HT Special | Panchkula in pain
With the MLA-Mayor slugfest bringing a once blooming Panchkula to its knees, residents have begun to explore legal options. Meanwhile, there seems to be no respite in sight to the war of words between the mayor and the commissioner as the MC elections near. HT takes stockpunjab Updated: Jul 03, 2017 11:39 IST
Once upon a time, the clean, green and well-manicured Panchkula was touted as the budding Paris of Haryana. Today, the tug of war between the mayor and the local MLA has brought the town to such a state that precious lives are being lost due to roads riddled with potholes and naked wires hanging from electricity poles.
Their patience wearing thin, leaders of resident welfare associations have increasingly begun to talk of exploring legal options to get more power for the common man in running the city. Others say the Municipal Corporation should be scrapped, and the responsibility of the city’s upkeep returned to Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA).
The MC’s functioning began to unravel in 2014 soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strode to power in Haryana, a year after Upinder Kaur Walia, a close aide of former Congress CM Bhupinder Hooda, became the city’s first mayor. Panchkula also got a proactive BJP MLA in Gian Chand Gupta, a former mayor of Chandigarh considered close to the BJP’s top state leaders.
Observers say this led to the creation of two power centres. Caught in the crossfire were MC executives who fell out with the Mayor one after the other, taking a heavy toll on the city’s development.
The problem began with MC commissioner SS Phulia, who once walked out of a meeting chaired by the Mayor. This was followed by a prolonged standoff between then commissioner Lalit Siwach and the Mayor thanks to which there has been just one effective house meeting since July last year. The Mayor herself admits to shooting off over 300 letters to Siwach, complaining about development issues. Siwach, meanwhile, let everyone know that he had asked the CM for transfer.
Things don’t seem to be any better between the mayor and Siwach’s successor Shaleen Kumar, who recently shot off a letter to Haryana chief secretary alleging that he was being threatened by the mayor.
Sources said the ongoing political tussle has put off the officers to such an extent that the once coveted posting in the Panchkula MC has become amongst the least desirable.
Speaking to HT, the Mayor accused Gupta of meddling in the affairs of the civic body by putting pressure on the officers posted here. She alleged that they deliberately stalled development work to show her in poor light ahead of the MC elections next year.
“He openly tells people that only a BJP mayor can bring development to the city. Use of such words is shocking and exposes his intentions,” she fumed.
Gupta, on his part, blamed the Mayor. “Am I asking the mayor to threaten officers or misbehave with them,” Gupta retorted, saying that three MC Commissioners who were transferred in the past two years had complained about the mayor’s working style, and how could he be blamed for this.
“Officials want to initiate development projects for the city, but they fear that the Mayor and her family members will land them in trouble. This is stated in the present commissioner’s letter to the CS,” he added.
Gupta claimed that the state government has always been liberal with funds. “I hope she works for the welfare of people and stops blaming the ruling government,” he added.
- The MC House body members hardly meet to discuss issues, though one meeting is mandatory every month.
- The city failed to find a place on the list of Smart cities due to its failure to start reforms in several areas.
- Parking problem in commercial markets has become a massive issue. There is no deliberation on how to overcome this problem
- There is no local transportation system despite grants available under central schemes
- There are encroachments galore in Panchkula as there is no effort to strengthen the MC’s enforcement wing
- A proposal to set up a solid waste management plant is gathering dust as MC could not identify a piece of suitable land
- Keys posts are lying vacant since its inception in 2010
- There is no mechanism for lodging online complaints regarding deficiencies in the civic services
- Public toilets are poorly maintained in all commercial markets
- Several road stretches are full of potholes and prone to accidents
SK Nayyar of Citizen Welfare Group said the city has seen a host of political leaders of different hues in the past but never such a dirty strident between them.
“No matter who is responsible for this murky state of affairs, it is the people who are at the receiving end, and it is getting increasingly difficult to tolerate this slugfest,” he added.
Subhash Papneja, president of Sector 16 Residents Welfare Association (RWA), said replacing the existing commissioner is not the solution. “The infighting in the corporation has reached such a level that the state government needs to intervene on behalf of residents,” he said.
With the corporation in limbo for so long, many residents are getting restless and have begun to explore other solutions. Rakesh Aggarwal, chairman of Lok Saravhitkari Society, says Haryana was among the few states in India to notify Haryana Municipal Citizen Participation Act in October 2008 whose mandate was to make residents part of civic development.
“Under the act, the councillor and area residents were to form ward development committees, which would clear area-specific projects and send these to MC for approval. But the act never came in to force here. I will soon approach the Punjab and High Court for its implementation,” he said.
Seema Bhardwaj, a resident of Sector 2, said residents are deliberately kept out of the civic body’s working because if that happens, both officials and elected representatives will be held accountable.
“With elected representatives becoming ineffective in solving the city’s problem, it is high time the citizens get involved, and we already have a legal framework for this,” she declared.
The Municipal Corporation was set up in March 2010 by merging the municipal council of Panchkula and the municipal committees of Pinjore and Kalka in spite of the huge distance between the three. Many believe the then Congress government deliberately did this to benefit the real estate lobby in the Pinjore-Kalka area.
This move stretched the MC limits from Kalka to the Zirakpur border on the one side, and many kilometres beyond Ramgarh on the other side.
The move was opposed in various courts but the first mayor was elected in June 2013 after a Supreme Court decision.
Former councillor B B Singhal said the constitution of corporation can still be legally challenged through a review petition in the Supreme Court if someone takes up the matter.
Money galore, but no spending
It is a cruel irony. The Municipal Corporation has 150 crore in deposits, yet it has just one road roller for an area spread across 50 kilometres.
The irony does not end here. It has money to pay salaries but not enough men on job to judiciously use its funds. The list of departments without any staff is long indeed. The public health wing, building branch, planning branch and Information Technology cell are virtually non-existent and there is no one to head the enforcement wing.
Nearly 40 gram panchayats that came under MC jurisdiction in 2010 still don’t have proper sewerage system, drinking water or smooth roads. There are no plans for reviving the semi-urban clusters of Kalka and Pinjore. What to talk of others, the MC has failed to construct its own building despite being conceived in 2010.
The recent audit report observed that with the MC in a state of inertia, people are constructing houses in its jurisdiction without getting any sanctions from the corporation. This will not only have unnecessary legal implications in the future but is also causing a huge loss of revenue, which could have been spent on improving amenities in the area.
“Panchkula city once was regarded as Haryana’s best urban complex but it is now in the list of its worst cities,” rues Sector 12 resident Pradeep Sangwan while pointing out to the poor ranking of the city in the cleanliness survey.
Residents feel the city would be better off if the Mayor and executives keep aside their differences to work together.
Avinash Chander, a resident, said, “When elected in 2013, the Mayor had assured us that there will be regular house meetings to take up the city’s issues. But the meetings seldom takes place and our complaints keep lingering.”