Tackling BMC corruption means going beyond nailing the road scamsters

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 22, 2016 17:31 IST

It is an open secret that corruption is a well-established way of life in the grimy, unresponsive and over-staffed Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). It is endemic to the way the city is managed. In the last two to two-and-half decades, the scams became larger, the amounts siphoned off grew exponentially, and modus operandi turned more brazen than ever.

The few attempts that were made to rein in the thriving parallel civic system hit political roadblocks and had to be abandoned. The latest scam to unfold, the roads scam that could be worth Rs 340 crore or more, then joins a long list of corruption scandals in the BMC. But it also underscores, once again, the relationship between corruption and urban governance – a subject that international researchers including those at the London School of Economics are examining.

The roads scam was laid bare after an internal inquiry demanded by municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta. Of the 34 roads examined, all showed evidence of massive irregularities, large-scale use of inferior material, did not meet the BMC’s specifications and so on. The BMC budgeted nearly Rs 3,200 crore a year for the roads department and undertook more than 3,000 road work projects in the last three years. Imagine the scale of corruption.

The BMC, India’s largest and richest civic body with its current annual budget of Rs 37,000 crore, ostensibly does not have the talent and expertise to lay out or maintain the city’s 2,000 kilometre road network. Its officers repeatedly gave road work contracts to the same cartel of firms that had either not delivered good roads or should have been blacklisted for shoddy work.

Then, the BMC’s top officers were unable to nab the wrong-doers or complicit in the skulduggery. Two senior officials – chief engineer (roads) and chief engineer (vigilance) – were suspended. And independent auditors were hand-in-glove in the scam, approving shoddy work and inflated bills of the contractors. Ten employees from two auditor firms are under arrest, there are FIRs against these firms and six firms that got the contracts. More heads may roll.

Before this was the nullah cleaning scam in which contractors fraudulently cleared out less silt and inflated bills. And there were other scams that the Congress gleefully pointed out – dumping ground scam, fire brigade scam, tablet scam, waste management scam – and said they were so massive that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis should dissolve the BMC immediately.

There are undeniable political undertones to the latest expose – Fadnavis and the BJP would be thrilled to dump all scams at the door of the Shiv Sena which reigns supreme in the BMC, and the Congress would love to fan this fire between the allies. The fact is that the BJP has been partnering the Sena and cannot wash its hands off the endemic corruption.

But beyond all politics, there is the issue how corruption corrodes into urban governance. It leads to below-par civic services, shoddy and dangerous infrastructure, and a thriving mini-economy in which the city and its residents are held to ransom.

Transparency International rates countries on a corruption index. It is more difficult to rank cities on the same parameters. But it is now accepted that the more corrupt a nation, the denser and fast-growing its cities, and the less independent control on the city administrations, there tends to be higher levels of corruption. Dense and expanding population creates more pressure on resources such as land, water, health, education services and so on, which leads to shortages and the “gatekeepers of these resources” find opportunities to bend the rules, according to TI. The LSE lists the risk of corruption as a “highly relevant” governance challenge in cities.

Wide-ranging BMC corruption means that not only is public money being siphoned off by a nexus of conniving officials and contractors, but Mumbai is deprived of its basic civic capital, including good roads. The challenge then is not merely to nail those involved in the roads scam, however politically expedient it is, but to evolve an urban governance architecture in which the “gatekeepers” have fewer chances to play dirty. Is Fadnavis up to this challenge?

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