Ward Committees in Bangalore are chaired by nodal officers appointed on a temporary basis by the BBMP since the end of the last term of the Council in September 2020. These were mostly senior municipal officials who resided in that particular ward.
Prior to this temporary arrangement, the formal neighborhood committee included 10 named citizens of the parish and were mandated to meet twice a month. Chaired by the elected ward councilor and attended by ward officials, these meetings were supposed to decide on the budget, plan, prioritize and monitor work at the ward level.
Today, there are no formal neighborhood committees, but nodal officers chair meetings with neighborhood residents twice a month.
So, has the replacement of elected corporators by nodal officers changed anything? Are neighborhood residents and RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) happier without the corporations that often had their own local political agendas?
Nodal officers – good, bad and indifferent
It’s complicated, according to the citizens.
According to active citizens and RWA members in several neighborhoods this reporter spoke to, many nodal officers do not hold regular meetings. And if and when they do, hesitate to make decisions or answer citizens’ questions. In the absence of formal neighborhood committees, any neighborhood resident can now participate in these meetings. (In formal neighborhood committees, the public can only see the proceedings and not participate directly.)
According to a survey by the NGO Janaagraha covering the period from August 2020 to September 2021, nodal officers only 33 out of 198 services held the prescribed two neighborhood committee meetings per month. In 65 neighborhoods, only seven meetings were held during the one-year period. In fact, the BBMP has considered disciplinary action against nodal officers who do not hold meetings.
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The nodal officer holds regular ward committee meetings, but remains largely silent, says Kochu Sankar, president of Trinity Enclave RWA in Ward 26 (Ramamurthy Nagar). “The nodal officer does not take responsibility, does not show authority and does not give his opinion. They’re just trying to follow BBMP protocols. The former corporal was much better in terms of decision making and getting things done. Since the nodal officer does not engage in the discussions, it is the neighborhood assistant engineer (AE) who answers questions from citizens during these neighborhood committee meetings.
One of the reasons nodal agents are not accountable to residents is that they may reside in the neighborhood, but not necessarily be in charge of the same neighborhood. In addition, their responsibility as nodal officer is in addition to their routine work and they could be transferred frequently.
“Ward 24 (HBR Layout) had three different nodal officers and the third officer would also be replaced soon,” says Vikram Mailar Vijay, a social activist in the ward. “The secretary of the committee who is the neighborhood AE also changes every 3 to 6 months. Then the public must start discussing the progress of the work again [with the new official]”.
“Officers take note of people’s concerns, and those may or may not be addressed,” Vikram adds. “It’s more of a grievance cell than a planning platform for the service. We can ask a business leader why a problem we highlighted hasn’t been solved. But that’s not possible with the nodal officer – we don’t see them at any time other than neighborhood committee meetings, and they have no sense of responsibility.
RWA members in neighborhoods like Hagadur and Rajarajeshwari Nagar also say their nodal officers held very few meetings.
Residents of most neighborhoods say there were also problems during the corporators’ tenure. For example, the corporal would ensure that a significant proportion of the members of the neighborhood committee are his supporters. Many corporators also did not hold regular neighborhood committee meetings. They would also seek approval from the local MP for any major work in the service.
But residents seem more disenchanted with the lack of responsibility and authority of nodal agents, and believe that corporations are likely to be more efficient and democratic. The corporators are accessible, they say, and at least quickly resolve minor issues and pressure neighborhood officials to complete the work.
The districts become the political platform of the deputies
While MPs in the BBMP jurisdiction have always tried to dictate civic works at the ward level, their grip seems to have grown stronger since the exit of the corporators. With the close of Assembly elections, ramping up ward-level work has become a way for MPs to gain political ground, even if such work is not their responsibility. While ward engineers typically finalize work at the ward level after discussions with the corporal, they now answer to the ward MP, citizens say.
In Mahadevapura constituency, for example, the Mahadevapura task force led by MP Aravind Limbavali is involved in ward level issues. The constituency also has “Shakti Kendras” led by BJP members, each overseeing blocks of around 100 houses. The BJP senior leadership had introduced the concept of Shakti Kendras in 2014 for micro-level election management, and such offices now exist in several states.
“Instead of ward committees and ward engineers, we are now being asked to approach the task force and the Shakti Kendras which are not statutory bodies,” says Murali G, former ward committee member of Ward 84 (Hagadur) in the constituency. The neighborhood nodal officer is not active and only holds neighborhood committee meetings under pressure from residents. At meetings, citizens put their complaints in a register and leave, and the minutes of the meeting are not shared later, Murali adds.
“Even if you report a problem to the ward engineer or nodal officer, they will ask you to go through the Shakti Kendras. parish committee meetings and they attend the meetings. The work is done if anyone in the party can make a good point of it. Many roads in the neighborhood are being redeveloped, and the deputy is showing up to inaugurate even minor work, says Murali.
In Shanthinagar, a resident said on condition of anonymity that local Congressman NA Haris himself now chairs ward committee meetings, with meetings from multiple wards coming together. Although the deputy is not supposed to lead the meetings, this resident says that it is welcome since the nodal officer does not take any initiative.
“The MP has a system in place to accept complaints,” the resident said. “With this, minor maintenance work is carried out, such as repairing potholes and streetlights. But there are no discussions about budget planning or fitting-out work.”
Read more: What is your MP supposed to do for you?
In Ward 19 (Sanjay Nagar), the nodal officer is BBMP (Finance) Special Commissioner Thulasi Maddineni who is known for her initiative to have each ward disburse Rs 60 lakh recently for local works. Sanjay Nagar was among the five quarters where the NGO Janaagraha has partnered with the BBMP to help residents identify and identify the work to be carried out with the fund. Thulasi, known to be a proactive officer, had approved the work list.
However, Geeta G, secretary of Sanjay Nagar RWA says that despite this, the ward engineer tried to change the list. “The hall engineers follow MLA’s instructions,” says Geetha. “The nodal officer can approve works, but their execution in the field is often at the discretion of the district engineer. Even when we ask, the engineers do not disclose the status of the work or the funds spent. (As nodal officers are not statutory authorities, they do not have the same powers as corporations under the Municipal Corporation Act of Karnataka.)
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But even corporations don’t have much power vis-à-vis neighborhood committees, says Srinivas Alavilli of Janaagraha. “On paper, the ward committees are headed by the BBMP commissioner,” says Srinivas. “But corporations have power over the machinery of government. Although there are no more corporations today, MPs have always been “super-corporators”. These political equations do not change [even when nodal officers are in charge].”
Former mayor Gangambike Mallikarjun, on whose initiative neighborhood committee meetings started in Bengaluru, says she is not aware of any instances of MPs attending neighborhood committee meetings. “However, in the absence of corporators, only MPs may be able to solve some local issues in their constituencies,” says Gangambike. “The neighborhood committees can only function effectively once the corporators are re-elected”.
No budget planning, no transparency
Although one of the main functions of ward committees is to plan the ward’s annual budget, this has not yet happened in most wards – either during the tenure of the corporations or the nodal officers. Residents of some neighborhoods say their corporators were open to ideas about development work and would try to get sanctioned funds. However, hardly any neighborhood has implemented proper participatory budgeting.
Similarly, the neighborhood committees are supposed to monitor the work, but at no time did they have access to data on expenditure or the status of the work in the neighborhood.
In this sense, some citizens say that the corporators as well as the nodal officers have been equally ineffective. However, the majority seems to prefer corporations.