Voters and politicians seldom speak in the same voice. The Hindustan Times conclave held in Noida last week witnessed such a rare moment when we couldn't have them agree more on how they don't get heard in a bureaucratic silence zone. Local candidates contesting the UP Assembly polls, residents and neighbourhood associations were unanimous in their demand for "democratisation" of the Noida Authority Board, now an all-babu set-up.
In Noida, like in the rest of the National Capital Region, community participation in civic affairs is serious business. It may not yet have a formal government-citizen Bhagidari (partnership) mechanism like Delhi has now for a decade, but the RWAs in Noida do get the Authority's funds for housekeeping jobs such as managing parks, community centres and sanitation work. But they do not have any access to the government machinery, no say in the planning and execution of projects, which are run unilaterally by the Authority without consulting even the local MLAs and MPs.
If the next government in Uttar Pradesh allows Noida Authority to open its doors to such civic groups, it would unlock a great potential. But the mere presence of RWAs in boardroom meetings would not ensure a more participative government.
We have numerous examples in Delhi, the proud initiator of the Bhagidaari movement, where details of projects that directly affect the lives of millions of residents are rarely put before the RWAs even as they meet high-level officials regularly at gatherings hosted by the government. The planning and execution process is not part of even legislative business. Most of these projects are rarely discussed in the House and rarely take into account inputs from the MLAs or councillors. The authorities find it easier to have their way where the RWAs are a divided lot. Proliferation of more than one RWA in a locality, each trying to subvert the other, is the biggest handicap for the citizen's movement in Delhi and the NCR. Half a dozen residents from a disgruntled faction and a few thousand rupees are all it takes to register yet another RWA under the Societies Registration Act.
What suit the authorities even better are the ‘co-opted' RWAs. There are many players in the field who not only act as fronts for the ruling or the opposition parties but also for local vested interest. For many aspiring power brokers, neighbourhood associations are a stepping stone for entering politics. If not contesting elections themselves, such RWA functionaries often back candidates of different political parties.
But these trends can't discount the constructive work most RWAs continue to perform as a pressure group. Delhi's experience shows that increased community participation is the only way to infuse efficiency and accountability into the administrative system.
Maybe it is time the government structures, and streamlines, a framework so that RWAs become more democratic, transparent and responsible. An Act may be legislated to put a cap on the number of RWAs that are allowed to operate in a locality. This will weed out both opportunistic and non-serious players. The Act may also set standards for these associations to practise internal democracy and to hold regular elections. RWA officials in decision-making bodies may not be allowed to continue in their posts for more than two terms and their accounts should be audited regularly.
For the NCR's mega city dream to come true, RWAs must become an effective tool for grassroots governance. Let's improvise and tailor the Panchayati Raj model to our urban welfare needs.
With apologies to the Mahatma, RWA-raj rhymes with swaraj (self-governance). No kidding!