HIMACHAL PRADESH: On the Results of Shimla Municipal Corporation
Tikender Singh Panwar
THE Shimla Municipal Corporation elections were held on June 16, 2017. The elections were delayed owing to large scale discrepancies in the voters list which led to a new schedule for the revision of electoral rolls. However, the HP High court ordered for an advance date without revision of the rolls with large scale anomalies left in the list. The result was declared on the 17th, in which 17 seats were won by the BJP, 12 by the Congress, 4 independents (Congress rebels - 3 and BJP rebel -1) and 1 CPI(M). BJP, though still short of a majority, finally cobbled up an absolute majority and, for the first time, has won both the mayor and deputy mayor’s posts. Kusum Sadret is the new mayor and Rakesh Kumar, deputy mayor. Over 45,000 voters cast their votes and a good number were left out. The outgoing municipal corporation had 25 wards, of which 12 were with the BJP, 11 Congress and 2 CPI(M). However, the mayor and deputy mayor of that corporation were from the CPI(M) as there was direct election for the same. But for this election, the incumbent Congress government amended the direct election formula and instead went for the election of the mayor and the deputy mayor indirectly amongst the elected councilors. Also instead of 25 wards, with the same geographical limit, the wards were increased to 34 with a completely erroneous delimitation which resulted in certain wards being so carved out where there were just 800 votes and a few where there were over 4000. Another amendment drawn by both the BJP and the Congress was to not have elections on party symbols. This was deliberately done to promote horse-trading and which is presently being strongly felt. Though the CPI(M) and the BJP declared their official candidates, the Congress initially stated it will not announce and anyone from their party can contest, but later released a list of 27 candidates. In the rest, because of rebels, none was the official Congress candidate.
The CPI(M) formed a front comprising of its own party candidates in 21 wards and in 6 it supported some democratic and other independent candidates. In the remaining 7, there was a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress. The CPI(M) polled 13 per cent of the total votes which is about half polled in the previous elections. The BJP polled over 40 per cent and the Congress 35 per cent. CPI(M)’s candidate Kanta Suyal lost narrowly in Kaithu ward with a margin of 27 votes, Vijender Mehra in Totu with 95 votes and Kishori Dadhwalia with a similar margin in Ram Bazar ward.
CAMPAIGN AND ISSUES
From 2012 to 2017, Shimla Municipal Corporation was run by the CPI(M) as the mayor and deputy mayor belonged to it. However in the council there was an abysmal minority with just 12 per cent strength and 88 per cent opposition. Such a council probably existed nowhere in the country. The CPI(M) launched its campaign on good governance, overall development, sanitation, water, smart city, cutting informality in the city and building a formal structure, making the municipality financially strong etc.
The major issues that were raised during the campaign included:
a) Making the municipality financially strong where the city government, which was unable to even pay the salaries and pension of its own staff in the past was made revenue surplus which led to massive development per capita in the city. The city wore a better look with better roads, better infrastructure which was acclaimed even by the opposition. The municipality which was mired with funds was now almost 600 per cent more in its volume of budget with revenue surplus of Rs 50 crores which is hardly witnessed in the north Indian cities. And this was apart from capital receipts. Further the overall governance and implementation was sharp as the city bagged the first prize in the country to utilise the AMRUT funds.
