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Civic irresponsibility and scandals

August 19, 2009 16:02 IST

As far as civic governance goes, it cannot get worse than this: the Pune Municipal Corporation has allowed developers to put up building after building and not provided water supply to the structures.

However, to save its skin, the civic body obtained affidavits from the builder-developers that supply of water to these new buildings sanctioned by the civic body would not be the civic body's responsibility.

Under the Bombay Provincial Municipal Corporations Act, 1949, it is the responsibility of the civic body to provide the requisite facilities -- they call it infrastructure these days -- for the comfortable living of the citizens. The facilities include drinking water. The extant preconditions have no validity in law.

Worse

It gets worse here: the builders filed such affidavits and secured the permissions to develop colonies but in most cases, did not inform the flat buyers about this precondition they had complied with. The flat owners were charged for water fetched in tankers and when independent societies were formed, the maintenance expenses zoomed.

The beneficiaries of this civic body's irresponsibility are of course the builders and the business which ferries water from questionable sources; one never knows if the water is fit to drink -- no tests, no approvals, nothing whatsoever. The cruel twist is that these buildings in many cases have been charged for water by the civic body!

Scandals abound

Scandals and civic bodies, given the official venality, political corruption and builder's avarice, are not far apart. A team of Pune-based journalists led by Abhay Vaidya ferreted out this and asked all concerned to account for the affected citizens' plight. This scandal has been in place since 2001. They questioned the temerity of the smug alliance between the developers and the civic authorities.

Till they dug into it, this scandal was flourishing. Until someone now goes to the high court and seeks reprieve for themselves, punishment for the builders-developers and the civic body in a class action suit, this would continue to be in vogue. The people involved are immune to public opinion; only the courts can set them right.

What happened in Pune happens in most growing cities and the number of borewell diggers is an index of a city or town's inability and even unwillingness to perform its legitimate, mandated duty. During the late 1960s, Justices Krishna Iyer and O Chinnappa Reddy had told the Ratlam Municipality that no excuse, including lack of funds because of the burden of civic staff's salary was acceptable; the primary responsibility was to provide civic services.

Benchmark

That benchmark judgement had said, "Statutes operates against statutory bodies and others regardless of the cash in their coffers even as human rights under part three of the Constitution have to be respected by the state regardless of budgetary provisions. Otherwise, a profligate statutory body or pachydermic government agency may legally defy duties under the law by urging in self-defence a self-created bankruptcy or perverted expenditure budget. That cannot be."

Include in that philosophy the crass inefficiency in planning and everything is clear: a civic body cannot shirk its responsibility. There are no excuses left. It is not bound to approve plans for new colonies when it does not have roads, water, drains, garbage collection etc. in place. The infrastructure, in excess of demand, has to be the forerunner of all new projects. Or else, the civic body may as well as close shop.

Doesn't hold water

The Pune civic body's explanation has been that if new areas had to be colonised, and water supply infrastructure was not in place, then the builder has to step in. Which builder, it remains to be asked, would undertake the responsibility for life? He would, if he does not pass on the tanker bills to the residents, only such time the societies are formed. Then he escapes.

Try naming the builders who have been prosecuted for infringement of laws and rules in force in any civic body's jurisdiction. You are hardly likely to name half-a-dozen because an incestuous relationship bars that possibility.

Even in its subterfuge, the Pune civic body has been naive. One can guess how this racket was formed -- quick arrangements for easy facilitation for the builders to put up and sell the property. Given the deviations from plans, the irregularities including building more floors than normal et al, which are common to this sector, it is clear that the builders are the most influential people. When they can influence government, what are civic bodies?

I recall a conversation with Arun Gujarathi, a former urban development minister who later served a term as a Speaker. He had estimated that in all civic bodies, small or big, half of the membership of the elected component comprised either builders or their henchmen who were sleeping partners in the construction businesses. My guess is that most concerned officials were also not just vulnerable but compliant.

Ubiquitous tankers

Closer to Mumbai, the sprawl across Vasai-Virar, an idyllic space which wanted to preserve its green status opposed the encroachment of the builder-developer mafias for long but their resistance crumbled before the onslaught of the urban planners who are only now beginning to meet the expanded water demand. Water tankers ruled the roost there for long and even now, in the newer developments in Thane city, water tankers trundling along the roads to empty their contents into the sumps of building societies is a common sight.

If the population of the Vasai, Virar and Navghar civic bodies -- councils, not corporations -- oppose their merger into a larger, monolithich civic corporation because their combined populations have crossed three lakh, they have a good reason. They do not want to pay higher taxes for non-existent services. They are happy with the disarray of their own which costs them less.

It is hard to fault this logic.

Pelf, not duty

Of course, possibly another hidden logic to this if true, could be worrisome. Each of the smaller civic bodies now sought to be melded into one corporation dismantles a superstructure of corruption built assiduously at the expense of the citizenry. This multi-nodal arrangement would be replaced by a larger one, with those tiny lordships who ruled their turfs with all the cosiness it afforded them comfort and the alignments could change, not necessarily to uniform satisfaction.

None, it should be realised, is asking for a reform in the manner in which civic bodies are run. Surprising that the landmark judgement delivered in the country's first public interest litigation by Justices Iyer and Reddy are not being resurrected to fight for efficiency for the citizens' benefit.

A price would be paid unremittingly into the future for that expensive error.

Mahesh Vijapurkar