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Do Mumbaikars have much to celebrate?

Last updated on: March 04, 2017 16:53 IST
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The city needs some autonomy, or it will continue to decline in all the ways that are familiar, observes T N Ninan.

So much of what is news, and the commentary around the news, leaves unasked the key question: what has really changed?

That is the question that must be asked at the end of local elections in Mumbai that have shaken the city's main political force, the Shiv Sena, and notched up yet another success for the party that is on the rise, the Bharatiya Janata Party, even as the Congress has marked one more territory where its future relevance has become a question.

So, yes, the local elections are politically significant, and have some degree of national resonance; but what has really changed?

During the campaign, the BJP said some very uncomplimentary things about its former (and future?) ally, comparing Mumbai's governance standard to Patna's, and pointing to large-scale corruption in the corporation -- whose accounts have not been audited for seven years. Will all this change?

Those who should know say that the practice, when the cream is skimmed off, has been for the people involved to share it in proportion to party representation in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Council (which, they say, is one reason why decisions are unanimous).

If the system remains unchanged, one lot will now get a higher share, the others will get less. As they say, same difference!

It is ridiculous, for instance, that the country’s leading business city, with a budget that at Rs 37,000 crore is more than that of many smaller states, should be administered by a civil servant appointed by the Maharashtra government.

It is indefensible that two-thirds of the city budget should go towards pay and pensions, and that the city's traffic infrastructure should be so hopelessly inadequate.

And it is truly scandalous that the city’s slum population should be more than 60 per cent of the total—and growing at the rate of 50 per cent in a decade.

Does anyone in the city expect any of this to change? If not, what is the excitement about?

Cities prosper only if they have an effective local government that is responsive to the needs of the city’s residents.

And since (as someone said) all politics is local, city administrators are often able to launch national political careers.

Some of the leading lights of the freedom movement from Bengal were once mayors of the city, including Subhas Chandra Bose. Likewise, the mayors of Paris, Berlin, London and New York have often launched national political careers.

New Delhi's mayor is called the chief minister, and he too is launching his party nationally! But Mumbai's mayor is a non-entity. If this does not change, nothing will.

The problem is that the city's political history makes it difficult to carve out for it some independence from the state administration. But if that political task is not addressed, Mumbai will continue to decline in all the ways that are familiar.

Much other reform is needed. The octroi provides the bulk of the city's revenue, but will be abolished when the goods and services tax is introduced. What will replace it, and will that increase the city's dependence on the state government?

What about the absurdities of the city's property tax system, which levies sharply differing tax rates on two neighbouring buildings of similar size, because one is older than the other? What about the multiplicity of authorities in the city, with their overlapping turf definitions?

The Shiv Sena cared seemingly little for these and other questions so long as it could use its rough-cut brand of identity and street-politics to live off the city. It is unclear who will run the city's corporation henceforth, but will whoever-it-may-be push for the institutional changes that are inescapable if the city is to be made more livable?

The ball is in the BJP's court. It campaigned on a platform of greater transparency, it now has greater say in city affairs, and also it runs the state government.

Will it take the lead on the key institutional changes required? If not, Mumbaikars have little to celebrate.

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