Transparency and Politics: An Introduction [II]

Posted by Zainab Bawa at Mar 23, 2009 07:05 AM |
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In this post, the second in a series documenting her CIS-RAW project, Zainab Bawa explains how transparency is embedded in particular institutional contexts. This impacts the ways in which transparency materially manifests and also has implications for administrative politics.

In the last post , I briefly tried to explain how the concept of transparency has evolved since the early 1990s and the changes it has undergone over time. My aim in this post is to explain how transparency is not a neutral concept but is embedded in the dynamics that exist in political institutions and government agencies. I will present the case of the municipal corporation in Mumbai city, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (popularly referred to as the BMC) to drive home my point. By the end of the post, I also hope to draw some connections between politics and transparency.

The Municipality and Autonomy: Every city has a municipal corporation. Municipalities have often been deemed as corrupt, inefficient, self-serving and negligent of the state of affairs in cities. This is so because the corrupt practices which municipalities are usually associated with, i.e., bribes in issuing birth and death certificates, water connections, licenses and permissions, are experienced by most citizens on a daily basis and are also more visible than the forms of corruption in which the higher levels of governments engage. People also experience civic problems on a daily basis and these are automatically attributed to the inefficiency in the municipal administration, because the municipality is seen as the agency responsible for resolving these problems. However, the powers of the municipality are constrained by higher level government agencies as well as by the dearth of financial resources. For example, the municipal corporation of Mumbai, the BMC, is headed by the commissioner who is directly appointed by the Maharashtra state government. This allows the state government to control the municipality and the city. Thus, the actions of the BMC and the decisions it makes are directly influenced by the state government.

Political Party Competition and the Municipality: Each municipality has an elected council comprising of directly elected municipal councilors. In the BMC, the Shiv Sena party has a majority in the municipal council. However, the state government is Congress-led. This introduces political party competition that manifests on the city. The Congress government is likely to introduce laws and policies, as well as constitute administrative bodies which will reduce the power of the Shiv Sena-led municipal council and bring the council under the control of the state government. This impacts the executive powers of the municipal councilors who may have to seek permission to carry out civic works from the state government-constituted administrative bodies. The independently constituted administrative bodies also have the powers to levy taxes, which then cut into the amount of overall tax that could have been collected by the municipality were it operating independently.

Internal Competition within Municipalities: Another dynamic in municipalities concerns the relationship between the senior bureaucrats and the municipal councilors and between the senior bureaucrats and the executive staff of the municipality. In all the municipalities across India, senior bureaucrats are drawn from the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) cadre. They determine the annual budgetary allocations to all the departments within the municipality and also frame policies for the city. A great deal of power is therefore vested in the senior bureaucrats. The policies framed by the senior bureaucrats have to be implemented by the executive staff of the municipality, such as the water and sanitary department engineers and the clerks and the administrative staff of the various departments in the municipality. This executive staff is in regular contact with the various constituencies served by the municipality. But they operate via multiple rationalities.

For example, while the water department engineers may follow strict rules in issuing temporary water connections to builders undertaking construction work, they may exercise personal discretion in providing water to people living in the slums. Such personal discretion ‘bypasses’ the rules and laws that determine who is eligible for a water connection. Thus, it is known that in many Indian cities, the engineers of the water departments often issue water connections to the slum dwellers on humanitarian grounds, operating under the morality that people cannot be denied access to water because of their apparently 'illegal' status. Such individual rationalities are classed as 'corrupt' practices. These also irk the senior bureaucrats who would like their policies to be implemented in the exact letter and spirit in which they were framed. Senior bureaucrats therefore devise the discourse of transparency in order to bring the junior administrative staff under their control.

