The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is a large, complex organisation whose functioning largely remains enveloped in secrecy. Its website is a maze; decisions taken by its pivotal body—the standing committee—out of the public radar; and calls for independent audits routinely blocked.
Decoding BMC’s numerous services and mammoth budget is a daunting task, best performed by seasoned journalists and accounting experts.
ASICS 2017, an independent benchmarking of cities report, finds that BMC needs to “adopt open data standards, usher in radical transparency in finances and operations; systematically provide actionable data at a neighborhood level”.
Reports like these repeatedly highlight at a national level what activists such as Bhaskar Prabhu have been trying to implement on-ground. Bhaskar is a well-known Right To Information (RTI) activist who launched the non-profit Mahiti Adhikar Manch in 2006 to advocate the use of RTI, to train people to use the Act, and also monitor its implementation.
Bhaskar helped BMC create an RTI Technical Advisory Committee in 2013 to better implement the RTI Act and adopt transparent practices. His organisation has also conducted social audits of parks and a traffic island (a small raised area in the middle of a road which provides a safe place for pedestrians, in the city). He calls his efforts a way of teaching people how to “use the system” but despite 14 years of work, the municipal corporation’s workings remain opaque and citizen interest in RTI or social audits dismal.
We spoke to Bhaskar Prabhu to understand how he tried to pull the levers of transparency in BMC and where did the process falter. Edited excerpts:
The RTI Act was enforced in 2005. What is something about the Act that’s little known?
The RTI Act brought in transparency that wasn’t there earlier. When the Act was enforced, there was a fear. But as time has gone by, the fear also has. Within the Act, under Section 2(j), there’s a provision of inspecting works. It clearly says that citizens have the right to inspect public works and documents.
(This means) that if someone wants to inspect (say) KEM’s hospital services or Public Distribution Systems like ration shops – they can. Many people complain about the state of roads in Mumbai, but they are not interested in procuring documents, such as work orders, tender copies, specifications, norms, and then countering the public authority with documentary evidence. BMC (also) doesn’t want people to go deep into it.
Is it easy to get this information from the BMC?
These rights are engraved in the Act but it is less used by citizens. Sometimes people just read the Act and say, I would like to carry out inspections. But that’s not how it works. When you want to inspect, you need to know the process. You need to have a work order, you need to know what are the laid out norms, what are the restrictions on the agency. But receiving these documents is the difficult part.
“Sometimes people just read the Act and say, I would like to carry out inspections. But that’s not how it works”
How much of this information is available on BMC’s website?
BMC puts its tenders online but it’s very difficult to find it on the website. So technically if you ask them, they will say the tender is uploaded. But where is it, under which department? That detail is very difficult to page out.
What can people do if the information is not online?
Section 4 under the RTI Act mandates that everything has to be published in the public domain. And people should demand it. They can go to the (BMC) office, take the documents and check for details like how much digging has to be done, what specifications have to be followed, and if everything is happening as per the work order. If the BMC is not publishing the details on the website, then make an RTI (application) and ask. Citizens think of (for example) a flyover and say that the work is not good. But how can you say when you don’t have any documentary evidence?
How can an average citizen carry out inspections? How does the process work?
When you’re given the right of inspection of a work, that means you can conduct a social audit of the work. You need to involve the local residents and community in this process.
Have you conducted any social audits in Mumbai? What was the result of it?
Yes, we conducted social audits in parks and a traffic island in 2016. BMC gives road dividers, traffic islands, parks and playgrounds for maintenance to third-party contractors. There should be a notice board with details about specifications: who is the contractor, when the work begins, and the like, but it’s rarely there.
In 2016, we inspected the Bhavani Mata Kridangan, Sadakant Davand Ground, Dakre Udyan, Kesharbagh Waghreshar temple with garden, and Dadasaheb Phalke Chowk (traffic island) all in the F-South ward (Dadar).
As information (related to the maintenance) wasn’t available on the BMC website, we made an application under Section 6 of the RTI Act and took the work order and inspected it.
