The year 2022 ended with dramatic scenes at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) headquarters. The police stationed at the headquarters had to break off the scuffle between the two Shiv Sena factions. The fight was over the control of the Sena office situated inside the historic BMC building at Fort.
Like the Sena, a number of political parties have their offices on the ground floor of the headquarters. However, after the brawl all the party offices were sealed off on the orders of BMC Administrator IS Chahal.
This blanket lockdown on their offices has irked politicians across party lines. They have protested outside the headquarters demanding immediate reopening. Several former municipal councillors have also written letters to Chahal urging him to withdraw the order. However, nearly a week after the incident, BMC officials seem to be in no rush to agree to their demands.
But the situation on the ground floor of the headquarters has calmed down. The caretakers of party offices like the Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, along with a few former corporators were seen sharing late afternoon snacks together when we visited the BMC headquarters on January 5th. “We all are mostly friendly with each other, there’s nothing against anybody at a personal level,” remarks Kamlesh Yadav, former councillor from the BJP.
Who uses party offices inside the BMC building?
“I have been working as a caretaker of Shiv Sena office here for the last 37 years but it is for the first time that all the party offices have been sealed like this,” says Bala Bant. The offices are allocated to parties depending on the results of BMC elections, the party that gets the most seats gets a bigger office while those that won fewer seats get smaller offices.
The term of all the councillors expired in March 2022, and the BMC elections are yet to be announced. Even then the offices were kept open and status-quo was maintained on its occupants until now. The Sena and the BJP have more office space as per the results of the last elections. Apart from the parties mentioned earlier, the Indian National Congress as well as the Samajwadi Party have their offices inside the BMC headquarters.
“At least 10 to 15 former corporators (councillors) used to sit here. They interacted with officials in various departments, do their work and leave. Not just our party corporators but even the ones from other parties. Even though their term had expired, it certainly didn’t seem like the offices were closed,” says Bant.
Read more: Understanding Mumbai’s municipal corporation
Is there a purpose to party offices if the term of councillors has expired?
Comfortable couches are placed outside every party office. Seated on the sofa outside his party office, Yadav says, “When citizens come here for some or the other work, they often do not know where to go or who to talk to. We help them take their grievances and questions to the higher ups.”
When asked if he believes citizens are aware of such offices at BMC headquarters, he says, “It cannot be said that everybody knows about it, but generally people are aware that their corporators are a link between them and the BMC officials.”
The sentiment is similar across the board. Congress leader of the opposition during the last term, Ravi Raja says, “These offices are for the public and they should remain for the public. BMC is not like other civic bodies. There are a lot of departments and it is almost like a mini state government. People bring a lot of issues to the head office; if not to their representatives, where else will people go?”
When the term of the councillors had expired and the entire civic body came under the control of Chahal as an administrator, members across political parties had requested for a status-quo on the party offices. “But now, because of this incident (between the Sena factions) he has probably taken this decision to avoid any further controversy. The right way to go about it would have been to take action against those who were involved in unruly behaviour and not against every party office,” Raja says.
Party offices are pointless if no councillors: BMC official
However, BMC officials seem to hold a different view. One of its Joint Municipal Commissioners, who did not wish to be identified, says party offices at headquarters definitely have a valid purpose but not when there are no elected councillors.
“People can very well meet political party members at their offices. If residents of a particular area wish to meet their former councillors, they can very well do it in their respective areas. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to come here for that,” he says. “Meetings between councillors, citizens and the mayor used to happen earlier but none of these offices are functional at the moment. So what is the point of having party offices here?”
Meanwhile, Raja says, “I was sitting at the office as well and have interacted with so many citizens over the last one year and tried to resolve their problems. These offices have been functional.”
Chahal remained unavailable for comment. “There is controversy attached to the issue now so no one would be open to talk to the press about it at the moment,” the Joint Commissioner says.
‘Former councillors have become social workers’
Milind Mhaske, CEO of Praja Foundation, a city based NGO working on governance issues, says, “Citizens are going to former councillors for help at the head office but they don’t have any locus standi. What they are doing right now is social work. Although what they are doing should be appreciated as citizens generally find them more approachable than the higher ups.”
He adds that because BMC is running under an administrator, it is not worrisome that party offices are sealed. “What we need to worry about is that BMC is running without an elected body of councillors in the first place for nearly a year,” Mhaske says.
He stresses that in a scenario where we have an elected body of councillors, party offices are needed at headquarters because the councillors don’t have a dedicated office. “If someone is coming from a far away place to the headquarters, they need some place to sit to do their work. It is unfair that councillors do not have their own office spaces at par with the bureaucrats.”
In the meantime, those like Raja and Yadav say they will continue to perform their functions at BMC headquarters regardless of party office or an election. “They can’t stop us from meeting citizens right outside the party offices or right outside the BMC building for that matter,” says Raja.