At the same time, there is a high degree of animosity and tension in the relationship between the elected municipal councilors and the senior bureaucrats. The latter actively brand the former as corrupt, whereas the councilors see the actions of the senior bureaucrats as impediments in their ability to serve their constituencies. Both the councilors and the senior bureaucrats have the powers to sanction contracts and appoint contractors to carry out civic works, such as laying down of water pipelines, repairs and maintenance of roads, and repairs of sewerage infrastructure. The appointment of contractors can be discretionary and often, some contractors are favoured over others. The councilors and bureaucrats compete with each other in the appointment of contractors because such appointments can bring them monetary rewards from the contractors. The bureaucrats attempt to conceal their ‘discretionary’ practices by labeling the councilors as corrupt. The bureaucrats are also safeguarded by the perception of their status i.e., the IAS officers are often seen as non-corrupt and are known to have a high level of integrity. The councilor therefore becomes the natural target.

This is not to say that councilors do not engage in corruption. They often do, but their corrupt practices need to be read in specific contexts rather than from normative standpoints. Thus, during interviews with municipal councilors in 2006, I found that some councilors extend help to the poor groups in their constituencies from their personal expenditures. One councilor elected from one of the wards in South Mumbai had then explicitly mentioned to me, 'The council does not pay me a high salary for my work. There are many poor people in my constituency who need immediate medical help and I do not hesitate to give them whatever monetary help I personally can. I make sure that the building department officials do not harass those poor people in my area who have built a loft inside their houses in order to carry out manufacturing activities from within the house and thus sustain themselves financially. I also ensure that the hawkers who temporarily set up stalls in the month of Ramzaan are not evicted from my area because I am eventually answerable to God for the actions I commit during the holy month. But when a contractor, whose contract I have helped to pass for carrying out civic works in my area, offers me a gift (of money) of his own volition, I accept it. I do so because I also spend a good deal from my own pocket and I need to compensate myself, as well as maintain a cash flow which will help me to serve the people.'

Transparency and Politics: The institutional context that I have presented above is by no means exhaustive. The alliances and oppositions in the scheme of administrative politics are also not permanent. These shift according to the context and are shaped by the contests for power. The discourse and practices of transparency are located in this context. By referring to transparency, senior bureaucrats, policy makers and aid agencies seek to control the multiple rationalities and everyday discretionary practices that are rife in administration and streamline the decision-making process. This has implications for different socio-economic groups who also come under the radar of visibility when administrative staff are sought to be disciplined. Accordingly, the relationship between the different state agencies and citizen groups gets shaped.

For example, around 2003, a non-government organization called Praja introduced a centralized, online system for complaint management in the BMC. The aim of this system was to simplify the process of lodging complaints about civic problems and introduce efficiency and accountability in the administration in terms of resolving citizens’ complaints. The BMC received many complaints concerning hawkers and vending on the streets. A section of researchers and activists initially felt that the centralized complaint system was working against hawkers. However, over time, it came to be realized that the evictions of hawkers in Mumbai did not take place owing to the complaints lodged by the citizens. The complaints no doubt gave (negative) visibility to the hawkers and the problem of occupied streets and pavements. One of the officers in the municipality who I interviewed in 2007 mentioned, 'When a shopping mall owner is irked by the presence of hawkers outside his mall, he will not go online and register a complaint on the centralized complaint system. He will simply make a personal appointment with the commissioner, make his case before the commissioner, and ensure that the hawkers are removed. The online centralized complaint system is not used by such persons.' This comment is instructive because it also shows us that despite the introduction of transparency, bypasses and slippages continue to take place since the engagement between the state and its citizens is fashioned by multiple rationalities, ability and resources to access government agencies and authorities, the ability to influence them, and by particular contexts.

In the next post, I will present my findings on the relationship between transparency and access to information. How does the framework of rights enable access to information? How is access to information variously influenced when information is published for the sake of broadcast as against when information is made available in certain ways to enhance participation?

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Zainab Bawa

Zainab Bawa works as an independent researcher on issues of urbanism, governance and impact of technology on political practices and institutions. She is doing a project, Transparency and Politics with CIS.