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Saturday, Aug 17, 2019

Wanted: A BMC budget with Mumbaiites’ voice

If the budget reads like a dull, somewhat incomprehensible, document from the 1980s, it is because the BMC wishes it to be so

mumbai Updated: Feb 08, 2018 10:16 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
The civic budget was presneted at the BMC headquarters last week.
The civic budget was presneted at the BMC headquarters last week. (HT Photo)

Budget day for Mumbai passes without much excitement. Not the union budget but the budget for the city presented by Mumbai’s municipal commissioner. Mumbaiites’ lived experience is that their quality of life and local infrastructure do not improve from year to year, never mind the staggering size of successive city budgets or the plans contained in them. Importantly, citizens’ engagement in civic issues has remained low, lacklustre and limited.

For the majority of citizens, the budget proposals lead to either of these questions: are there new taxes to be paid or have local taxes been hiked? Beyond this, few care about what the budget, even fewer believe they have a stake in it. If the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) budget reads like a dull, somewhat incomprehensible, document from the 1980s, it is because the civic body wishes it to be so. Besides its own authors, the budget basically interests civic activists, niche professionals, policy wonks and the large and ubiquitous contractor lobby.

This is such a pity. Elsewhere in the world, city’s budgets have become charters drawn up jointly by administrations and citizen representatives, contracts between administrators and citizens prepared with the latters’ involvement, exercises in collective imagination. City budgets now reflect citizens’ needs and aspirations in a real way, map development and innovation for the future, and, above all, create a shared sense of belonging. The BMC continues to make its budget as a bureaucratic, top-down, citizen-detached, number-crunching exercise.

This isn’t about the outlay for roads and sewage departments, safety nets for manholes, insurance for firemen, the 300-acre Central Park, beautification projects, partnership between civic and private schools, raising charges in civic hospitals or setting aside money for the coastal road. Large aggregated numbers like Rs 27,258 crore budget for the following financial year do not tell the complete story. The devil, as always, lies in the detail. Till two years ago, budget outlays were Rs 33,500 crore (2015-16) and Rs 37,052 crore (2016-17).

These are awe-inspiring figures but what were the outcomes? Before that, let’s pare down the numbers. The BMC’s revenue expenditure – staff salaries and servicing loans – has ranged from a whopping 65% to 82% of the total expenditure over the decade 2006-16, according to economists who studied the trend. Only about 35% of the funds were ear-marked for capital expenditure but there’s another catch: The actual spends have been even lower – around 20% or so in some years.

As things stand, we are unaware of the exact outcomes of this relatively small spend. That’s why, it is imperative that the BMC adopts the practise of issuing outcome reports or performance reports either ward-wise or project-wise or both, so that citizens can track the spends. For Mumbaiites to be engaged, they must have information. And the information has to be accessible in the manner it is presented. Right now, it is not so. What would this take for the BMC mandarins?

Secondly, there have been new forays in urban finances such as multi-year budgets which allow a civic administration to detail out allocations for projects till they are complete. Projects – new or renewed – are hardly finished within a financial year. It then makes abundant sense to create multi-year budgeting – on the back of strategic long-term development planning – as the city of London, Canada, has done.

Thirdly, there’s consultative and participatory budget-making. To consult citizens’ representatives or groups before drawing up a budget should have been par for the course by now; it isn’t in any meaningful sense. A step ahead would be the participatory budget, a concept that took shape in the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre way back in 1989 and has since been adopted in more than 2,000 urban localities around the world.

It calls upon citizens to decide civic priorities through a series of representatives and voting, help decide the allocation of funds, and work with civic officials towards project completion. This has enhanced transparency and accountability of the civic body, and significantly increased citizens’ engagement with their own city. How about a pilot project in the next budget, Mr Commissioner?

First Published: Feb 08, 2018 10:16 IST

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