Shining a light on crores spent on beautification
The business of beauty, backed by a mammoth kitty, only manages to shine the light on a range of civic issues that still remain unattended
MUMBAI: The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has spent ₹720 crore in six months on the cosmetic makeover of the city’s visage. Of the kitty, ₹275crore has been spent on illuminating an already lit city. A separate purse of ₹51.17 crore was set aside to illuminate skywalks, many of which are not used by citizens.
Additionally, ₹50 crore has been budgeted each month to pay the power bills incurred in the process.
The business of beauty, backed by a mammoth kitty, only manages to shine the light on a range of civic issues that still remain unattended – inadequate number of public toilets, poor roads, lack of open spaces and clean drainage system. It is almost akin to serving fast food to an indisposed person in dire need of nutrition.
With a single-minded focus on BMC election, taking a leaf out of Singapore and Dubai, chief minister Eknath Shinde flagged off the ambitious ‘Mumbai Beautification Project’ in September last year, and allocated ₹1,700 crore to shine up the city. To put this in context, it took ₹1,436 crore to build the Eastern Freeway, a 16.8 kilometre-long piece of thoroughfare. The CM’s fervour led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader Raj Thackeray to remark recently that the city looks like a dance bar.
The money was given in two phases and each of the city’s 24 wards was sanctioned ₹ 20 crore to be used up till December 31, 2022. There was a promise of an additional ₹10 crore for each ward to be utilised until March 31, 2023. Apart from illumination, other spends went into beautifying traffic islands, central medians and dividers, footpaths and areas surrounding the city’s forts.
The CM’s sudden announcement with tight deadlines put the 24 assistant commissioners under pressure to spend the ₹30 crore fund. Work orders were issued speedily, which was subsequently critiqued for poor planning, ad-hocism and wasteful expenditure. Working beyond their brief, some ward officers went to the extent of undoing fully functional infrastructure – well paved footpaths were ripped off, and traffic islands, central medians and dividers refurbished, resulting in crores being ill-spent.
Mood is (barely) lit
Interestingly, certain purchase orders to illuminate skywalks at ₹51.17crore have not come from the wards but from the mechanical and engineering (M&E) department of the BMC. A civic official speaking on condition of anonymity pointed out the anomaly in the tenders issued by the department, who undertook the project to illuminate skywalks. Pointing to an all-lit skywalk connecting Gokhale Bridge, near Andheri East station, he said, “The bridge is demolished. So why light up that space? Also, the degree of illumination has to be calibrated to ensure that it does not affect motorists’ line of vision. There is just no thought or planning. Everyone is simply following orders.” Another civic official added that fairy lights will stop functioning as they are China lights.
BMC commissioner, I S Chahal, was quick to respond to the criticism, as he said, “Illumination of skywalks accounts for just 10 per cent of the budget. The rest was utilised for painting and other allied works.”
Chahal, who has been fielding a volley of criticism from citizens – some calling him a “tree killer” – said, “Lights are like low hanging fruits and highly visible. The earlier shabby LED lights have been replaced. With Dubai lights we managed to light up 15,000 trees for ₹15 crore. They don’t require nails to wrap around the trunks.” The commissioner likened the lights to “blinking stars on a clear night” that consume less electricity. “The lights on the trees have been sourced from the same company as companies in Dubai and Singapore. No one criticises those cities, but I am pulled up for killing trees,” said Chahal. He referenced the Japanese ambassador recently remarking that the city was unrecognisable. “Amitabh Kant, G-20 sherpa of India, said that he couldn’t imagine the city changing in 10 days,” he added.
However, what lies underneath the gloss stays shrouded. Calling out BMC’s lack of planning, RTI activist Santosh Daundkar said, “The amount spent on illumination could have been put to better use. The government was in a hurry to woo voters. A CAG level inquiry is needed in this matter.”
Another activist, Kamlakar Shenoy, pointed to the structures set up in traffic islands, which “denies a safe space to pedestrians who sometimes need to halt while crossing roads”. Shenoy pointed out that the law mandates an NOC be obtained from traffic police, local police, the traffic and road planning departments of BMC and the commissioner of cultural affairs, according to a 2019 circular before such changes are sanctioned. “In south Mumbai, these islands have statues obstructing the vision of pedestrians and motorists. This beautification is a sham to loot public money. The reconstruction work is adding to dust pollution,” said Shenoy.
The civic body faced criticism in January this year for re-doing perfectly paved footpaths, which are still under a defect liability period. For instance, the beautification of footpath at Dr B A Road from Dadasaheb Phalke Marg to Jagannath Bhatankar Marg in Parel cost ₹4.43crore, of which ₹8.13 lakh was spent to remove existing paver blocks in good condition. Chahal put down the urgency to replace to faulty interlocking of paver blocks, which were a hazard for pedestrians.
“I admit there may have been issues in some cases but I had instructed ward officers to upgrade the paths where footfall was high,” Chahal said.
To light up the streets of Linking Road and Carter Road, in Bandra, ₹2.20crore and ₹1.19crore were spent respectively, which the suburb’s former corporator Asif Zakaria called a colossal waste. “They put up fancy lights and removed the existing central median which were mostly in good condition and replaced them with new plants. Only bad sections should have been beautified. They lit up Almeida Park and made it resemble a wedding hall. I complained and had the lights removed. Now, they have transferred those to St Andrews Road. Residents complained on World Environment Day that BMC was putting up lights on trees, which was not helping the environment at all. Moreover, this escalates the power consumption in the city,” said Zakaria, adding that ward officers were enjoying a free for all, in the absence of elected corporators. “Genuine civic work has been put on hold for brainless beautification.”
Former Congress corporator who was leader of opposition in the civic body, Ravi Raja said that the money spent on beautification “is a broad daylight loot of the corporation ex-chequer done by the commissioner”.
“When the time will come we will ask questions. There are many other issues where money can be spent – there are no medicines in the hospitals, the state of schools is poor, and parks and playgrounds are in a shambles. It takes no more than ₹4 or ₹5 lakh to illuminate a bridge. How do they account for ₹2.09 crore spent for the Nanalal Mehta bridge in Matunga or ₹1.15crore spent on illuminating Sion bridge? This beautification is an eyewash,” said Raja.
More than lights
“Everyone is only seeing lights on trees. Nobody goes to the slums to know what happens there. We have planned 15,000 toilet seats at an additional cost of ₹425crore, at the request of the chief minister, who monitors the work in progress routinely,” said Chahal. He added that it was for the first time that BMC had brought in a new policy where for every 15-20 slum houses removed to make space for a toilet, the displaced would be compensated. “There was no such policy to give cash compensation of ₹40 lakh for residential tenements,” said Chahal, assuring that by Monday, orders for 15,000 toilet seats will be issued.
“This is going to be much higher than the cost of lighting,” he said. Chahal added that as part of the beautification project, the civic body had undertaken blacktopping and resurfacing of bitumen roads. “We did 112kms of resurfacing on 464 stretches and instead of filling potholes we put an entire new surface on that. That has cost us ₹140crore, which was a part of the beautification project. Blacktopping is almost 50 per cent of the lighting cost,” Chahal said.
Besides the abovementioned works, the BMC has painted 200 flyovers and has envisaged 1000 more projects in future. Another ₹20crore will be used for upgradation of Gateway of India by next year.
“The beautification budget will go upto ₹1500 crore in the next six to eight months and then lighting will just be 20per cent of the total cost incurred,” Chahal reasoned.