With the recent High Court order on April 24th that asked the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to constitute ward committees within a month, the decades-long efforts by the State Government and the BBMP to stall their constitution have come to an end. The 74th Constitutional Amendment (CA) or Nagarapalika Act was passed in 1992, exactly 25 years ago, to give “Power to the People” and bring in decentralisation, transparency, accountability and people’s participation in urban local bodies (ULBs).

The State’s conformity legislation to implement the 74th CA was passed in 1994 through an amendment to the KMC Act. Formation of ward committees was an important feature of the 74th CA in cities with more than three lakh population. The Rules of constituting ward committees in municipal corporations of Karnataka were passed in the year 1997. But no effort was made to constitute the first ward committees in the then BMP. They were constituted for the first time in 1999, that too due to civil society insistence. However, no functional WCs have ever been set up in the other municipal corporations of Karnataka where civil society pressure is not as strong as in Bengaluru. 

The WCs that came into existence in 1999 were there till 2001 up to the time when the council's term got over. Despite elections in 2001 to the BMP, ward committees were set up only in 2003, again due to CSO pressure, and were in existence till 2006 when their term too ended with that of the council. 

Political nominations galore

Since the 74th CA left the manner of constituting WCs to the State governments, Karnataka opted for nominating the members which led to political nominees occupying the posts. To fill the two posts for associations working in the WC area, Wrestlers' Associations and Ganesha Festival Committees were nominated against which CIVIC Bangalore filed a PIL objecting to their nomination. With the term of the WCs ending before a judgment could be pronounced on the issue, the case became infructuous. Studies were done on the functioning of the WCs which showed internal squabbling within the committees, absence of regular meetings and lack of citizen involvement.

When CSOs conveyed to the Centre the poor implementation of the 74th CA in the State, the Ministry of Urban Development sent a Model Community Participation Law in 2005 to be implemented by the State as a conditionality for releasing funds under the JnNURM. A fresh Amendment was mooted to the KMC Act in Feb 2011 to make it more participatory to fulfil the conditionality under JnNURM. But who would have known that the State would weaken the conformity legislation even further by giving veto powers to the councillor on the ward committee in its KMC Amdt. Act of 2011?

Since 2011, CSOs did not push for the formation of ward committees as they wanted the veto power given to councillors in the KMC Amdt. Act of Feb 2011 to be removed first. An UD Minister had agreed to remove the veto power and also set up a committee to revise the entire conformity legislation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment at a state-level consultation called by CSOs. But when nothing was done to remove the veto power, a protest was organised by several CSOs before the Town Hall led by Sri H. S. Doreswamy, but to no avail. 

Garbage PIL rakes up ward committee debate

Meanwhile when a PIL was filed in 2012 questioning the heaps of garbage that remained uncleared in Bangalore due to the villages around refusing to take Bangalore’s garbage, the absence of WCs which could have solved the problem locally was raised in the Court.  The Court ordered that ward committees should be set up within a week on 8th January 2013 but realised that no fresh rules had been framed and ordered that they should be framed within a month. This is the reason why ward committees could not function in 2013 though they were set up and held a meeting each.  Rules framed in 1997 became invalid once another amendment was made to the KMC Act in Feb. 2011. The Court hence ordered that Rules should be framed within one month.

CSOs which had impleaded themselves in the garbage case took the lead in presenting civil society's suggestions on the fresh Rules to be framed for the ward committees to the Urban Development Department. As per Court orders, CSOs were also asked to train all the councillors on the 74th Amdt. and the KMC Amdt. Act of 2011 in 2014.

When CSOs voiced in the Court that their suggestions on the Rules were not being heeded by UDD, the Court asked the UD Secretary to  have consultations with all those who wished to make suggestions and report back on action taken to the Court. Hence four consultations were held by the UD Secretary. 

Rules miss important points

Five Draft Rules were published by UDD at intervals between 2013 and 2016, but none of them were finalised. Despite Court monitoring, the fresh Rules were ultimately finalised only on 22nd June 2016.

