The wealth of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation

IT IS A truth universally acknowledged that the BMC is in want of good management. For the uninitiated, those initials once stood for the Bombay Municipal Corporation. But when the Shiv Sena, in its single biggest historical achievement, changed the city’s name to its Marathi original of Mumbai, shouldn’t the initials have changed to MMC? Sometimes those who are not good, can be clever: BMC stayed unaltered, but its full form became Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

It’s by far the richest municipal corporation in the country, with a budget larger than that of some of India’s smaller states. That, of course, can’t be the reason why political parties contest the five-yearly elections so bitterly: the real reason must be that elected corporators really want to serve the interests of the people (people like friends, family, themselves).

How do we know BMC is rich? Because newspapers constantly tell us so. Newspapers also often print photographs of the city’s potholes, measuring them for size (one of the reasons for the failure of Tata’s Nano is that some cars disappeared into them). In addition, newspapers routinely tell us about impending water cuts, followed ironically by impending flooding during the monsoon. There’s also the daily count of people falling off trains or being run over by them, plus stories of massive traffic jams here, there and everywhere, and other excitements of that ilk.

So, then, what does the richest corporation in the country do about these multiple problems? It sits and counts its money. A recent revelation of its wealth has given us this staggering figure—BMC has a cash stash of Rs 61,510 crore. (This is the figure on January 31st, so we can add a few more digits now). The cash stash is apparently held in fixed deposits at 31 different banks, which earns interest of over Rs 4,500 crore. That’s an average interest rate of 7.41 per cent, which makes BMC a pretty savvy investor.

We should all applaud and be eternally grateful, etcetera, but we don’t and are not for only one reason, which is that it’s BMC’s business to spend money, not hoard it. You would think spending someone else’s money (in this case, ours) would be the easiest thing in the world, but for the municipal corporation, it isn’t. For 2016-17 it had a budget of nearly Rs 13,000 crore; till end February, it hadn’t even spent half of it. This Scrooge- like behaviour has been going on year after year.

That makes us, as you can imagine, quite unhappy. It makes BMC’s contractors even more unhappy, because they make pots of money cheating BMC. If all the sanctioned money had been spent, how much more they would make! And how happy BMC’s staff and corporators would be to get even more cheated! To give an example, someone (obviously not a BMC engineer), found that when cement concrete roads are to be built, you are supposed to dig up to 85 cm; road contractors, on the other hand, go down only 25 cm, thus missing out several layers of cushioning that we would get on our roads, and also make them last longer. But as someone once said in another context, if a manufacturer made an everlasting razor blade, he would be cutting his own throat.

He could, of course, invent a new kind of razor every year. Which is what BMC, with its idea of skywalks, managed to do. ‘Skywalks’ sounds so much better than the functional ‘elevated pedestrian walkways’ which they would be if pedestrians used them. But Mumbai’s 36 skywalks are really so sky-high, and involve climbing so many steps, that no one uses them. Why not equip them with escalators? They cost too much (and we would rather have money in the bank) and need too much maintenance (which sounds like hard work). Skywalks are now used primarily by the homeless, the occasional exercise freak and the pervert waiting for a female pedestrian to pass by.

What do we do with these white elephants? After all, elephants of whatever colour take up space. Having erected them, you can’t pull them down since that would be admitting a mistake, and you can’t add escalators since that would be the right thing to do, so we have to think of more fanciful ideas. The best solution, offered by me here gratis, would be to make the least used ones into dormitories for pavement-dwellers, while converting others near busy areas like Bandra’s Linking Road into hawker zones. Both ideas would free up pavements for pedestrians, while the Hawkers- in-the-Sky would make pedestrians abandon their usual jay-walking and actually use the skywalks for crossing the road.

This article first appeared in OPEN Magazine.