There's a manufactured controversy over the Mahalaxmi Race Course's lease which expires at the end of this month. Let's leave the controversy aside for now. If the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and the state government which is the owner of the 225 acres, were to renew the lease on pure merit, there would be some questions to answer. How much has the Royal Western India Turf Club contributed to the public exchequer in the last few years, or decades? What part of its land and facility has it allowed Mumbaiites to use? When and under what conditions was the use allowed? You get the drift.
Another needless controversy has claimed attention for a week. Traders have vociferously opposed the Local Body Tax (LBT) that will replace the dated octroi; they say it will lead to double taxation, arbitrariness and harassment by civic officials. Even a passing acquaintance with the system shows us the wide-spread and well-entrenched bureaucracy of octroi evasion and endemic corruption. What might you like to know? How much octroi should BMC have collected given the goods that were brought into the city? How much of the octroi collection did it actually spend in the last few years? Which projects did it spend on? What criteria were used to allocate the funds to different projects?
If we filed Right to Information (RTI) applications, we may just get the information. But why should we have to use the RTI route at all?
It's time we have an architecture of institutions, systems and reporting that allows citizens anywhere at any time to access information on public projects and public finances. Information that's timely, reliable and systematic which empowers citizens and enables us to watch the decision-making. Too Utopian you think. Not at all.
BMC commissioner Sitaram Kunte was on a panel in September last year that debated just this with a bevy of high-ranking bureaucrats and union minister for urban development Kamal Nath. The seminar on performance reporting by urban local bodies, conducted by Bengaluru-based Janaagraha, had Kunte and others like him deliberate on how to make it happen. Seven long months later, there has been little movement on this in the BMC. Mr Kunte should tell us why, after his assertions in the seminar, he has not made performance reporting a high priority task for his officials yet Performance reporting goes beyond mere audit which in any case hardly happens at the city level. This would entail the BMC to suo moto report its finances (income and spend under different categories) and achievements/performance against plans and budgetary assurances. The men and women in the seminar room attempted a Standard Performance Reporting Framework for Indian cities. It's not perfect but it's a start.
Such a framework has to be in the public domain. Even a rudimentary one should have been able to answer the questions we had on the Mahalaxmi Race Course and octroi. It would have made decisionmaking transparent, and perhaps less susceptible to cynical political manoeuvring.
Ten years ago, this would have sounded like activist-speak. Now, it is the mainstream. Consider this: the union government has made it mandatory for all urban local bodies that access funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) to set up Standardised Service Level Benchmarking. This was to ensure performance reporting on services delivered and finances allocated.
It's time Kunte, and chief minister Prithviraj Chavan as urban development minister, pushed this. It would make for increased transparency.