Two important suggestions that CIVIC had made to the Rules, namely, that a 5-year ward vision plan should be made in every ward with citizens' participation, taking into account  the Human Development Index and  Social and Physical Infrastructure Indicies of the ward, and that outcomes should be measured through a Performance Management System based on indicators were included in one of the Draft Rules. These two good points were sadly completely removed when there was an objection by a CSO that these terms were difficult to understand. But luckily, the same recommendations, that were given to the Review Committee that revised the Panchayat Raj Act,  have been incorporated in the new PR Act profitably.

On the recommendations made by CSOs, based on their experience with the functioning of previous ward committees, the following additions have been made to the Rules:  that if the chairman fails to call a WC meeting in a month, one-third of the ward committee members can requisition the chairman in writing to convene a meeting; that the Secretary of the WC shall “ensure follow-up action and provide Action Taken Reports on all resolutions of the WC;  that WCs shall recommend to the corporation for disciplinary action on those officers who fail to carry out resolutions of the Ward Committee; that videography of the meeting may be done by the public to ensure transparency in the WC meetings; that a link shall be provided on the Corporation’s website for each ward and that minutes of the WC meetings shall be uploaded there in a timely fashion.

Yet another direction to set up ward committees

On the recommendation that the WC should hold monthly Janaspandana (grievance redressal) meetings, the Rules merely say, that citizens should approach the chairman or WC member for any issue related to the ward, and if no action is taken, they should complain to the Commissioner. This hardly provides any relief to citizens as one crore citizens cannot line up before the Commissioner with their grievances.

The RDPR Minister attempted to get the chairman of a Grama Panchayat disqualified by the Divisional Commissioner if he failed to conduct the prescribed number of grama sabha meetings, but this was vehemently opposed by rural elected representatives. Hence CSOs suggested that the Chairman in an urban ward committee should be disqualified if a majority of WC members or Area Sabhas vote for recalling him if he does not conduct three consecutive meetings of the WC. But this suggestion too has been given the go-by by rule-framers.

No hearings of the court were held for more than 10 months thereafter. When they were resumed in April 2017, the Court ordered for the second time that the WCs should be set up within a month.

Immediately, the Mayor asked all 198 councillors to give up ten names each to form the ward committees in their wards.  But as per Section 13H(2)(b) of the KMC (Amdt.) Act of 2011, the WC members are to be “nominated by the Corporation” (whatever that means) but it does not say that councillors are to recommend the names. As has happened earlier and is likely to happen again, councillors will nominate only ‘Yes-men’ close to them and vitiate the entire purpose of these committees, which is to make the councillor accountable to citizens of the ward.  When this possibility was conveyed to the Court, the Court gave an oral order that not all names should be chosen from the list submitted by the councillors, that other suggestions by citizens should also be considered and that all areas of a ward should be given equitable representation.

Political nominations imminent

The ward committees are supposed to mandatorily have at least two individual SC/STs and three women, any other three individuals. Two registered associations, which, as per Section 13H(2)(b)(iii)(b) (sic), “shall represent majority of residents, or civic groups or commercial groups or industrial groups” are also to be nominated. There is no specific mention that associations or trade unions of the urban poor, such as that of slum-dwellers or street vendors, should be nominated. When the task of nominating associations has been left to councillors, they have been nominating temple trusts and caste-based groups to these posts!

Another provision in the Act for constituting Area Sabhas in which every voter in that area can participate in planning for her area in a bottom-up process which are to be collated by WCs has not at all been implemented. That poses to be another challenge and fight for CSOs!

Despite the several inadequacies in the Act and Rules, it is important to get the WC’s going as a first step and for RWAs and CSOs to attend the WC meetings, videograph them and publicise the minutes and resolutions passed so that citizens get to know what is happening in their wards even if all of them are unable to participate in the activities in the absence of the Area Sabhas.