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If you don't vote, don't complain over bad services

February 15, 2012 14:02 IST

Today is the day to mull and tomorrow the day to walk to your polling booth and decide what you want: a good city where there is a compliant corporator or a bad city with an arrogant politician ruling our civic destiny, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Thursday is a momentous day for Maharashtra for in the country's second most urbanised state, ten cities including major ones like Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur, are going to elect their new civic representatives. Good choices would set the standards for governance, for nearly half of the state is urban and more parts are urbanising.

It is no more the time to lament the poor choices hitherto made by them and not people like us -- that is the poor, the slum dwellers -- and wail that politics has come to its nadir and that it was fated. That would be an escapist's as well as a lazy and insular citizen's excuse. Shun that mind set and walk to the polling booth.

So far, this apathy of the citizens, now increasingly vocal but not necessarily active, has enabled the wrong guys from running the cities. They gave shoddy services -- roads to garbage collection -- and   rapaciously looted the cities and claimed to be our city fathers. What they fathered is an ill-begotten culture of politics where citizens did not matter.

The citizens did not matter because they citizens did not and do not care. Only less than half the cities' voters turn out, some of them after great persuasion, often by bribes in cash and booze, promises and claims, and what have got for it? Bad cities made worse by poor governance to which the citizen is never centric.

Now, about the slum dweller monetising his vote. He at least does that and wittingly and unwittingly shapes the course of a city's management practices and its future.  He has his self-interest, of a relationship with the candidate and then the corporator for securing his own protection. To the extent his world of shanties and his life within it, he has made sure things remain the same, if not improve.

The middle classes, and the vocal arm-chair political critics, seem not to have that enlightened self-interest too. It is as if each of them is in a gated community of one, his or her apartment and the rest of the city can go hell. But when it comes to wailing, that million parts of the city they are the loudest, the shrillest. Their actions and their anger don't square.

However, to complain about corrupt practices in the poor sections is misplaced, at least for this elections because even the middle-class housing societies have made deals with the candidates in some cities. In Mumbai, anticipating the scramble among politicians for a seat in the civic body, some asked their buildings in Mumbai to be spruced up. Some demanded and had paver blocks laid in their drives. Others asked them to fund their Ganapati festival, and this hurts a lot: few asked for anything for the locality which was legitimately within the domain of the civic body, from the civic body, via the civic representative. They could have said, get things done and seek our vote. They did not except show the tendency to accept bribes in kind.

This time, however, given the thrust from some active citizens, and their presence on at least a quarter of the ballots in Mumbai, there is a lurking hope that the voter turnout to vent the anger at the traditional politicians and politics could be higher than what was seen in 2007. There are no indications as yet that such larger citizen participation has been forthcoming in other cities and perhaps, Mumbai's trend could strengthen and be an example to others.

In 2007, the voter turnout for the civic elections in this 'sensitive' -- going by the shrill laments at the state of affairs -- Mumbai was a paltry 46 percent and the well-heeled in Colaba showed scant respect for their duties. Only 24 per cent walked to the polling booths and chances are, most of them were from the slums who either redeem their promise to vote for cash, as is generally believed, or believe they have a stake in at least their part of the city.

The voting turnout did not improve in the 2009 elections the Lok Sabha and the state assembly. And look what we have to show for that dereliction of a citizen's duty.

That should wake us up. If the slum dweller can secure his undisturbed future by using his vote, even by other dubious quid pro quos, then why not all of us see the duty to vote, our quid pro being making our cities liveable?

Today is the day to mull and tomorrow the day to walk to your polling booth and decide what you want: a good city where there is a compliant corporator or a bad city with an arrogant politician ruling our civic destiny. Time to rest the mouth, the vocal chords, use the feet to get to the polling station, and use the index finger to press your preferred button on the voting machine. That is our civic duty.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs

Mahesh Vijapurkar