Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Garbage Mess Inspires Political Move By Biz Elite

Frustrated by a festering civic issue that has tarnished the image of the Garden City, wellheeled Bangaloreans plan to fund election bids by eminent citizens for seats in local government. With mounds of garbage lying uncleared across Bangalore for weeks, the likes of Mohandas Pai and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw have been provoked to influence local politics in a manner never before seen in India.

“Corrupt politicians are clearly not interested in governance. For that, we have to get capable citizens elected to the local bodies,” said Mazumdar-Shaw, the chairman of Biocon, India’s largest biotechnology company.

The plan by the corporate and business elite to influence local elections by financing candidates comes three days after Wipro Chairman Azim Premji called for a citizens’ movement to deal with the problem of uncleared trash. Garbage has been piling up on the city’s streets after villagers near landfills on the outskirts of Bangalore decided to stop accepting refuse from the city. The high court threatened to supersede the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, the civic body, following which the waste has begun being removed.

The garbage issue has become a turning point for greater participation by citizens in the civic affairs of Bangalore, Mazumdar-Shaw observed. The funding plan, which has just been mooted, will involve a transparent cheque-based system, she said.

Prominent Bangaloreans Team Up For Citizen Action Group
Shaw, former Infosys executive Pai and other prominent Bangaloreans have come together to form a Citizen Action Group with the intent of finding sustainable solutions to urban issues like waste disposal.

“There are 20 nominated seats in the BBMP council, most of which are political nominations,” said Mohandas Pai. “Citizens need to stand up and be heard and we need to help make that happen.” Pai, an IT industry veteran who has headed finance and human resource functions at Infosys, India’s second largest software services exporter, is currently running a multimillion dollar venture capital fund that invests in emerging technology companies.

The election-funding proposal is being thrashed out by the Citizen Action Group, but Mazumdar-Shaw said she was confident other corporate citizens would embrace the idea once it is formalised and presented.

Vivek Kulkarni, a former IT secretary of Karnataka who is now an entrepreneur, said the initiative to fund local elections was a “wonderful idea.” “If you look at New York, it is (Michael) Bloomberg as mayor who has been able to bring down the crime rate. Everywhere, it is successful business-people who become mayors,” Kulkarni said.

Rohini Nilekani, who runs Arghyam, a public charitable foundation that works in the area of water and sanitation, said it feels as if there is no government. “The crisis carries a great opportunity within it. It is a great wake-up call to citizens.”

While there is consensus across the board that the idea of funding local elections is innovative and noble, not everybody is sold on the success of the initiative. Among them is Swati Ramanathan, cofounder of Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based non-profit organisation that works for greater citizen participation in urban local government.

“If you remember, during the last elections, a number of people without any political allegiance contested the polls and almost none won. What we need, most importantly, are people with the right credentials to represent the citizens.”

Krishna Byre Gowda, a Congress legislator, said the garbage crisis is only a reflection of the absence of a vision for the future of what he describes as a “global city.” “There is nobody to give the civic authorities an overarching vision. It does not require earth-shattering new thinking,” he said. The Bharatiya Janata Party, he said, is consumed by internal squabbles, with ministers counting their last days in power before an election next year.

The Congress is no great shape either to confront the city’s challenges, Gowda confessed. “I can assure you we are not bad as these guys. But that doesn’t mean that we have the institutional mechanism to look at these challenges.” 

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