During these challenging times of the entire mankind facing difficult times, one thing which has emerged clearly is the importance of communication. When the Prime Minister addresses the nation, people get a clear understanding as to where we stand with regard to preparedness and what is the direction we are taking.
Similarly when a state Chief minister addresses, there is a certain reassurance to all the citizens as to the strategy to handle the virus and how it is working.
How nice and purposeful it would have been in today’s circumstances if the residents of each small area of a city, say each polling booth area representing about one thousand voters, could get direct communication from the urban local body as to what all are being done to fight the virus, what is the citizen cooperation and contribution expected and in turn the residents of each area could highlight the specific requirements of the area.
A strategy like this would have worked much better not only in eliciting the participation of the citizens but also in building trust between the governance system and the governed.
Years back when the national urban renewal mission was launched in 2005, noting that our urban local bodies have generally not thought of and introduced reforms in the way they work and deliver services, a twenty three reforms agenda was introduced for states and cities to be taken up during the course of the mission period so as to bring about the much needed positive changes in the interest of urban residents.
One such reform namely enactment of community participation law was to provide for institutionalization of citizen participation and introduction of the concept of ‘area sabha ‘ in urban areas. Each area sabha was to consist of all registered voters of a polling booth which means about 800 to 1000 voters per each such area.
It was for the state governments to determine the areas within each of the wards of the municipality. So the territorial extent of each area could be either the entire geographical territory in which all persons listed in the electoral roll of a polling booth live or when voter numbers are less, the state could decide to have two or more contiguous polling booth areas combined into an area, not exceeding five such booths clubbed together.
Among the functions and duties proposed for such area sabhas, each one of which will be part of a ward, was generating proposals for development programs, identifying the most eligible persons to be beneficiaries of welfare programs, suggesting location of street lights, community water taps and such other public conveniences, identifying deficiencies in water supply and street lighting and suggesting remedial measures, assisting activities of public health centers and to undertake and support tax mapping.
These sabhas could get information from officials about services, impart awareness on matters of public interest and promote harmony and unity among various groups of people in the area. The idea behind introducing this new layer of governance was to institutionalize citizen participation, to provide platforms to citizens to influence program development and implementation, promote transparency and accountability in governance and ensure that citizens have a say in determining how information is shared, policies are set, resources are used and programs are implemented.
What happened to the implementation of the reform?
Six years after the mission was launched it was found that only nine states had taken measures to bring in the legislation, work relating to having the legislation in position was significantly in progress in four states, it was making progress in some thirteen states and Punjab was one state which had not done it. Some states placed more emphasis on having the ward level committees only which is chaired by the ward councilor.
No great enthusiasm was visible in most states to have the area sabhas constituted and make them functional. And the citizens in such states neither had any avenue to ask for a platform like this nor were they much bothered.
However there are four states which moved forward on this agenda. The then composite state of Andhra Pradesh made an amendment in the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation Act to provide for the constitution of ward committees and area sabhas. Thus area sabhas came into existence in Hyderabad.
But in the other urban bodies of the state except for Visakhapatnam, nothing much happened. Provision for constitution of area sabhas and ward committees was made in Karnataka through an amendment to the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act. However there was not much in notifying how the area sabhas are to be constituted for a city like Bengaluru.
In a separate action in Mysuru a citizens committee was constituted for every polling booth level and the next higher level committee, the zonal committee had members from the citizen committees.
Maharashtra also amended the law to provide for area sabhas but even after some eight years or so after this step, the state government was yet to notify rules in this regard. Kerala decided that ward sabhas are enough and there is no need for another level below that in the form of an area sabha. It is understood ward sabha meetings are convened which are attended by of one to two percent of the ward members.
We can only visualize what positives would have been there in a situation like today’s if the area sabhas were in existence and active. If not statutorily provided, it could even have been desirable to administratively form these area entities.
Then it would have been possible to maintain data relating to the voters and families of the 800 to 1000 people residing in an area, a functionary of the municipal corporation working in that area could have acted as the convener, the city body would have had ready access to details about the senior citizens in the area, differently abled, single persons who all would need to be assisted and also would need medical linkage sometimes even at very short notice.
Data would have got maintained about the slum dwellers and if any in the area, maids, delivery persons, cleaners, drivers etc who keep coming to the area or are living within, types of shops including medical shops either within or by moving out of the area and a whole lot of details which would have facilitated better decision making to make life easier even in a lock down situation.
There could have been better flow of communication both from the municipal commissioner to the residents of each area and the other way as well so that area specific actions needed would have got timely attention as well. Sharing of information among these one thousand or so residents and enabling them to come together to implement the special requirements during times like this would have been easier and smoother.
As we get back to normalcy, it would be desirable to act seriously to have area level arrangements like the area sabha even as administrative units if there is hesitation in providing for it through legislation, so that urban governance system becomes stronger, more participative and capable of taking better cognizance of the area specific issues and requirements.
Dr M Ramachandran is a former Secretary, Urban Development to the Union government