A study by the Planning Department of Karnataka reveals that - contrary to popular belief - the incidence of poverty in Karnataka is more acute in urban than rural areas. It reveals that though the urban population is 31% of the state's population, the urban poor make up 39% of the state's poor people. If that's the case, municipal budgets have an important role to play in overcoming poverty and bringing in social and economic development. Since Bangalore has the major share of the state's urban population and hence also of the urban poor, how far do the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike's budget priorities go towards fulfilling this role?

A plethora of facts and figures about capital and revenue receipts and expenditures have been provided in the BMP Budget for 2003-2004 as well as at the quarterly meetings of PROOF to discuss BMP accounts. But, as one participant at a PROOF meeting questioned, "Is the budget a mere financial statement or a vision of development?" No doubt, routinely fulsome rhetoric is not in shortfall from all mayors and finance committee chairmen to "meet basic needs of slum-dwellers" and "raise the standard of living of all above the poverty line". But the proof of this needs to be provided in the actual numbers.

A budget reflects the priorities in planning and performance of a body, says a paper prepared by the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. There was also much debate at the PROOF meetings on evolving suitable performance indicators for judging BMP. The 12th Schedule of the 74th Amendment sets out the powers and functions of urban local bodies. The urban local bodies' planning and performance should necessarily be evaluated against the functions listed in the 12th Schedule.

How far do municipal budgets safeguard the interests of the weaker sections of society, enable slum improvement and upgradation, urban poverty alleviation and planning for economic and social development - all of these functions listed in the 12th Schedule of the 74th Amendment? While "Power to the People" is the essence of the 74th Amendment, how far is citizens' participation allowed in the formulation of the budget and how much of the money is devolved as untied funds to take up works suggested by citizens?

It is currently impossible to evaluate the performance of the BMP budget in fulfilling human goals as the budget is merely a wishful and inflated financial statement reflecting the combined demands of the councillors. It is not a realistic document reflecting priorities decided upon, based on the actual resources available.

The budget is merely a wishful and inflated financial statement reflecting the combined demands of the councillors. It is not a realistic document reflecting priorities decided upon, based on the actual resources available. The growing gap between the BMP's promises to raise resources and its actual achievement in raising them was an area of serious concern voiced at the PROOF meetings. As such, the promises remain only on paper. And in the light of the much lower finances actually available than projected, there appears to be no credible, legitimate and accountable mechanism by which the Council decides which works are to be actually taken up and which shelved.

Also, the figures provided do not allow an evaluation of the performance of the BMP against identified goals. For instance, the financial statements do not tell us what proportion of money was spent on meeting basic needs, such as those of drinking water, toilets, sanitation infrastructure, education and health, especially of the weaker sections, as against items which may be considered as less essential.

One cannot help feeling that municipal budgets are getting hijacked to fulfil the demands of a particularly vociferous section of the community. Hence we have budgets promising flyovers, parking lots, fountains, shopping plazas, theme parks, jogging tracks, et al., while larger human concerns and equitable and sustainable development get buried beneath the huge heaps of cement, sand and steel needed for realising these. Fancy toilets come up in commercial areas even as slum dwellers lack basic toilet facilities. Very recently at a public hearing on water, women from various slums of Bangalore revealed that they are paying up to Rs.5 for a pot of drinking water as taps are non-existent or dry, even as potable water was being used to water gardens and fountains in traffic islands. Slum-dwellers would also be willing to pay reasonable and affordable users' fees for these facilities.

The fact is, in the past three years the money allotted in the BMP budget for slum development has remained absolutely unused, except in the last quarter of 2002-03 when Rs.17 lakhs was spent. One participant at PROOF also pointed to the irony that the Madivala shopping complex was built by relocating a slum and now the same complex is being sold to pay off loans.

There seems to be a need to evolve and adhere to certain principles or 'non-negotiables' while framing budgets in order to prioritise on essentials and shake off accusations of fostering skewed development. The fulfillment of the basic needs of the weakest to piped drinking water, under-ground drainage and toilets - must be consciously given priority before toilets in commercial areas and fountains in traffic islands. The Commissioner, Mr. M. R. Sreenivasa Murthy, never fails to reiterate that plans are afoot to provide water supply to all the newly added wards of Bangalore. But this is never the same as saying that drinking water will be first provided to the most deprived. "Basic needs before all else" - and especially before luxuries - must become the guiding mantra of budget-making.

Initiatives like that of Swabhimana at Integrated Sustainable Waste Management in ten wards were languishing very recently for lack of the promised infrastructure. Adequate numbers of containerised autos, bags for dry waste, personnel and mechanisms to collect wet, dry, and hazardous waste separately, hygienic bins inside every house, building, or community, closed trucks, proper equipment for waste handlers, garbage management in slums, etc., are yet to become satisfactory under Swachha Bangalore. There is a need to upgrade facilities in every ward to the standards prescribed by the Ministry of Environment & Forests Rules on Solid Waste Management. Beauty will come automatically along with cleanliness.

Again, money is spent on building shopping malls, indoor stadia (which remain unused) or the vote-bank catching Ambedkar Bhavans, etc., which it is promised will generate additional revenues for the municipalities. But these only end up as white elephants as the revenues they generate are not sufficient even for their annual upkeep. The Public Utility Building on the busy M.G. Road is supposedly rented at a ludicrously low rate.

At the same time, human development suffers in every ward. Scores of migrants who come to the city looking for work, such as cable-layers and construction workers are housed under tattered plastic sheets or in ventilation-less black tin houses without water and sanitation. These conditions are the cause of half the illness-related deaths in the country. The migrant children's futures are nipped in the bud for lack of creches (day-care centres) and camp schools. Most formal schools of the government look as if they are ready to collapse with the first rain.

Revenue generation through capital investments seem to take priority over investments in human development by providing decent workers' colonies with water and sanitation, creches for every 1,000 population, and proper schools and primary health centres in every ward.

An overwhelming amount of work needs to be done on roads, drains, culverts and vacant areas. At the same time, any number of unemployed and under-employed people in the slums are waiting for work. Budgets also need to provide untied funds to every ward every year for taking up plan and emergency works solely identified by the residents to bring in people's participation. Money meant for ward committees has also not been set apart as ward committees themselves have not been set up. Meanwhile, there is never any money or manpower in the engineering department for redressing grievances on a day-to-day basis. There is the paradox of an overwhelming amount of work that needs to be done, in terms of blocked drains and culverts, debris, overgrown vacant sites, potholed roads, etc., along with any number of unemployed and underemployed people in the slums waiting for work.

The engineering departments could execute these works with the help of untied funds employing casual labour from slums on a daily basis. All those seeking manual work on any given day could report to the engineering department and this could be a means to ensure the Right to Work of everyone in the municipal area. Curiously, there are no food-for-work programmes in urban areas though desperate rural masses are migrating massively to urban areas in search of work. Supplementing wages with abundantly available foodgrains from the bursting food godowns of the FCI would enable wages to be brought to need-based minimum wage levels - the easiest way to fight poverty - without putting a strain on cash resources.

In sum, Municipal budgets will need a lot of reorientation if municipalities are to become development agencies and not mere service providers, or worse still, the fire-fighters they have tended to become.