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A Study in Contrast

Almost everyone in the private sector has experienced the pain of the recession of the past couple of years. Perquisites have been taken away, wages have been frozen and the threat of losing one's job constantly hangs over one's head..Click here to see cartoon

The behaviour of the municipal corporation of Mumbai stands in sharp contrast. Octroi collections, its main source of revenue, have been growing very slowly and may even fall in absolute terms this year. But there's no sign that the corporation is therefore thinking of cutting non-essential costs. It has just spent a substantial sum of money in doing up new offices for the members of the mayor's council. And unlike the private sector, municipal employees have won themselves a new raise; they of course face no threat of dismissal. Again, in sharp contrast to the private sector, where companies are cutting the cost of its products, the corporation is increasing the cost of its services through hikes in the street tax and so on.

It is not surprising that the corporation can do all this with impunity. For one, it is a monopoly. Even public sector corporations which are not monopolies, like Air India, are now faced with bankruptcy and its employees with the threat of dismissal. There is very little we can do to prevent the municipal corporation from remaining a monopoly. For the foreseeable future, water supply, garbage disposal, public bus transport, and similar services will be controlled by the corporation.

But it may have been possible for citizens to exert some pressure if they were banded into organisations, like federations of housing cooperative societies, even if these were limited to certain areas.

What happens now is that every few years, Sharad Rao, leader of the municipal employees' union descends on the city, organises a strike and wins a substantial raise although everyone with the possible exception of himself and George Fernandes agrees that municipal services are deteriorating.

The citizens of this city, on the other hand, who are in effect the corporation's customers, can do nothing about it because unlike municipal employees they are not organised. Something needs to be done urgently to set right this asymmetry. One hope is that bankruptcy will force the corporation to set its finances in order by trimming its workforce. If this thinking is right we should help the corporation travel faster towards bankruptcy by resisting a hike in street taxes and so on. And that calls for associations of some kind.

Another suggestion put forward by many people is to seek legal remedy. Why should citizens pay a street tax if the streets are in a deplorable state and often are no more than an apology for streets?

To take one example, Lok Darshan, Hill View and other housing societies are located on an internal road called Military Road in Marol. These societies pay a much higher property tax (of which street tax is a component) than societies located on the main road, Marol-Maroshi Road in this case. But the road in front of these societies, viz Military Road, is barely motorable; the corporation refuses to maintain the road because it claims it is a private one. If that is the case, why should these housing societies pay a higher street tax than societies located on Marol-Maroshi Road.

Can't all the housing cooperative societies along this road band together and pay the difference in street tax under protest to some court of law? Whether this idea will work is a matter of speculation. But it is time that citizens thought of doing something like this because politer methods seem to have little effect on the corporation.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. This is an old saying, whose modern rendition is that the customer is king. But when it comes to the municipal corporation the situation is reversed. We pay the taxes that go to pay muncipal employees but it is they who call the tune.

This is a matter to be deeply thought about. When two years ago it was proposed that decision-making powers be taken away from the officers of the municipal corporation and handed over to elected representatives, there was considerable opposition. How can one trust corporators to defend the citizens' interest, especially when so many of them have criminal links? But the argument can be swung the other way round too.

Unlike unelected municipal officials, municipal corporators have to come back to the people after every five years. At least at that time we can question them about what they have done during the previous five years, and if we are unhappy we can throw them out. We shall of course never know if this argument holds water. For all we know, handing over total power to elected representatives may turn out to be a mistake. Certainly we have the example of the BEST, which although a subsidiary of the corporation, is run by its own bureaucracy headed by an IAS officer. When public services all around are deteriorating, the BEST continues to be well run. Handing it over completely to elected representatives may mean that routes are decided, not objectively, as it is now, but on the whims of some corporator.