Saturday, 7 October 2006

Strangle the Decentralization

Municipal Corporation for Vasai-Virar Region, Maharashtra, Indiaby Remigius de Souza
There is a move by the Maharashtra State Government, as appeared in the section of press (14 Sept. 2006), to impose a Municipal Corporation on the semi-urban Municipal Councils of Vasai, Virar, Nalasopara and Navghar-Manikpur and the surrounding 48 villages in the coastal plain and hills that have Gram Panchayats. Of course, it is motivated by greed for profit and power by the vested interest; the Government is the facilitator.

Vasai-Virar area, a part of Thane District, situates across the Mumbai, across the Thane Creek or Ulhas River, on the north. Mumbai’s suburban trains run up to Virar. The coastal plain is flanked by Sahyadri ranges on the east. This has network of tributaries of the creek, which are used for local transport during the high tides and fishing, and is a source of water for the saltpans.

As the land and real estate prices started soaring in the metropolis the people started moving out. In the metropolis there are lakhs of residential units lay vacant, built/purchased as commodity for investment, not as a need of shelter, while a large number of buildings are in dilapidated condition, slums apart. It also resulted in the spurt in building, mostly residential, around the railway stations in the Vasai-Virar area without planning, without water supply and social services, indeed chaotic conurbations. No economic expert or physical planner has any answer to this malady.

We heard from private gossip that the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) woke up a couple of decades later, and some private firm was appointed to plan this area. Why should media take note of such issues, as they are not as glamorous as Hollywood – Bollywood – Tellywood figures? We know nothing more.

Now the imposition of Municipal Corporation on the semi-urban and largely rural region will only be disastrous to the land, waters and the people. Not only the pastures, orchards, flower and vegetable gardens, forest and farms will be destroyed by turning them into non-agricultural land, as is the precedent, for the benefit of empty coffers of the State, but it will further marginalize the landless peasants and the tribal, and push them to destitution.

The other evils are numerous which the citizens daily experience in the surrounding existing municipal corporations. Though the Chief Secretary boasts of ‘integrated development’ (whatever it may mean) the locals have already experienced the deaths by malnutrition of tribal children; the State Government’s record is very poor on many accounts. We can’t forget the martyrs of Sanyukta Maharashtra Movement, the farmers shot dead for demanding better price for their land acquired for Thal-Vayshet Project, the Nagpur assault on the tribal, and now the recent suicides of farmers in Vidarbha… besides the floods and riots and bomb blasts.

But the worst of all the ill effects, the 48 villages shall loose their autonomy by this imposition, thus nullifying the provisions and amendments in the Constitution for their betterment and empowerment. Decentralisation of power, besides transparency and accountability, is essential for governance. When institutions grow too large they become unmanageable. A banyan tree cannot stand on single stem when it spreads without adventitious roots. It is nature’s way: split, bifurcate or divide bodies, a cell or a community, from bacteria to galaxies.

Maharashtra, like other states, should be divided. Mumbai too needs to be divided into several corporations so that people shall have more say in their affairs. Mumbai has grown too large to manage for the corporation and the government, and many authorities that sit on its neck, now that it has grown beyond 100 lakh people. But the government is out to strangle the very concept of decentralisation with the noose of legal provisions on the existing 52 local self-governments in the Vasai-Virar region, instead of supporting and strengthening them.

The constitutional provisions and amendments for the villages remain on paper. The state government’s move to consolidate the centralised power on this region only amounts for short-term gains for a few and permanent losses to the land, waters and people may be called state terrorism – but without bang – with legal weapon.

Our benevolent government has started an education channel – “Gyan Darshan” – for the students on the TV. Who does follow it is a question. Perhaps the government could invest to start a 24x7 TV channel – “Gram Darshan”, solely for the six lakhs villages, by the villagers, and of the villagers, in all regional languages, of course, no advertisements, no entry to Bollywood – Tellywood stars, heroes and hoaxes. It should work mainly for the non-formal education for the adults, children and women. So also, All India Radio could start “Gram Bharati”, similar to “Vividh Bharati”. The corporate, however, may sponsor the programmes without any advertisements or even mention of their names; their rewards may be “tax benefits” if sanctioned by the Hon. Finance Minister!

What is needed is devolution of powers to Gram Panchayats. That needs to educate people. As a matter-of-fact, the constitutional provisions and the Gram Panchayat Laws should be taught at non-formal education for adults (if it exists) and at formal education in the primary schools in the rural areas.

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Remigius de Souza

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