Of democracy and social commitment

Print edition : February 10, 2006

SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya took over as Mayor of Kolkata on July 7, 2005, after the Left Front wrested the prized Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) from the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC). In an interview he gave Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, he spoke about his first six months as Mayor and the future tasks. Excerpts:

How is your way of functioning different from that of your predecessor's?

We, after assuming charge, started functioning in a more democratic way, decentralising our power, distributing different portfolios to different members Mayor-in-Council, who independently discharge their obligations relating to their departments. Of course, they take the Mayor into confidence before taking any final decision. Any sort of decision, whether the Mayor approves or not, is discussed in weekly meetings of the Mayor-in-Council. In fact, in the last six months there has been no need to exercise the Mayor's emergency powers. This is something quite different from the previous regime. We got to know that almost all the decisions at that time were taken by the Mayor alone, exercising his emergency powers under the statute, which cannot even be ratified in the Mayor-in-Council. It appeared to us that there were hardly any Mayor-in-Council meetings. When we assumed power, we had to ratify all the decisions that were taken by the former Mayor exercising his emergency powers. You will be surprised to know that one of the then Mayor-in-Council has filed a public interest petition challenging a decision taken by the previous Mayor. That itself throws light on their way of functioning. Moreover, we always allow the borough committees to function independently.

At the administrative level, we found that execution of work was being delayed because of a peculiar centralised system. We reorganised the whole administrative set up, delegating powers to the borough executive engineers, and gave them more financial authority. We have made the officers more responsible and answerable. Everything is audited regularly to ensure that transparency is maintained. This way, file movement is not unnecessarily delayed.

One immediate benefit we got from this reorganisation was that the municipal financial auditor discovered some unspent amount from the Eleventh Finance Commission. With the amount we started projects for the benefit of the poor people - drainage operation, sanitation for slumdwellers. We have started implementing various social security schemes launched by the governments of India and West Bengal, which were not taken up by the former regime - the National Family Benefit Scheme, the National Maternity Benefit Scheme and the National Old Age Scheme. We immediately took up these schemes to fulfil the pledge we made to the people during the time of elections.

Another important thing we have done is to re-introduce the midday meal scheme for schoolchildren. Till date we have covered 30 schools; the rest will be covered before March. This has proved to be an encouragement to schoolchildren coming from the slums - the dropout rate has come down and the attendance rate has gone up.

Another thing that we can be proud of is the road repairing work we have been able to do in the past few months. The condition of Kolkata's roads was horrible. In fact, people jokingly compared it with the Khyber Pass. Now they are much improved through a massive project we undertook. So far as augmentation and transmission of surface water is concerned, the work has been speeded up. We are now in a position to provide 70 per cent of the population with surface water; the rest will definitely be covered by 2010.

What are your immediate thrust areas?

Our immediate task is to uplift the condition of the slums both in terms of their habitability and socio-economic standard. For this we have introduced various self-employment schemes, in which we involve slumdwellers in community services and give them vocational training. Many big builders of the city have come forward to improve living conditions in the slums.

We have already started e-governance and by April 2006 all the birth certificates will be made available to the people from their borough offices through a computerised system. This will address the complaints about the system and reduce corruption. The e-governance system itself will be fully completed by October this year.

What are your important future projects?

We will go for a thorough renovation and repairing of the drainage system of the city. Although Kolkata's drainage system is old, desilting has not been done for the past 50 years. As a result, the diameter of the huge drainage pipe, which was about seven feet, has been narrowed to two and a half feet. We will, in collaboration with the State government, be dredging the canals in the city, so that water stagnation will no longer be a problem. We have already successfully combated the incidence of dengue fever, and now we have plans to open 141 ward health units by 2010 and 29 additional malaria clinics by the end of this year. We are also going for PPP (public private partnership) projects to update, modernise, and make complete hospitals of our old maternity homes. These can become good mini hospitals. These we will definitely do by 2010.

What areas need improvement?

The area that needs immediate improvement is the condition of primary education under the KMC. The first thing would be to check the dropout rate, and then get children to start going to school. The slogan is: "Make the children's movement towards the schools." I also wish to start a mass literacy campaign. Another is, replacement of existing old latrines with a new scientific latrine system. We are also looking at introducing new technology for solid waste management, for which we have invited opinions from private public sector organisations.

So at what point, as Mayor of Kolkata, will you be fully satisfied with what has been accomplished?

You see, as Mayor of a city like Kolkata, it is impossible to be satisfied at any point of time. There is a sea of things to be done, so I cannot say that I will be satisfied. But what I can say is that I will be a little happier when, at the end of my tenure, I will have fulfilled the commitments I made to the people of the city.

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