2007-16 resulted in new-age city roads (Tender SURE) built around the pedestrian and life cycle cost principles (Disclosure: the author was a member of BATF, BBMP Restructuring and Bangalore City Connect).
Bengaluru’s Governance And Administration Reimagined
The BBMP Restructuring Committee recommendations (www.bbmprestructuring.org) through 10 reports are reasonably exhaustive about the way forward. The mandate was setting out the ‘scaffolding’ needed for building the Bengaluru of the future. Done right, it will address the woes of traffic, garbage, water, lakes, pollution, roads, flooding, safety, health and education, and grow the work economy in an inclusive manner.
To fix Bengaluru, we need to reform the city corporation, BBMP, and look at the overall landscape which includes myriad other agencies tasked with planning, transport, water, sewerage, lakes, traffic, safety, roads and power among others. We need an appropriate mix of decentralisation and integration. And any solution needs to be consistent with the spirit of the 74th CAA.
The future of Indian cities lies in a city-region framework across the entire state. Each region should ideally have an anchor city and three to four nodal towns with high connectivity, which function as ‘live and work’ economies. To make Bengaluru (712 sq km) work, the 8,000 sq km Bengaluru Metropolitan Region is suggested as the ‘chowkidar’ and be the MPC as mandated by the CAA.
At the Bengaluru city level, a three-tier framework is suggested. At the apex level, it has the Greater Bengaluru Authority (GBA) which is the integrator across the City Corporation and the multiple civic agencies. They would be tasked with planning for the city and coordinating actions across agencies for desired outcomes. City scale activities such as transport would be anchored here. A directly elected mayor (five-year term limit) would head the GBA in due course with the Chief Minister being in charge initially. The CM as head was suggested initially since there are a host of legacy challenges created through setting up 'para-statal' agencies in the city as state instruments, which need to be resolved in terms of respecting the GBA as the ultimate city authority. Once done, a directly elected mayor will have the necessary authority to run the GBA and can be held accountable.
At the mid-tier, five corporations, with two administrative zones each, is suggested. This is part of the political and administrative decentralisation needed. The current BBMP is too large and unwieldy to be managed as a single entity. With multiple corporations, corporators will be closer to their constituents and local issues can be raised and resolved in smaller units. The Mayor in Council would head these corporations and be supported by a Commissioner as chief executive. This is distinctly different from the current system which is effectively run by a single commissioner.
At the third tier lies ward governance reforms for deep decentralisation and citizen participation. An innovative 20-member ward committee structure has been set out - 10 political representatives through proportional representation (every 10 per cent vote share in the corporation ward election gets a representative seat) and 10 from resident welfare associations (RWAs), vulnerable groups and non-governmental organisations with applicable quota rules. The current system of veto power with the Corporator needs to go.
A city finance commission would ensure parity among the different corporations based on their own resources and needs. A city services ombudsman would address citizen grievances by way of directing the respective civic agencies. Currently, Bengaluru is governed by Karnataka Municipal Act, which is also applicable for a three-lakh city such as Tumakuru. We need a separate act for a mega city like Bengaluru and a detailed draft bill based on the above framework is ready for consideration. The committee also put out recommendations for updated cadre and recruitment rules for BBMP, a strategic planning framework to replace the current Master Plan approach, a municipalisation committee for proactive fixing of urban villages on the outskirts, setting up a spatial information centre and methods for innovative land procurement for public purposes on a win-win basis.
So, what’s holding up fixing Bengaluru’s governance and administration?
In one word, politics. The way this set of detailed, nuanced recommendations has played out as expected in our Twitter era, is described in a simplistic summary as follows:
“Bengaluru is being split and we cannot allow that. It would be disrespect to the Founder, Kempegowda’s vision”.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything, following these recommendations will help strengthen brand Bengaluru where the GBA acts as the city planner and integrator across agencies and decentralisation would allow greater citizen control over their destiny. Further, BBMP is not Bengaluru and Bengaluru is not just BBMP, particularly with so many civic agencies outside its remit. BBMP needs serious reform and multiple corporations is the way to go. London, for instance, has 32 boroughs and is among the world’s best cities.
There is a deeper issue, however. While the 73rd Constitutional Amendment ushered in the more successful panchayati raj for rural India with its three distinct levels of local government, cities have been emasculated and there is no true third tier of local urban government despite the 74th CAA. Successive state leaders have shied away from empowering the city government since it’s the cash cow that they would rather control. Unless there is a bipartisan consensus across political parties, one does not see this ever getting resolved. Also, our politics tends to be geriatric. One way could be to interest young scions of the political dynasties to prevail on their elders to allow them an earlier entry through city politics by making city government more powerful. It needs to be noted that in an earlier era, leaders such as Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Bose and Nehru cut their teeth as heads of city corporations. Giving more powers to city governments will incentivise more citizens to be part of city electoral politics.
Many citizens and RWAs believe that just administrative decentralisation at the corporation level will yield results, which is not true. The current system in Bengaluru is super centralised in the office of the Corporation Commissioner and most joint commissioners neither have the capability or the stomach to exercise any discretion in their job and bear the consequences. We need political decentralisation at the corporation/ward level and appropriate centralisation at the city level.
As Indian cities struggle to meet even basic needs in the times of Smart City programmes as a panacea for our woes, we must revisit the existing governance and administrative power structures in urban India. There is a serious need for reform with differential approaches for mega cities such as Bengaluru. Our end solutions can take various shapes based on specific requirements but at its heart it must be grounded in political empowerment of the third tier of local city government and demanding accountability based on empowerment.