CHANDIGARH, DECEMBER 13: Punjab is in the throes of an election campaign again, this time for urban civic bodies. Municipal affairs affect our lives every day. Of course, we should be worried about United States going after North Korea and India’s position in the WTO Ministerial Conference at Buenos Aires since these affect our lives, but tomorrow morning, it is going to be affected more directly by municipal affairs in your town.
From the choked sewerage outside your house to the safety of your child as she walks to her school; from the availability of oxygen at your nearest civil hospital to the proper road markings that may save you on a foggy morning from being crushed underneath a truck; from a fire brigade responding to your distress call to a proper burial service and upkeep of cremation grounds, municipal affairs is the stuff of life as it is lived every day in a city or a town.
Since the skeletal outline of municipal issues framed by the Congress, Akali Dal or AAP hardly seems connected to the life of Punjab's ordinary citizens, rich or poor, it is time for you to frame these issues.
Punjab's three Municipal Corporations of Amritsar, Jalandhar and Patiala, and 32 Municipal Councils, are going to elections in this foggy cold month of December. Here's how Punjab's politicians have framed the local bodies' elections issues in excruciatingly crystal clear detail:
Congress & Amarinder Singh: Akali Dal should not block the roads as a form of protest, even if our henchmen and a partisan bureaucracy do not even allow the opposition candidates to file their nomination papers. Blocking roads creates problem for the army, so any such democratic protest should be seen as an anti-national activity. The CMO will put all its might behind issuing press releases condemning such anti-national acts and elections will be fought in whether or not roads should be blocked. Tools such as Section 307 (attempt to murder) can be legitimately used as bargaining chips in getting dharnas lifted – all in the name of service delivery to the citizenry.
Shiromani Akali Dal & Sukhbir Singh Badal: Out of practice when it comes to people's movements, it believes throwing life out of gear to ensure that its candidates can file nomination papers is par for the course. Outsmarted by the Congress in getting their bridge-dharnas lifted, it now plans to bring a new culture of political parties forming fighting armies to Punjab. Recruitment to Akali Dal's own sena has been announced with a minimum of 10 men from every village. The 1,20,000 strong force of vigilantes will rival any Ranvir Sena or Kurmis' Bhoomi Sena, thus establishing new Punjab-Bihar cultural similarity linkages.
Aam Aadmi Party & Sukhpal Singh Khaira: With Khaira determined to keep his Leader of the Opposition bully pulpit reserved for mounting attacks against SAD's Bibi Jagir Kaur and Congress' Rana Gurjit Singh, the sole AAP activity in civic elections is to either remain missing from the field, or pose as underdogs, with a fixed target of remaining underdogs. The party seems miles away from launching any people's movement and is dependent on tweeting or facebooking its way to oblivion. If only rulers could be upstaged through press releases, Sukhpal Khaira has written too many of them, each in the revolutionary 'What is to be done' tone and eventually providing the answer: "Nothing."
SINCE THE skeletal outline of municipal issues framed in the Congress-Akali Dal-AAP matrix seemed hardly connected to the life of Punjab's ordinary citizens, rich or poor, it is time for you to frame these issues. Neither Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, nor Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal or for that matter Aam Aadmi Party's Sukhpal Khaira/Bhagwant Mann will ever utter the word: Seventy-fourth. And yet 74th is what Municipal affairs are hinged upon.
The 74th Constitutional Amendment.
After decades of struggle, India's urban citizens won the Constitutional battle and a State Finance Commission had to be set up. Punjab's local bodies – the Municipal Corporations and Municipal Councils – should have been given funds as per the recommendations of this States Finance Commission. Instead, your representatives are often seen begging for funds from state level politicians. We all saw Navjot Sidhu doing that in his earlier avatar when he and his politician wife would forever complain, and rightly so, that the Akali Dal government was not releasing funds for their areas' development.
The Centre has prepared a State Action Scheme under AMRUT, the Atal Mission of Urban Rejuvenation and Transformation, that includes 16 cities in Punjab. In these 16 cities, access to water supply varies between 28 (Khanna) and 93 (Mohali) per cent. In between are Patiala at 57%, Amritsar at 65% and Jalandhar at 67%. Sewerage coverage is so far stuck at 63% in Punjab's urban areas. (In rural areas, underground sewerage is a rumour).
India's Constitution, as it stands now, mandates that the state governments hand over 17 departments to local bodies, but no state government, Akali or Congress, has any interest in doing so. If this is done, your Municipal councillor or Corporators will wield real power. So who will listen to the chief minister or ministers?
Now, as per the directive of State Finance Commission, mandated by the 74th Constitutional Amendment, state governments must give at least 4 per cent of taxes to local bodies. That is a directive observed more in breach than compliance. This is why the road outside your house has potholes, and no one bothers to fix the overflowing drain.
India's Constitution, as it stands now, mandates that the state governments hand over 17 departments to local bodies, but no state government, Akali or Congress, has any interest in doing so. If this is done, your Municipal councillor or Corporators will wield real power. So who will listen to the chief minister or ministers? To ensure that your next door grassroot level politician stands with folded hands in the darbar of a Maharaja or a Pardhan ji, the 74th is being flouted with impunity.
No one is rushing to block the roads on the issue of 74th. And no one is going to invoke the love of the country and the army on the issue of 74th. The series of Vision Papers released recently in city after city remain lip-zip silent on this.
The fact that Punjab has missed all urban mission milestones, and now bears the shame of having been included in the country's worst laggards by the Centre is not even being mentioned by either the Akali Dal or the Congress. If AAP ever found out, Sukhpal Khaira will issue a press release, and that will be the end of it.
So much for Punjab's urban development. Our state was the first to get its development plan approved from the Centre. Now, we are among the laggards, having for our company confirmed backbenchers like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim. The Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has now certified our position on the backbench in its latest status report.
Result? The Centre is not releasing any money for the next State Annual Action Plan (SAAP-III). Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have already crossed that hurdle, bagging Rs 2,500 crore as the first instalment of the central assistance this fiscal.
Neither the Badal government nor the incumbent Amarinder regime was ever in any hurry to release its share of funds under the AMRUT. These are the funds that make sure that water supply, sewerage, urban transport and parks are run and maintained properly.
Here is a factual picture of Punjab's urban development: We are among the official laggards in India. Punjab is now in the company of confirmed backbenchers like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, a fact confirmed by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in its latest status report.
So, either the residents of Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala, Hoshiarpur, Batala, Bathinda, Malerkotla, Muktsar, Mohali, Moga, Khanna, Pathankot and other places decide that they will cast their votes on the basis of whether Akalis should block the roads, whether Section 307 should be used as a bargaining chip, or whether blocking roads was an anti-national activity at par with cow smuggling and not standing up for national anthem in a cinema hall, or they can vote on the basis of issues they see outside their home, in the next street, on the highway, in their children's school.
On your decision will depend whether the ambulance reaches you in time, whether the civil hospital has a doctor if your loved ones meet with an accident on the road in the middle of the night, and whether the fire brigade arrives in time. The sewerage workers cleaning the chocked drain outside your house will live or die, depending upon how you frame the issues.
If you hear a politician saying the word 74th in his election speech, act quickly and click a selfie with him or her. As per our information, the tribe is now extinct.
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