The recent formation of a new Maharashtra government and the appointment of a new chief minister has quickly led to abrupt policy changes for Mumbaikars. On June 29th, ex-chief minister Uddhav Thackeray resigned from his post, and on the next day, Eknath Shinde was sworn in as the new CM of Maharashtra.
The new government, a coalition of BJP and rebel Shiv Sena MLAs, is set to bring in policy changes, especially in the face of the forthcoming Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections.
The result of a widely publicised and unpredictable political conflict was sudden changes in government decisions, particularly the controversial reversal of Uddhav Thackeray’s earlier decision to move the metro car shed project away from Aarey Colony. In addition to this, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project has also been greenlit.
CM Eknath Shinde is already considering a proposal to stall the delimitation of wards in Mumbai that were announced recently. This would mean a reversal of the new ward boundaries recently declared by the BMC, which had carried out the exercise on the orders of the State Election Commission. This would delay elections further – already delayed because of COVID-19 and other related procedures in all these cities. Cities like Mumbai currently have Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officers adjudicating as administrators till the election process is complete.
Drastic changes in policy by the Maharashtra government
Taking a cue from the new government in power, Mumbai’s administrator and its former municipal commissioner Iqbal Chahal has cancelled five projects, all of which were opposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership in the BMC. Incidentally, almost all of them, including the setting up of an overhead dome-shaped aquarium proposed within the zoo (Rs 44 crores), modernisation of the abattoir to increase its capacity (Rs 402 crores), and a proposal for making additional animal enclosures (Rs 291 crores) were pushed forward by the earlier Sena government’s second in command, its environment minister Aaditya Thackeray.
Chahal explained to Hindustan Times that he found that these projects had “fundamental errors” in their contracts and fresh contracts could be floated after reworking the technicalities.
The citizens who had voted these legislators to power 2.5 years back in Maharashtra are suddenly left baffled by the abrupt change in government and what it means for governance, administration, projects, and policies. Frequent announcements of new policies, reversal of old ones and lack of clarity about implementation or impact have people asking if these were based on principles of governance at all. Simply put, politically motivated decisions seem to have become common practice.
Projects announced by the previous government are being shelved, and the shelved projects are being revived.
While such policy changes and reversals are normal when a government changes post-elections every five years, how does one accept policy reversals when the same set of people with a different leader return to power? Can policies and projects be drastically reversed mid-term? Can there be a system in place that ensures citizens are protected while policies change and/or are altered?
Administrators want to avoid conflict
“There are enough checks and balances within the system to combat such knee-jerk decisions. However, the problem is not the system but the administrators who are scared to stick to the rule and instead stick to pleasing the powers-to-be,” explains Eknath Khobragade, a retired Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer and founder of Samvidhaan, an organisation that works to create awareness about the Indian Constitution. “Generally, politicians only take policy decisions and their execution is done by the administrators. So, if an administrator has project approval and funds sanctioned, nothing stops him from carrying on with said work,” he added.
He spoke about the bureaucracy’s reluctance to get into conflict with political leaders. “Today we have a situation where administrators dither from doing any work that could displease their political bosses. As a result, the administrators not only fail to do their duty but also fail to take a stand against wrong policies. This leads to a peculiar situation where politicians intervene to get their work done their way, which is harmful since it disturbs the natural flow of checks and balances that is inherent in the system,” says Khobragade.
He foresees that stalling the functioning of the District Planning and Development Council (DPDC) could lead to project cost escalation and corruption, since a new government would mean new projects, new contractors and new terms and conditions in favour of the new leadership, adding financial burdens on the taxpayers and depriving people of their benefit.
Nitai Mehta, founder and managing trustee of Praja Foundation closely monitors the functioning of Urban Local Bodies (ULB) across India and feels that the only way to insulate citizens from such radical policy changes is to empower ULBs to function as independent decision-making bodies at the local level by decentralising our existing decision-making structures.
“Currently, our country has a two-tier power structure, where decision-making power is concentrated entirely at the central and the state government level. The ULBs are controlled entirely by the state government – the state can ratify, reverse, overrule, or simply abort decisions taken by the local corporations or simply dissolve the municipal corporation and appoint an administrator as is the case in Mumbai now. A municipal corporator’s decisions cannot be implemented unless it is approved and ratified by the state,” says Mehta.
He feels that empowering ULBs and corporators would mean fewer chances of drastic changes in policies since the state governments would not have any right to interfere in the functioning of cities. It would also mean that voters could directly vote Corporators in or out depending on their decisions, and there would lessen chances for drastic changes since they would have a better grasp of local issues.
On-ground impact of the new Maharashtra government
“There are political policy-making decisions and there are administrative decisions. Many politicians bypass the entire system to push in their pet projects by bypassing the administrative procedures to get approvals for their people. It is such projects that fail to stand scrutiny when a change in government takes place, since generally shortcuts are adopted for clearances and proper formalities and approvals are not followed,” says James John, K-E co-ordinator of Action for Good Governance and Networking in India (Agni), a civic monitoring organisation, that works for creating awareness among citizens for good governance.
James recalls how the system of the Local Area Citizens Committee (LACC) was made redundant by not conducting meetings, thus ensuring that it was on its way out back in 2014. “Citizens in cities are waging a daily battle against multiple issues like water logging, potholes on roads, clean drinking water etc and this is yet another battle that will be added to it,” he says. “In a democracy, people elect legislators, who in turn are supposed to collectively decide their leader. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong or illegal about what is happening; this is how our democratic system is meant to function,” adds James.
On the ground, the citizens are already feeling the impact of the mid-term Maharashtra government. Senior journalist Sunil Shinde, who covers the BMC, says that students of Mumbai’s civic schools had not received school supplies including textbooks and stationery because of the changes at the Maharashtra government level till the start of July 2022. “Why should children be denied their basic educational rights because of changes at the political level?” he asks.
Unpredictable twists and turns are now a big part of Indian politics. Protecting or safeguarding governance of cities from the impact of such unexpected turmoils is the need of the hour.