February 25, 2017

India - Maharashtra’s civic polls 2017: There’s a disconnect between the struggle to capture civic bodies and the state of cities (Geeta Seshu)

The Times of India, February 25, 2017

Maharashtra’s civic polls: There’s a disconnect between the struggle to capture civic bodies and the state of cities

As the notes of the BJP’s celebratory tutari (traditional trumpet) die down, the true import of its capture of eight of 10 major civic bodies in Maharashtra and its stunning showing in Mumbai will begin to sink in for the third most urbanised state in the country. What exactly does its campaign plank of ‘development and transparency’ mean for citizens of these local bodies?
In the last 25 years, as the Shiv Sena engineered the bloody transformation of Bombay to Mumbai, BJP was confined to playing second fiddle. Today, Shiv Sena is on the defensive. BJP’s win has also rendered the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress superfluous in civic politics in the rest of Maharashtra.
The difference of two between Shiv Sena and BJP in the final tally in Mumbai indicates more than just the inroads the latter has made into the votes of the former. For a more business-oriented younger generation of Shiv Sainiks, Valentine’s Day or Pakistani actors in Bollywood are non-issues. But BJP benefited from the split in Marathi votes and consolidated the considerable Gujarati and north Indian vote in Mumbai.
The blatant in-fighting among Congress satraps, cynical deployment of candidates with criminal records and role of money and muscle power were other factors that definitely worked in BJP’s favour. Now, more than ever, it is important to examine the BJP’s developmental vision for urban Maharashtra.
This election witnessed an incredibly acrimonious election campaign in which Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray dubbed demonetisation as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nuclear bomb to attack citizens! But Sena’s breakup with BJP occurred over seat sharing – it was willing to give BJP only 60 seats – not development.
Today, we are none the wiser about the developmental vision of Shiv Sena. Or, indeed, that of any of the three parties that got a drubbing in these elections. Over the past 25 years of Shiv Sena ruling the country’s wealthiest municipal corporation, development has eluded Mumbai. In fact, the near total breakdown of basic infrastructure was not even an issue in these elections. Nor was the all-important Development Plan for Mumbai 2034.
For BJP, ‘development’ is the catchword for mega, multi-crore projects. Its Mission Mumbai programme announced last year listed out projects worth Rs 1 lakh crore for infrastructure projects that ranged from the controversial expansion of the Mumbai metro and the coastal road, the trans-harbour link to water reuse and recycling, solid waste management, water transport and port and jetty construction.
Of Maharashtra’s 10 cities chosen for the Union government’s smart cities project (with Rs 100 crore for each city) – Navi Mumbai, Nashik, Thane, Greater Mumbai, Amravati, Solapur, Nagpur, Kalyan-Dombivali, Aurangabad and Pune – seven went to the polls. There’s a lot of money riding in these mesmeric, multi-crore, ‘mega’ development projects.
But the obligatory responsibility of any civic administration to provide affordable housing, health, education, water, sanitation, roads, pavements, parks, public transport and a pollution-free environment have become unfashionable and passé in a neo-liberal world. Mumbai witnessed huge fires in dumping grounds that raged for several weeks. A recent study by IIT Bombay found that deaths due to air pollution in Mumbai and Delhi doubled over the last 25 years.
There is no guarantee for even the provision of a simple civic service like pothole free roads, leave alone accountability for deaths due to bad roads and potholes. The result of the current civic elections in Maharashtra needs to be viewed in the context of this abysmal state of affairs in civic facilities.
BJP, it has been said, succeeded because it managed to articulate a meta narrative of nationhood and anti-corruption, both at the national and the state level, coupled with the promise of this mega development at the level of civic and urban local bodies. Shiv Sena tried, towards the fag end of its campaigning, to throw in its support for the environmental struggle against the Metro III project of the people of Aarey colony.
But as it painted itself into a corner, this seemed like an afterthought. None of the BJP’s rivals, from Congress, NCP or Shiv Sena, were able to tackle or even to counter its meta narrative.
It was clearly a missed opportunity. In the coming days, there will be the inevitable jockeying for alliances and control of Mumbai but we all know who’s afraid of the ‘D’ word. As also the ordinary citizen, for very different reasons.