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Neither Public-Private nor a Private Public

operations and outcomes. The fact that the activities of the task force were

Discussion

Neither Public-Private nor a Private Public

It’s We the People

HARI RAM

T
his article1 responds to the views represented in ‘Public-Private or a Private Public? Promised Partnership of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force’ by Asha Ghosh (November 19, 2005). The article emphasises that there existed no formal mechanism to ensure accountability of the erstwhile Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF). Other criticisms in the article are that the members of the BATF pursued their own agendas, and their recommendations contained incomprehensible technical jargon. This article elucidates certain supporting facts, events and outcomes to question the decisiveness of the above conclusions.

Governance of ULBs

Effective governance requires mutual cooperation and mobilisation of collective efforts of various actors in politics, bureaucracy, markets and civil society;2 in other words, we the people. Irrevocably, we belong to our respective inflexible watertight compartments, and the wheel of governance depends on the degree to which we negotiate our flexibility and integrated commitment to align our collective efforts to achieve impartial outcomes. Governance is inevitably a process of institutional capacity-building, which includes negotiations, learning and mobilisation of collective inputs in the midst of pluralistic (often contradicting) interests, opinions and needs. It is needless to emphasise that the urban local bodies (ULBs) in India are inherently credited with a great degree of opacity and hierarchical rigidity and the manipulative influence of fragmented politics has weakened the institutional insulation of the bureaucracies. Any move to improve transparency and accountability in government faces intended opposition from an influential and clandestine network of individuals who illicitly continue to benefit from the absence of transparency in the government system. The split-party political system in India undermines the mobilisation of collective efforts of various political parties for the long-run benefit of the country.3 The BATF emerged in such a divided environment with a commitment to improve standards in governance, aligning its efforts to change practices in the ULBs with a larger aim to foster healthy governance.

The BATF received its government backing through the political leadership of the then chief minister, S M Krishna. The Adhaar Trust formed by Nandan and Rohini Nilekani funded the operations of the BATF.4 Private citizens who were given the operational freedom by the then political leadership masterminded the operations with a focus on implementation of reforms as against voicing mere recommendations. The catalytic operations undertaken by the task force were largely focused on the requirements of an ailing Bangalore, and were endogenous in nature, viz, the task force worked closely with the ULBs to change the operational standards from inside. Any action produces an outcome. The accountability of the action lies partly in its process and largely in its outcome. When questioned about the statement quoted in the article to the effect that the task force was accountable “only to Infosys”, a surprised Ravichandar, BATF’s ex-spokesperson, recalls having stated that the task force was accountable to Nandan and Rohini Nilekani for their personal funds received through the Adhaar Trust, not Infosys, and says that such a misquote “reflects the author’s bias since she earlier shows awareness that the Adhaar Trust was a personal donation of Nandan and Rohini Nilekani”.5 Accountability was engraved into the working of the task force in its operations and outcomes. The fact that the activities of the task force were “publicly visible” projects, including implementation of the Fund-Based Accounting System (FBAS), shows that the task force did produce accountability in its operations and outcomes. We, citizens, have to recall the milestones we witnessed in governance like the revolutionary disclosure of Bangalore Mahanagar Palike’s (BMP) finances, the soaring increase in budget allocations of the ULBs as a result of responsive accounting systems, the improvement of infrastructure in Bangalore, and the half yearly summits through which the task force reported its progress.6 The task force worked towards improving the financial prudence of the ULBs and this required changing the gears to improve transparency, especially around urban finances. The neglect of the urban poor is a symptom of a larger ailment – corruption and opacity in the ULBs – and the task force, by nature of its operations, had ventured to treat the larger ailment. The offshoot of such endogenous intervention would have constructed a stronger institutional insulation around the ULBs thereby protecting them from tampering by fragmented politicians.

Lack of Transparency

The task force withdrew its operations largely due to lack of continued political leadership. With continued apathy and lack of will and support from a section of bureaucrats and politicians, the endogenous style of intervention was no longer preferred. Bureaucrats who proactively supported the task force were tasked with new focus areas by the present political reign.7 Such reshuffling of development plans and top bureaucrats is not uncommon in split party politics; this signals the inability of fragmented politicians to collectively negotiate their interests and opinions for the long-run benefit of the country. The reasons for such apathy and non-cooperation are varied, but the larger reason deserves mention here. The emergence of transparency in local government bodies would strengthen the institutional insulation of the bureaucracies and thereby constrain the avenues for selfinterested bureaucrats and politicians,

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

including councillors, to benefit from illicit and corrupt deals. The task force cannot be held accountable for the distortion created due to the non-cooperation of other actors, especially from the political and bureaucratic sphere.

The 74th Amendment to the Constitution Act (1992)8 lays out the provisions for redefining the “role, power, function and finances” of ULBs, and states that “the legislature of a State may by law entrust on these bodies such power and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institution of local self-government”. The amendment also provides for institutionalisation of a metropolitan planning committee (MPC) for each urban location. Heitzman,9 who conducted formal research on the implementation of the 74th Amendment in Bangalore, observed that the state government and the bureaucracy engaged in various means of “information blocking” that precluded the involvement of citizens; a sizeable population in the city, including politicians and nongovernmental organisations, were “unaware” of the constitutional provisions. Further, he speculated “on a theory of an ‘elite conspiracy’ which precluded the involvement of citizens”. According to him, the “elite conspiracy” emanated from two corners: Firstly, from bureaucrats who expressed disbelief over a government system that enabled “politicians and political parties to take control of development projects”, and secondly, from politicians who “engaged in regular obstruction of processes that would potentially allow increased access to information for the public”.