b) On the water front which apparently also became one of the foremost issues against the CPI(M), the municipality was able to do something unprecedented in the history of urbanisation in the country. Water was a perennial crisis for the residents. However it was managed well till 2015 December when an outbreak of Hepatitis took place in the city where more than 20 people died and over 2000 got infected. This happened because of contamination of one of the principle sources of water supply from the Ashwani Khad. Interestingly, this was the fifth episode. It occurred every alternate year from 2007. Since there is a duality of administration in the water supply and distribution, blame game on and from the municipality and the state government was a regular exercise. Water was lifted by the irrigation and public health department (IPH) headed by the minister and was distributed by the municipality. The CPI(M) led municipality took the task seriously and registered an FIR against the state government officials which eventually led to their arrest for over three months. But this was not all. The municipal corporation took the water issue to its logical end. Lifting of water from Ashwani Khad was stopped once and for all on January 2, 2016. Since then there has not been any supply from that source. But this also led to a shortage of water as it provided for 25 per cent of water supply to the city. The state government was approached and was asked to finish this duality of administration and was asked either to take over the entire system of supply and distribution or hand it over to the corporation. The government, thinking it to be bad infrastructure and something that will never be rejuvenated, agreed to hand it over to the Shimla Municipal Corporation. In July 20016, the entire system of sewer and water was taken over by the corporation and termed it as Greater Shimla Water Supply and Sewerage Circle (GSWSSC). Phenomenal work was done to improve its infrastructure and more than Rs 100 crores was invested to revamp the pumps, change the pipe lines which led to augmentation of water supply from another source called Giri from 80 lakh litres per day to 2 crore litres per day. However, politically all this went in vain and there was massive attack from both the BJP and the Congress on the water issue which could not be met with. Actually it was both the BJP and the Congress which were responsible for providing contaminated water since 2005 as they had run the successive state governments. But since they were 88 per cent in the council and also a majority in the wards, their voice was far louder which could even turn lies into truth. Why was this intervention historic? Simply because such integration between water supply, distribution and management of sewerage and releasing it back into the river is hardly integrated in the country. For example, in Delhi water is being supplied by the Delhi Jal Board under the state government and sewerage is managed by the municipalities. This exercise of the formation of GSWSSC has led to a grant support of Rs 1200 crores for 24 hours supply to the residents by lifting water from another major source, but this did not percolate below. Another important intervention that the CPI(M) was able to make is to reject the privatisation of water that was to happen in the beginning in 2012.
c) Cutting informality and bringing the formal structure to the fore: The way urbanisation is unfolding in our country is highly neo-liberal where services are being handed over to the private sector especially in the cities. Sanitation is one of them. There is this huge informal sector that exists in the cities and also in Shimla. The CPI(M) led municipal corporation was able to completely wade it off and bring this large workforce into the formal sector called the Shimla Environment Heritage and Beautification Society(SEHB). More than 800 workers were engaged in the door-to-door garbage collection and its transport. Private intermediaries were completely done away with. This led to a situation where overall garbage collection from the city that was 35 tonnes per day in 2013 jumped to 75 tonnes per day in 2017. The city wore a cleaner look much appreciated by the residents as well.
d) Issue of smart city: Though the CPI(M) had reservations over the way this smart city project by the government of India has been rolled out, however when it came to the competition, the city of Shimla was deliberately kept out as the state urban development minister happens to be from Dharamshala and fudged the data to keep Shimla out. This was challenged by the mayor in the HP High Court which allowed Shimla too into the race and eventually the city was added into the list. This created the sense of city belongingness and thoroughly exposed both the BJP and the Congress. A smart city plan of Rs 2906 crores has been envisaged for the city development with thorough participation of the people.
e) Though there were many other issues but amongst the important ones was also the integrity of the CPI(M) towards the institution and the thorough honesty with which they worked was also campaigned and quite starkly admired by the people. The challenges that were posed by the Congress government too were some of the issues debated. The unnecessary interference of the government in handling the affairs and deliberately jeopardising the interests of the city was also campained. The Shimla Municipal Corporation under the CPI(M) had to file two writ petitions in the HP High Court against some of the moves of the government. There was this hostile environment in which the city worked.
Now, if all this was done then why is it that this could not be converted into a positive environment for the CPI(M)? Why the city voted in the manner in which the BJP got an advantage?
Though the mandate is completely fractured as the BJP was able to get just 50 per cent of the seats which it had even in the last municipality, still there is a loss to the CPI(M) which lost its vote share from almost 22 per cent to 13 per cent. There will be a thorough review through the wards which will ultimately help in building a common understanding. But two major reasons can be cited here: There was massive attack by both the BJP and the Congress on the CPI(M) with their false propaganda, which was not countered effectively. The BJP had made the preparations well in advance as the state assembly elections are to take place just five months from now. There was hyped propaganda where the prime minister was invited for a start off rally. The so-called anti-incumbency was only against the CPI(M) and not against the BJP though it was controlling half of Shimla and only two wards were with the CPI(M). This argument does not hold good. Actually it is a reality that there has been phenomenal developmental stride in the wards but it was championed by them and not by the CPI(M). The CPI(M) was targeted severely for all the ills and problems in the city whereas for all the development carried out in the ward, the credit was usurped by the respective councilors and their parties.
The second reason is, there was a complete absence of people’s organisations which actually had led to the victory of the CPI(M) in the past. The foremost being the Shimla Citizen’s Forum which was always amidst people raising their issues in one form or the other. Today there is no membership of this organisation.