Cleansing the city and the council

For the past fortnight, we have been writing about concerns that the country is heading towards absolute rule following the Government's decision to rush through with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Hot on the heels of the easy passage of that Amendment into law, came the news we broke last week that the Government is now seriously considering bringing the Colombo Municipal Council under the ambit of a new Development Authority which will function under the Ministry of Defence.

The news we reported last week has been neither confirmed, nor denied; and we would think that the matter remains under serious consideration. Some suggest that only certain powers of the Council such as planning and evaluation would come under the purview of the new authority, while others insist that the intention is to take the entire working of the Council under its wing.

The Colombo Municipal Council has a colourful but chequered history since its inception in 1865 as a nursery for self-rule that the British were planning for Lanka one day. The council was where the likes of J.R. Jayewardene, N.M. Perera, Pieter Keuneman and R. Premadasa -- who later went on to lead their respective parties and hold high public office -- cut their political teeth.

Today, with the advent of the Provincial Council system, the CMC and other local councils have had little impact as a political primary school, the Provincial Councils assuming that role. From what happened at the last CMC elections, it has become nothing but a school for delinquents.

Since the 1970s, and with the increasing politicization of the country, councils like the CMC were regularly dissolved by a Gazette notification issued by the Minister of Local Government and a one-man Special Commissioner appointed to run the entire show. That is the case right now with the elected Mayor driving his tuk-tuk around in search of a hire while a former Mayor has been brought in as a Special Commissioner.

There has been a great deal of debate about how these councillors are elected and there seems to be some unanimity in the view that the current proportional representation system robs the rate-payers and the people of knowing their representative to the Council. There are moves afoot to bring back, at least partially, the ward system of yore so that each ward will have its own representative to whom the people can go to seek redress and air their grievances.

However, the working of the Council itself, over the years, especially in the recent decades has fallen woefully short of the people's expectations. It has, in fact, turned into a den of corruption, the councillors themselves largely to blame for this. Getting CoCs (Certificate of Conformity) passed for unauthorized structures, stamping building plans however much they may violate municipal by-laws, permitting pavement hawkers to obstruct pedestrian walkways, turning a blind eye to the squalid kitchens and doubtful hygiene of public eateries and generally allowing Colombo to slip into the state of a slum city so that they and their party can get re-elected are some of the allegations they face.

In any event, the city resident who votes a councillor into office from a particular party has no guarantee that he or she will remain in that party once the election is concluded --as the parliamentary election recently and previous local council elections have proven.

Many justifiably ask whether all this is not a mockery of the people's franchise, and whether the Garden City of Asia should be allowed to be administered this way. The council has presided over a plethora of illegal constructions, including high-rise apartment blocks in recent years, and a host of sewage lines that link to the city's canals and waterways bringing about health hazards like dengue and now tuberculosis.

According to official estimates there are some 75,000 families in Colombo alone living in shanties and billions spent on kick-back induced private garbage disposal contracts. The Government has decided to launch an Environmental Police as well as deploy the Army, Navy and Police to fight the mosquito menace and the stink from mountains of uncollected garbage in an overcrowded city.

It is a modern paradox: On the one hand we accuse the Government of concentrating political power in the hands of an individual or a coterie and say that democracy is on the brink; then admit that democracy as we see it in the Colombo Municipal Council has nothing but corruption, mismanagement and inefficiency to show for it and whether the council has not brought upon itself the criticism that has warranted intervention from the Central Government to clean up its mess.

The councillors want the status quo. Efforts to set things right will spark genuine complaints of people being dislodged from their 'homes' and cursing that their livelihood has been disrupted when they are evicted from their pavements, even though they may be parking on the main roads or blaring their loudspeakers to sell their wares.

There will also be accusations that the Government is trying to wrest control of the last bastion of the Opposition - the Colombo Municipal Council by taking its powers under the aegis of the Central Government. The start with the CMC is expected to spread to other inefficient councils as well, and thereby one might see the gradual strangulation of the local government system as we have known it for over a century.

One thing is patently clear; these councils don't work. The bylaws can easily be bypassed by greasing the palms of workers, or by political pressure from the elected representatives, or both. Is this system to go on for ever under the guise of a farcical democracy?

On the other hand, new brooms sweep well, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for the new energy put in through the Armed Forces and Police to clean up the act. But, the police have been long marked as the most corrupt Government institution and many would be smacking their chops to wade into this new field to make a buck.

With the Bribery and Corruption Commission on holiday it will only be a matter of time before the men in khaki uniform do what the men in white uniform of the CMC have been doing all these years. The mountainous task ahead is as big as the stinking garbage heaps in the cities, and by no means an enviable one to tackle.

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