The operations of the BATF can be analysed in line with that of an urban planning committee. A question that arises now is whether the activities of the task force could have been institutionalised through legislation for its long-run sustainability. The answer to this question lies in the 74th Amendment where the activities of the task force could have been institutionalised ideally under the banner of the MPC. Then, why was such institutionalisation not done? When questioned about this issue, Ravichandar states that they (the task force) came to know of the provisions for the MPC only after the BATF was wound up.10 Extending Heitzman’s observations to this issue, there could have been an elite conspiracy that resulted in potential information blocking, and obviously, such an unofficial conspiracy, despite being noticed, remains clandestinely unquestioned behind the corridors of power.

A careful review of the 74th Amendment reveals that there are no provisions for citizen participation and increasing transparency in ULBs, two attributes that are desideratum to cure an ailing urban India. The recently initiated National Urban Renewal Mission (NURM) most importantly calls for the citizen participation law, improvement of transparency in government by deploying responsive accounting mechanisms and revival of the MPC.11 The overarching ideologies of the left wing, and particularly, of the astonishing groups that talk left and turn right and vice versa, classify initiatives like BATF and NURM as anti-poor, and regrettably, they hardly attempt to understand that such interventions lay the foundation for pro-poor governance in the long run.

The rightful inclusion of the neglected poor is reliant on the level of transparency in government. A household that maintains records of incomes and expenditures on a regular basis exhibits a greater degree of transparency, which helps its members to check improper use of resources and take key decisions to reduce or increase expenditures at times of need. Similarly, the citizens, dwellers of a larger household, would be better off when a transparent government discloses information on origin, destination and distribution channels of government finances. The availability of such information is a precondition for an accurate and unbiased representation of the neglected classes, especially the hapless urban poor who are reduced to mere political instruments and their confidence excessively misused during political campaigns. The deployment of accounting tools like FBAS brings a great degree of fiscal discipline and transparency in the government bodies. Such a transition would in turn spark off a revolutionary fact-based representation of the poor as against mere ideological representation that offers no practical solution, and cultivate organic platforms for pro-poor governance with a greater measure of rightful inclusion of the neglected classes.

The absence of transparency in the Indian government signals the presence of unaltered colonial structures12 and more importantly the lack of long-term collective planning flanked by the perceived inability or unwillingness of the government to revitalise old structures. The emergence of transparency in the operations and finances of the government would trigger discomfort to an influential section of bureaucrats and politicians who have misused and still misusing the confidence and authority the country has vested upon them. When the government system does not willingly call for mobilisation of collective efforts of various actors in society, it becomes the duty of we, the people, to collectively align our efforts to improve governance. A timely strategic focus in governance could enable us to collectively steer ourselves towards being a developed nation in the integrated world economy.

EPW

Email: hpkram@rediffmail.com

Notes

1 This article is based on research conducted during the author’s masters dissertation at the London School of Economics (LSE), between July and September 2005. The research focused around the working of the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), and included the author’s personal interpretations and conclusions drawn after holding formal discussions with Ramesh Ramanathan and V Ravichandar, ex-members of the BATF, in August 2005. The author also interviewed V Ravichandar in December 2005 with questions relating to the allegations made against the BATF.

2 This definition of governance is compiled from the works of J Tendler (1997), G Cars et al (2002), R Rhodes (1997), J Kooiman (2002), F W Scharpf (2000) and E Gualini (2002).

3 P Bardhan (2005), ‘Democracy and Distributive Politics in India’, Distributive Politics: A New Initiative in Political Science Conference, April 29-30, Department of Political Science, Yale University.

4 Business Today, August 17, 2003, pp 50-58. 5 Interview with V Ravichandar, December 2005 6 Business Today, August 17, 2003, pp 50-58. 7 Business World, August 23, 2004

Link: http://www.businessworldindia.com/ aug2304/news14.asp

8 74th Amendment to the Constitution Act (1992) Link: http://urbanindia.nic.in/mud-final-site/ legislations/legis_pow_union.htm

9 J Heitzman (1999), ‘Democratic Participation in Bangalore: Implementing the Indian 74th Amendment’, 27th Annual Conference on South Asia, Madison, University of Wisconsin, October 15–17 – as quoted in S Madon and S Sahay (2000), ‘Democracy and Information: A Case Study of New Local Governance Structures in Bangalore’, Information and Communication Society, Volume 3:2 (2000), Routledge, pp 173-91.

10 Interview with V Ravichandar, August 2005. 11 Interview with V Ravichandar, December 2005. 12 S Haque (1997), ‘Incongruity between

Bureaucracy and Society in Developing Countries: A Critique’, Peace & Change, Volume 22: 4, 1997, pp 432-62.

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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