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Governing the city from chief minister’s office undemocratic

Mumbai got a new municipal commissioner in Praveen Pardeshi. He has since said the right words and promised Mumbaiites all the good things that a new commissioner usually does. But does the change of guard really matter?

mumbai Updated: May 15, 2019 22:58 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Praveen Pardeshi,undemocratic,Mumbaiites
Praveen Pardeshi(HT Photo)

There was a change of guard at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) earlier this week. Municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta was elevated as chief secretary. Mumbai got a new municipal commissioner in Praveen Pardeshi. He has since said the right words and promised Mumbaiites all the good things that a new commissioner usually does. But does the change of guard really matter?

Mumbai civic body’s top job is seen as a prime posting for a bureaucrat, usually his - yes, his - penultimate appointment before becoming Maharashtra’s chief secretary. There would be a number of bureaucrats with sterling track records but the one who makes the cut is usually someone who has closely worked with the incumbent chief minister or enjoys the CM’s confidence and trust. Pardeshi fits the bill.

In fact, Pardeshi not only has chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ ear but has also been a committed translator of his agenda to reality. His last assignment was as the principal secretary in the chief minister’s office where his influence was so pervasive that the Opposition taunted him as “deputy CM” and “second CM”. He has worked in a range of departments, his earliest stint as a collector of Latur – managing the impact of 1993 earthquake and rehabilitation – earned him accolades.

As Fadnavis’ go-to officer, he was in charge of the ‘war room’ in Mantralaya - the central command and coordination unit for high-value infrastructure projects. This role is seen as his stepping stone to the all-powerful post of Mumbai’s municipal commissioner. A number of these projects are mapped in and around Mumbai. And Pardeshi is clearly tasked to smooth the process, accelerate the course, given that the Fadnavis’ government will be tested on delivery of promises in less than six months from now in the state Assembly election. Fadnavis would want Mumbai’s voters to choose a maximum of BJP-Shiv Sena legislators of the 36 from the city.

Yet, there is a dissonance, an undemocratic turn, in the way Mumbai is governed and planned. The city’s municipal commissioner heads the executive wing of the BMC and devolves power from the state’s urban development department, usually headed by the CM. The BMC’s deliberative wing – its general body with elected corporators – is representative of the will and choices of Mumbaiites. Old-timer chroniclers of the city say that there used to be a healthy balance of power between the two wings till well into the 1990s and trace the gradual waning of the general body’s authority as overlapping with the neo-liberal vision to turn Mumbai into a major destination for international finance and real estate.

This Singaporisation and Shanghaisation of Mumbai were helmed by the state government; successive chief ministers preferred to appoint their favourite bureaucrats as municipal commissioners. A slew of autonomous organisations were involved in the process – Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), Mumbai Metro and so on – where citizens of Mumbai found little to no representation. Planning and governance in Mumbai had, effectively, moved into the domain of the unelected and into the corridors of the CM’s office instead of the BMC. Fadnavis is continuing – in an intensive manner – a norm set by predecessors. Indeed, there’s the Standing Committee and other committees in the BMC with corporators helming them but the real power now vests with the executive.

Civic activists, Right to Information activists, stalwarts like former chief secretary DM Sukhtankar and Julio Ribeiro lament the undemocratic trend, the high-handedness of municipal commissioner (they named Ajoy Mehta last year) and abuse of laws and regulations to suit the CM’s agenda.

The change of guard then is basically a change of name. Pardeshi may deliver for Fadnavis. But will he listen to Mumbaiites and put them ahead of the powerful agenda? I’m not holding my breath.

First Published: May 15, 2019 22:58 IST