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Of patronage and failed civic governance

June 10, 2009 16:10 IST

Close to the last weekend, elected representatives of the Shiv Sena, including a legislator, their local head, and those who got elected to the Thane Municipal Corporation did what the civic body's normal machinery ought to have done regularly, efficiently and effectively but never quite managed to. They went around in patrol, with civic anti-encroachment staff in tow, to clear the roadsides and footpaths of the hawkers.

That is because the encroached roads discouraged the construction of the Station Area Traffic Improve Scheme aimed at easier access to and quick dispersal of the over million commuters who take local trains from there to south Mumbai destinations. That this kind of mindless encroachments, encouraged by the very politicians who literally took the stick in their hands, was one reason why traffic to and from the station was impeded is another story.

Sena-style

Local newspapers specifically described it as 'Sena-style treatment' to the hawkers. That is a polite set of media words to use of muscle and force without official sanction. Mumbai's history of street-level politics is replete with sufficient instances for me to explain it to the already familiar citizenry. That it happened over three days is an issue of concern.

Concern, not because it happened but because it had to happen. This perhaps is the first instance of the politicians realising that they had been riding a tiger for far too long and that to get off that animal, they would need to pay the costs. The costs were paid by losing face by politicians of all hues and ideological denominations who patronised the hawkers for pelf and vote.

The only difference between the Sena -- and include the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in this genre of management -- and other political parties is that the others take the dough and go but don't take to the streets to undo the damage their own involvement has done to the city. That does not absolve them of sabotaging the system for gains. The only saving grace is that the strong-arm politicians made a bid to save the multi-crore rupee SATIS.

Reasons why

But why did this happen? There are two reasons. One, the hawkers who pitched permanent businesses on arterial roads close to the most crowded areas did so because they paid protection money to the employees -- police to civic body plus the local goon who had affiliation to politicians and were actually their collection agents. Two, by encouraging this, the civic administration was weakened to an extent it had no role left except to collect haftas and for the record, carry out notional anti-encroachment drives.

This is not exclusive to Thane. Go to any railway station which serves the commuter traffic across the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region which encompasses six corporations, 13 municipal councils and nearly 1,000 villages and you would see the crush at the access. I half suspect that this crush is less of an issue and the real problem is the constriction of access because of civic neglect of the encroachment issue. Footpaths, they and courts should know, are for walking, not doing business.

Deliberate misrule

My quarrel is not so much with this 'Shiv Sena-style' campaign as with the virtual non-existence of the civic rule across the metropolitan region. It is as if allowing illegal structures to come up, providing pot-holed roads, inadequate drinking water, a semblance of medicare, notional educational through ramshackle schools, allowing stray dogs to roam, hawkers to colonise foothpaths, slums to emerge on any land, and allowing garbage to pile up on the streets means a civic duty done. Even in collection of octroi, there are huge leaks.

The hawkers and the garbage are the visible manifestations of civic administrations everywhere because this is where the environment impinges on the citizens' well-being which does not come by gawking at shiny multi-storeyed office blocs and residential buildings. But politics of patronage and pelf has got so deep rooted in civic governance to an extent that governance by rule and duty stands nullified. It is as good as not having civic bodies conducting the civic affairs.

Cartels of interests

It is as if cartels of interests which decide that they themselves matter more than the citizens and their rights for which they have paid for in property tax, water rates etc. It is as if the corporator and the official is the purpose and everything, despite the pretence of being people-oriented, has to feed their maws. Nothing else explains this disorder, if not chaos in the entire MMR. The philosophy seems to opt for new fangled projects instead of setting old problems right.

You can't access the station or cross a highway because of clogged footpaths or traffic? Then build a multi-crore skywalk. You can't widen the road to meet heavier traffic? Then reduce the width of the sidewalk and allow more space to the carriageway for vehicles. You can't have the traffic moving because of the frequent crossing of these highways that cut through cities and almost become main streets? Then build barriers which forces a kilometre long detour by the pedestrian who otherwise employs the simple trick of just scaling over the barrier.

For whom?

One often wonders if the civic bodies are incorporated for the benefit of the contractors as well because they work in sloth, do sub-standard work and for illustration, just look at roads. A crisis before a monsoon that remains unresolved every year through the rains. Not unless the high court intervenes does the thick hide of the officialdom gets pricked and then the excuses, the patchwork and the shoddy work starts. Why the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, according the media reports, does not blacklist contractors who brought it huge embarrassments in the past.

But when the embarrassments are easily translatable into money for the officialdom and the elected representatives across the civic bodies anywhere, it hardly matters if the courts pass a stricture or two. These worthies have a great psychology working for them: they treat it as a wrap on the knuckle of the institutions they run and not a slap on their corporeal faces. That keeps them smiling after a shrug and then get involved in 'solving' the problem 'the courts have thrown up'.

Lavish beyond imagination

I know of corporators in the MMR region who are warlords of their wards and not even can a builder defy them despite the bribes they seek and secure. The sand and such like inputs for construction has to be bought only from specified, favoured vendors. Their homes have a single slab of marble covering a spacious drawing room. Businesses coming up in their bailiwick have to have them or their nominees as sleeping partners in return for protection which means little or no harassment from the officials.

And we call this devolution of powers, and on paper exult that we have local self governments while what is happening is that a whole new mafia of officialdom and politicians with nexus to every unholy aspect of civilised life flourishing. The tragedy is that even voters can't throw them out because the vicious grip of patronage. When the system has been sabotaged, only way things get done is by patronage. And recipient of patronage has to just shut up, grin and bear it and vote the rascal back to power in the civic body.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a commentator and former deputy editor of The Hindu.

Mahesh Vijapurkar