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What price the civic elections?

January 19, 2012 15:40 IST

Once civic elections are done with, the system discards the voter from the realm of self-governance, the essence of the grassroots democracy. The voter's vote, it appears, has been subverted by a system, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Civic elections to the major cities now underway are a scam. And as far as democracy goes, it is a sham as well.

Surprised?

Ask any sensitive citizen of any city and he would tell you how despite being a 'local self-government', the civic body, Mumbai's or any other city's has never had him at the centre of it all. These bodies are run as if the citizen is incidental but the corporators, the bureaucrats, the contractors, and the middlemen are. Often the elected corporators are often the last named as well.

Let us deal with the scam part first.

Contrary to claims, a seat in the deliberative body of a city is a ticket on the gravy train. Once there, there is money to be made, all with the smug pretence of being there only for social good, to serve. There are richer city fathers than there were candidates. Once elected, the doors are open to riches. No wonder, there is capital investment, and once successful, reinvestment.

There is a minimum guaranteed return. It is the local area fund which in Mumbai is Rs 1 cr per annum. A rake off at a fifth of that ensures a return of the investment in the first year or two, at worst three. Then everything else thereafter is a bonus. Look at the lifestyles of those who have served a term. Look at those who have served two terms. And you'll see the difference. They have proved that politics is a con game.  One needs to be more a hustler than a politician to be successful.

And a sham? Yes, because, once elections are done with, the system discards the voter from the realm of self-governance, the essence of the grassroots democracy. The voter's vote, it appears, has been subverted by a system. Once cast, the person favoured assumes it is much like the constable's uniform -- licence to rob the common man despite his civic entitlements. The voter-citizen thereafter becomes inconsequential.

Then why these elections? Because, in India, democracy is a ritual, not necessarily respected, more so because each passing election only re-emphasises the emptiness of the process: much like buying a newspaper and reading it; much like going to a school and not being taught; much like going to a hospital and not being treated. The people have got used to it and might as well go through it.

But it is something the major players -- here the citizens are automatically excluded -- want and crave for because the bottom of it all is the pot of gold. Literally. The civic bureaucracy has to propose schemes and projects, they have to be over-estimated to start with, they have to be assigned to friendly contractors, the quality of their friendship measured by the bribes they are willing to pay, for the corporators to play along and if their share is denied, then put obstacles in the path of such projects.

It does not matter if the projects are of no use to the citizens, more so because they are poorly conceived, and worse, quite poorly executed because enrichment to share comes from such standards of quality or absence of it. But then, ask any of these Johnnies in the civic scams, they are all people-oriented. People, come to think of it, are those who engineer their own benefit. A citizen does not have that capability to swing it in his favour despite his vote. After all, its currency is validated only periodically.

Look at anything that is run by a civic body. First, any of its office. The citizen with a piece of work, a grievance, gets scant attention. He feels an alien in an office which is a product of the concept of 'self-governance'. Then the employees therein: the legendary sloth and adherence to rules to protect themselves than help the citizen.

Then, the corporator who is supposed to solve your issues: he does so not as a duty but intervenes for a consideration or patronage which can be encashed in the subsequent election. Take its water supply -- inadequate, take its roads -- so poor one can ask where are they?  Bus services -- grossly inadequate, and despite increasing demand, increasingly in the red. Garbage? Let it pile up. You name it and it is woeful.

Then why these civic bodies?

My guess is they are required because the system ordered them. They are the training grounds for subsequent elevation of its membership to legislative assemblies and Parliament, for learning the craft of using ideology to divide a city than to unite it though water, roads etc. are ideology-neutral. They are also there to ensure that the citizen does not forget that he has a vote which he must cast though half of any city thinks it has no value, no purpose.

But the best part is that those who vote are the better citizens who have that philosophical assumption that, regardless of what others do or do not, they must do their duty by the city. But even they would concede that performance of such duties goes unrewarded, and even unnoticed. They also know that if people by and large do not vote, even then the civic bodies would remain doing much the same they do -- ignore the citizen but keep asserting that it is a 'self'-government. The 'self' being the beneficiaries: the corporators, the bureaucracy, the contractors.

So, I wonder: should I be among those who vote and remain without benefits? Or, not vote and be none the worse for it?

Mahesh Vijapurkar us a Thane-based commentator on public affairs

Mahesh Vijapurkar