Bangaloreans are a disgruntled lot today. The skewed development taking place in the city and the starkly visible disparities hit the eyes of even casual visitors. The vainglorious dream, fed to Bangaloreans in the recent past, of their city being transformed into another Singapore has already frayed around the edges. All the steel and glass towers of the glitzy facade of the silicon city cannot hide its seamy underbelly where life is pieced together under plastic tents, with fear and want as constant companions. The globalisation of Bangalore has brought in its own share of discontents.

“The loss of greenery is only a visible manifestation of several other losses – the loss of cultural identity, bountiful natural resources and a contented and leisurely life, not to forget the loss of secure and decent jobs and livelihoods. Along with these losses comes the increase of squatter settlements without basic amenities and crumbling social infrastructure,” says Satyavrata, a leader of the Sarvodaya movement and long-time resident of Bangalore.

“All this is happening,” says C Balakrishnan, Honorary President of the union of contract municipal workers of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP-city government), “while more and more land and resources are earmarked for choice segments such as Infotech and Biotech, infrastructure corridors, flyovers and other gargantuan projects that are often financed by astronomical loans in less and less transparent deals, often without the full knowledge of the local elected body and without people’s participation. Political power and decision-making have slipped into the hands of a nexus of land mafia, politicians, contractors and bureaucrats”.

The BSF supports the creation of the Metropolitan Planning Committee for Bangalore, a constitutionally mandated body under the Nagarapalika Act, which the state has failed to set up in continuing violation of a Constitutional requirement.

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The ordinary citizen feels powerless in the face of these forces to influence the direction his/her city is taking, not least because of the lack of formal fora where people’s organisations can voice their concerns. Many opine that the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF), created in the recent past in the name of public-private partnership, strove mostly for cosmetic changes to Bangalore, while ignoring basic needs, social justice and social sector development. Former BMP Commissioner, K Jairaj, had said at a public meeting that the BATF had failed to look at issues faced by the poor.

A study by CIVIC Bangalore, on decentralisation in Bangalore, finds that the BATF provided ‘genuine stakeholders’ of the city, the residents’ welfare associations, the urban poor, trade unions and other people's movements and civil society organisations, at best, tokenistic participation at their summits. The BATF did not show enough regard for the implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment or Nagarapalika Act, the definitive legislation for bringing in decentralisation and people’s participation in urban areas, finds the study.

It is this lacuna of a people’s platform, where all sections of society are represented, that was sought to be filled by the launch of the Bangalore Social Forum (BSF) on Independence Day. The BSF believes that “Another Bangalore is Possible”. It is a city-level chapter of the Karnataka Social Forum which in turn is affiliated to the World Social Forum. The BSF has been initiated mainly by leaders of trade unions, such as C Balakrishnan, Hon. President of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike contract municipal workers’ union, Devdas Rao, Central Committee Member of the All-India Bank Employees’ Association, Michael Fernandes of the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat, and others like Satyavrata, an active functionary of the Sarvodaya Movement and Bhoga Nanjunda of CIEDS. S Krishnaswamy, former General Secretary of the General Insurance Employees’ Union is the Chief Coordinator. Several coordinators, among them Prof. L N Gopalakrishna of Sheshadripuram College, Kalappa of HMKP, Ravindranath from a residents’ welfare association, trustees of CIVIC Bangalore, G K Kulkarni of the All-India Bank Officers’ Confederation, and Rudrappa, a social activist, were named during launch to convene different interest groups and carry the agenda forward. But BSF continues to be an informal forum.

The BSF says its vision is to provide an inclusive platform for all those rendered voiceless so far, and supports a development model for Bangalore based on humanism, equity and environmental sustainability. Prof. Babu Mathew, trade union activist, former faculty member of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, and currently Country Director, Action AID, while speaking at the launch, stressed the need for the BSF not to remain just a ‘space’ but become a ‘platform’ with a minimum plan of action. “The BSF needs to resist the urban-centred, hi-tech growth model of the World Bank and the BATF,” he stressed.

Another criticism leveled at the BATF is that the body sidelined the democratically elected and legitimate decision-making body for Bangalore, the BMP Council, and attempted to become a parallel body to it. This was resisted by a few BMP Commissioners. Sreenivasa Murthy, when he was the BMP Commissioner, distanced himself from BATF at one of their summits by stating that he was required by statute to be accountable to the BMP (City) Council and that he was not required to follow the agenda set by BATF or be accountable to them.

The BSF has set for itself an ambitious mission of pursuing an alternative agenda for Bangalore. It plans to demand from the state improvements to the KMC Act for effective decentralisation of funds, functions and functionaries to BMP and further downwards to wards committees to make them genuinely self-governing institutions in the true spirit of the Nagarapalika Act. The forum wants that functions, not just for providing civic services, but also for ensuring basic needs of food, employment, shelter, human rights and social development of all, should be devolved to the urban local body, the BMP. In line with this, BSF says it will demand and press for:

    - Creation of the Metropolitan Planning Committee for Bangalore, a constitutionally mandated body under the Nagarapalika Act, which the state has failed to set up in a flagrant and strangely unquestioned violation of a Constitutional requirement, for more than 12 years.

    - That formal institutions for people’s participation envisaged in the Nagarapalika Act, such as wards committees, must be transformed to become multi-stakeholder fora and give representation in addition to the elected representatives, to various interest groups within a ward, such as the associations of residents, slum-dwellers and other marginalized, women, youth, workers, traders and employers, NGOs, etc.

    - Such a multi-stakeholder forum would be necessary also at the city level to interact with the elected BMP Council, possibly through its mayor and the chairpersons of the Standing Committees. Through such fora, it is hoped that a genuine people’s agenda can be set while securing public scrutiny and hence greater transparency and accountability in all public policies and decisions, including loans and investments. This would be in complete contrast to the BATF in which a handful of corporate sector leaders set the agenda for the whole city and fixed deadlines for bureaucrats heading the BMP and other parastatals, such as BWSSB (water and sewerage board) and the BMTC (metro transport corporation). The BATF had no involvement with the elected representatives of the BMP Council, or with the wards committees at the grassroots level.

    - Holding of ward sabhas in all urban areas (with a polling booth as unit, akin to grama sabhas in the rural areas) to also enable common people’s participation in decision-making.

    - Institutionalised mechanisms for people’s participation in ward visioning, planning, budgeting, monitoring and auditing exercises at ward level, not just for ward works but for the social sector as well.

The BSF’s constituents acknowledge that all this will require intense lobbying at state government and BMP level to bring in changes in legislation and rules. But constituents like CIVIC Bangalore have previous experience in working on the 74th Amendment both with the state government as well as BMP. Other constituents have a good track record of working on social sector issues and mobilising people. As regards funding for all these activities, BSF members feel that pooling of the already existing resources within the various constituents will be needed in the early stages.

There is however scepticism about how inclusive these multi-stakeholder platforms will be at the ward levels. The fear is that the traditional power structures will not allow the marginalized and other genuine people’s organisations to so easily gain power in these grassroots level decision-making bodies. “Opposing forces will not keep quiet,” says Michael Fernandes of the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat, “and hence it will be imperative for the BSF to be ready for sacrifices”. The sacrifice needed will be for BSF to invest, with a great deal of voluntarism, in a massive awareness and capacity building exercise of citizens, especially the urban poor, to counter these forces.