This is the first in the series of four pieces based on a two-hour long conversation Firstpost had with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation commissioner Ajoy Mehta
Known as the richest municipal corporation of the country, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is also looked on as being slothful, inept and corrupt. Be it monsoons woes, hospital strikes, healthcare, pothole-ridden roads, nullah-cleaning or garbage disposal, BMC’s role has been mired in its long-standing reputation of being lackadaisical and corrupt.
That perception got further solidified in the last few days with the first monsoon showers opening up potholes on every major and minor thoroughfare of Mumbai like chronic wounds. Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta is hellbent on doing whatever it takes to repair that perception.
A few days after ten third-party auditors were arrested by the Mumbai Police for submitting forged documents to dupe the BMC, sowing the seeds of the Rs 352 crore road repairs scam, Mehta told Firstpost in an hour-long interaction in the newsroom that there was a big disconnect between Mumbai citizens and the Mumbai corporation and he intends to attend to that.
“Ask any citizen of Mumbai what they think of the city. They will say, ‘I love the city… there’s no place like Mumbai on earth’. But ask them what they think about the BMC, they will dismiss us as horrible. Not only here, even a city like London faces the same issue. This made me wonder why there is this disconnect and where have we lost it. The people love the city but not those who run the city,” Mehta said.
Citing Max Weber’s concept of bureaucracy, Mehta said: “The bureaucracy tends to usurp to itself all the powers and no citizen in a democracy likes that. That is where the genesis of the problem lies — I will decide how your bedroom will be, how many taps you have, how much tax you will pay, the structure of the roads, and so on. This is where the perception gaps start emerging."
So, he said, the corporation has initiated measures to bridge the gap with citizens in two ways: One, by improving processes and procedures using information technology in such a way as to reduce the need for citizens to approach the corporation for their regular needs (issue of certificates, payment of taxes, etc) and, two, by changing the systems to make the local BMC officials directly responsible for the quality of civic works in their jurisdiction.
“Initially, we had no way of breaking down these perception gaps. But now, two things are helping us change. One is the press and the other is the IT revolution. The press, especially the electronic and social media, has helped narrow down the gap between the service providers and the service receivers. The receivers can now tell the providers where they’re going wrong and vice versa. Of course, with media churning out so much information in the open, people are bound to be resentful. But this gap will gradually close thanks to the media,” the BMC chief said.
Quoting a Chinese saying – God, protect me from fires, floods, earthquakes and government officials – Mehta sportingly added that if you don’t have to go to government offices to pay the taxes, for instance, then this perception can change.
“We are trying to shift processes online. The perception about the corporation will definitely change when one doesn’t have to go through the tedious process of being tossed around from one desk to another,” Mehta said hoping to make public dealing with the corporation “as simple as getting a Burmese visa where all you need to do is type in your details, upload your photograph, and after a 24-hour verification process download your visa. But if I have to go to the embassy and stand in a queue, I’ll find a hundred faults. Thus, we are hoping that soon, the perception changes".
The second big reason for the poor public perception about the corporation, Mehta said, was the poor quality of civic works as exemplified by the potholes on Mumbai roads. He made a reference to the ensuing criminal action against erring civic officials, even as two chief engineers have recently been arrested and remanded to police custody. Both the civic engineers have been under suspension since April, after a primary inquiry revealed bad quality work by contractors in 34 roads in South Mumbai, as well as the western and eastern suburbs. The total cost of repairs is estimated to be Rs 354 crores.
Referring to the hue and cry over the road scam and the continuing procession of BMC officers to Mumbai police lock up—with two chief engineers, who sit on top of the food chain of the department, joining the march—Mehta said: “This is a warning that we must have systems in place. I strongly feel that knee-jerk reactions are not the solutions. The long-term solution is to make your systems transparent, fair and make them deliver what they are supposed to. For instance, transparency can be ensured by conducting bidding through e-tenders. We are shifting the process online. The priority is to correct our systems. Secondly, to make it fair, you must have qualifying requirements such that anybody capable of doing the task can participate. We have eliminated unreasonable and unfair conditions."
“Thirdly, we are trying to put in checks and balances on how we execute the work. Usually, we tend to push the substandard quality of the outcome on to somebody,” the civic chief said.
Mehta's sting is in the tail and needs some explaining. When he said "we tend to push the substandard quality of the outcome on to somebody" he was hinting at the time-honoured escaped route BMC babus had given themselves. Shorn of bureaucratese what it simply means is this: As per the usual procedure for any civil work such road relaying or repair, BMC engineers merely monitor the work but do not certify its quality. It is the job of a third party auditor to certify that the construction has fulfilled all specified norms. This cozy arrangement ensured that no blame stuck on BMC officials for poor quality of construction, just like water on a duck's back.
Mehta has not just ensured that the corporation filed charges against all officers in the road scam, but has effected a fundamental change in accountability for civic works pattern. He has eliminated third party auditors altogether and fixed the responsibility of quality certification on the engineer of the area. This brings the onus fair and square on the BMC officials thus reducing scope for substandard work and clearly identified legal liability in case of default.
This small change, Mehta said, will go a long way in ensuring that the quality of BMC civic works will improve drastically and bridge the perception gap substantially. So this monsoon as you negotiate the craters on the road, cushion the bumps with the thought that maybe things will be better by next year.
Part Two of the series will examine whether it's time for fancy consultant firms to pack up and leave