At the Bhavani Mata Kridangan, we informed the local residents that around Rs 1,10,000 is spent per month on maintenance (which wasn’t being reflected). As a result of our inspection, the BMC brought a ready lawn and installed it in the Bhavani Mata Kridangan. We invited the local residents for a jan sunvai or a public hearing and explained what we had found. For nearly two-three years after that, the playground was well maintained. Maintenance work began in the other parks as well. The traffic island was repaired and rectification was done.
What was BMC’s response to such an audit?
At that time, Mr (Vishvas) Mote was the Assistant Commissioner of the F-south ward. He cooperated with us. Social audit also gives officers the power to counter vested interest. As a result of this, penalties were levied on the contractors. They cannot escape it because there is documentary evidence.
How involved were the citizens?
It took us six-seven months to get the details, involve the community, conduct inspections, point the lacunae, and record the whole process. People still complain about maintenance. I tell them I showed you the system, use it. Local people should get invested in social audits.
“Local people should get invested in social audits”
One is an active citizenry that cares and is involved. The other is the corporation’s responsibility to be transparent. Tell us about your work towards creating transparency.
Under Section 4 the RTI Act, public authorities must publish information suo moto. BMC is a large organisation and the implementation of RTI is weak in it. In 2012-13, Sitaram Kumte was the Municipal Commissioner and we suggested that there should be an RTI Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) where citizens and officers can interact and come to a conclusion about what information should be on the website and how to put it up. Ajoy Mehta (BMC Commissioner 2015-2019) disbanded the committee in 2017. Shailesh Gandhi (Former Information Commissioner with the Central Information Commission) headed it.
How did you push for the creation of this committee?
We networked with them. That’s the only way we could do it.
What did the committee achieve?
It was decided that departments in every ward should comply with Section 4 of the RTI Act. At least the first five sub causes (under Section 4) such as the functions of the department, the decision-making process, how the work should be undertaken, the norms of the authority.
There are 69 departments in BMC, including the city-wide wards. Every department should comply with section 4 but it doesn’t. I tried to bring transparency at the ward level. Within one ward also there are 17-20 departments such as Assistant Engineer Maintenance, Solid Waste Management, Pest Control Department, Building and Factories Department, depending on the ward activity.
I offered my services to the F-South ward. Every week I would meet one department head and give them a chart of what they should prepare. It took me nearly six months to prepare a manual for the F-South ward and it was replicated by all 24 wards. These manuals were published on the website but I still say it’s not complete, there’s more to do.
Did all departments co-operate with you?
There was dialogue, a smooth flow of providing information, but we were not successful in bringing transparency in the Building Proposal department which needed scanning of old building plans. We were not able to do it due to vested interests.
What about the expenditure of these departments? Was that also revealed?
BMC works on a SAP ( an enterprise resource planning software) system. If SAP is made transparent, it’s sufficient. When we were requesting Ajoy Mehta to make it transparent, he didn’t do it. He also disbanded the TAC.
At that time, a big scam was uncovered in road works. Devendra Fadnavis (Maharashtra Chief Minister 2014-19) announced that he would be forming a transparency committee at the state level. Ajoy Mehta said that as a committee is being formed at the state level, TAC can forward its advice to the state. He then disbanded the committee. He didn’t like us repeatedly asking him to make the SAP system transparent.
Have you challenged this decision?
I filed a complaint under section 18 (of the RTI Act) and suggested to the State Information Commissioner (Ratnakar Gaikwad) that there should be a committee for the implementation of the RTI Act and especially, Section 4. Mr Gaikwad gave a positive order directing the Maharashtra state to create such a committee but the state has gone to the High Court and acquired a stay order. I am trying to follow up. It’s a tedious battle.
“RTI and social audits is the way to bring transparency and accountability”
Has this experience altered your way of working?
I never feel dejected. There are strong vested interests. But RTI and social audits is the way to bring transparency and accountability. But when you conduct social audits, you must involve a lot of people. Doing it alone can create vulnerabilities.