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Why Mumbai needs citizens contesting civic polls

February 01, 2012 18:26 IST

Mumbai city, overcrowded, run down, filthy, gasping, is far too precious a city to continue to remain in  the clutches of the professional politicians who owe nothing to themselves and have made local self-government a caricature of what was the ideal -- people governing themselves and their spaces, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

First, there was one -- Adolf D'Souza who stood, with citizen support, as a non-political candidate in the 2007 elections from Juhu ward to the Mumbai municipal corporation. He actually represented more: the citizens' resolve to for self-government. His five years in the civic body could be a saga, for lessons to be learnt by the citizens about how the civic body -- politician peers and the bureaucracy may have stymied the man in his duties as a corporator.

Now, there are over 50 candidates from the 227 wards that constitute the civic body's deliberative wing. And that is more than a good sign. It could well be a revolution in the making for no other city has leapfrogged to this extent in a bid to ensure that the citizen got his due, not short-changed by the system which only used him as a cats' paw.

Suppose these 50 get elected, imagine the plight of the politicians and bureaucracy who have no concern for us.

These candidates from the Loksatta Party, the Nagariksatta as well as Mumbai 227, the three crucial platforms for independent, non-political candidates from amongst the citizenry are not going to find it easy to breast the tape when the votes are cast on February 16 and counted the next day.

They are bound to be trammelled by inadequate funds and even strategies of caste and vote banks built over years by patronage and help in getting 'things done' using influence. They would necessarily have to abide by the Rs 5 lakh a candidate limit because they are in the fray to cleanse the system.

Citizen enthusiasm fuelled by the neglect of the city by the BMC which is easily the largest and the richest, but possibly the worst administered in the country, would have to see them through. Those who complain, those who get quoted in newspapers and seen giving bytes on news television would have to vote with their feet and ask the sceptical neighbours to vote too for they are all ranged against solid vested interests which would not give in easily. The deed of voting and not the words spouted would see this campaign through.

However, it appears there are problems surfacing already. Mumbai 227 does not appear to consider the Loksatta Party to be non-political but failed to notice its DNA. Adolf D'Souza's Nagriksatta is also contesting same seats as other citizens which likely to detract from the strength of the campaign to depoliticise civic management. There is a lot of quibbling already and the purpose of the campaign is getting side-lined.

This cannot be. The dangers are twofold.  The professional political class had a fear of this citizens-as-candidate cause and now they have begun to assess them as just a mere quirk of the middle-classes who do not anyhow go to vote. They are further emboldened by the fact that contests between two citizens' groups is to the full-time politician's benefit. That there are nine cases of withdrawal from these groups is what makes that class's day.

I would have liked to see all the 227 seats being contested by the citizens. Surely Mumbai is not bereft of them. Surely, among the 1.24 crore inhabitants, there are bound to be 227 concerned enough to contest all the seats. Also, it would have been enriching to have seen similar efforts on some scale or the other among the nine other cities going to polls to elect their city fathers. That is a big disappointment. But this revolution in the making -- for this challenge in Mumbai to the political class is the strongest yet.

No effort has ever been made on this scale -- though as argued, it could have been stronger -- to wrest the city back from the mischief of the ideology-spouting political class. Even if only half of them get elected against the odds, it would be an example for others cities to follow for the contempt for the political class is now strong.

This outsourcing of civic management to politicians only keen on pelf and not serviced has to end, sooner or later, preferably sooner for that class has done little: built up backlog in infrastructure and kept services to such poor levels Mumbai ought to be ashamed of calling itself a city.

There is much to say in favour of citizens themselves taking up the reign of the city. After all, it affects them more than it does the politicians. They know where the shoe pinches; they know what needs to be done. They realise that what needs to be done has to be done for their litany of complaints has been of how corruption has been Urbs Prima in Indis' undoing. They walk on the streets, they use the sidewalks, and they fret with inadequate water and unswept streets which appear to be meant only for hawkers.  They know the priorities which are not necessarily pro-contractors.

Mumbai city, overcrowded, run down, filthy, gasping, is far too precious a city to continue to remain in  the clutches of the professional politicians who owe nothing to themselves and have made local self-government a caricature of what was the ideal -- people governing themselves and their spaces. It is going to be tough indeed to wrest the city back from their rascality but the effort itself, with the inter-group contests, reducing the effort to a mere tokenism. It has to be better than that.

This is an opportunity to rid Mumbai of the nuisance called politicians, and improve it to the level we as citizens have longed for.  But that inspiration would be a reality if only sufficient number of them emerges as corporators, demand and secure correctives to make the city breathe again. Those who get elected from amongst them are expected to be more than a token presence.

After all, the system of which the professional politician is the crux, who conducts his nefarious deals with the connivance of the grasping contractors, keeping the citizens at a distance, is not going to let even one citizen-corporator feel comfortable. They would bewilder him or her ineffective even in the ward from where he or she is elected because that species, if it multiplied only over time, would be disastrous for the professional politician.

And the citizens should realise that their citizen-corporator is a part-time city father, and modify their expectations of him. If they become full-time, abandon their professions, they too would be modifying their genetic codes. That is important. It is better to have a part time person than a corrupt politician ruining the city for his personal gain.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.

Mahesh Vijapurkar