Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The taskless Force

The taskless Force

BATF, the unique experiment to improve civic life with private-sector participation, suffers a set back as the new Government's priorities shift from the urban to the rural

By Nirmala Ravindran, INDIA TODAY

Till a couple of months ago, to be precise till S.M. Krishna was the Karnataka chief minister dreaming of turning Bangalore into Singapore, development meant BATF in the city. It is not Kannada for modernisation, but the acronym for Bangalore Agenda Task Force almost became a byword for it. Thanks to the BATF plan of action the state capital became a model metro. In 2003, Newsweek named Bangalore among the 10 funkiest cities of the world. Now the Singapore dream has turned sour. With a new government in place and the priority changed from cyber to farmer, no one is sure of BATF's place in the scheme of things.

DEVELOPMENT DRIVE: BATF's efforts turned Bangalore into a model metro

That is a comedown for Bangalore's development portal which was headed by a core team of professionals and eminent citizens. Led by Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani, they came together in 1999 to seek scientific solutions to civic problems and became a unique experiment in private-public partnership in governance. "It has been a successful experiment which every other metropolis in the country wants to emulate today," says Kalpana Kar, member, BATF. It addressed issues like traffic, solid-waste management, public health and sanitation and property taxes. From bus shelters to toilets to ring roads that connected the city, the BATF was involved in every urban project. It coordinated various development schemes and worked towards speedy implementation.

Now that is a thing of the past. Chief Minister Dharam Singh says that BATF "still exists". But it is evident that it is not very important on the Government's list. Though it has been in office for about a month, the Congress-JD(S) Government has not even convened a single meeting of the BATF members. With BATF on the backburner, development projects are stalled. Disaster is evident across the city. Potholes have resurfaced on the roads, traffic moves at a snail's pace and civic amenities have slipped from good to bad to worse. This unusual state of affairs is because the BATF was not formed by a legislation, only by a government order. In spite of its support to BATF, the Krishna government did not push for a law in the five years it was in power.

Bangalore's high-profile citizens came together and offered their time and money to clean up the city.
The S.M. Krishna government gave BATF its full backing.
BATF set about revamping the city's infrastructure and improving civic amenities.

The priority of the Dharam Singh Government is farmer, not cyber, and BATF is on the backburner.
Not even one meeting of the BATF has been called by the new Government.
Bangalore's development projects are stalled.

"Krishna was voted out because he gave too much importance to technology and the corporates. We are not sure we want to do the same," says a member of the new coalition Government. The widespread feeling in the establishment is that BATF was formed for a specific purpose by the previous government: to study, analyse and create solutions to modernise Bangalore. With that accomplished, the Government should create some new institutions that would reflect its change in policies and take the movement forward.

What was singular about BATF was the way it managed to get together volunteers from different fields, most of them senior professionals who were willing to contribute to the cause of development. BATF worked in close collaboration with all the stakeholders-the Telecom Department, the Electricity Board, Bangalore Police, the Water Supply Department and the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA). A major achievement of its partnership with the BDA was the recovery of encroached land worth more than Rs 250 crore. The BATF and the Bangalore Mahanagara Palik (BMP) partnered with the Swachcha Bangalore to clean up the city and the Nirmala Bangalore to construct public toilets across the metro. BATF implemented self-assessment of taxes that saw the state revenue rise from Rs 89 crore in 1999-2000 to Rs 225 crore in 2003-4. Along with the introduction of fund-based accounting, the task force helped the Krishna government go online and bring about functionality and transparency to the administrative system, the high point of the cyber era.

"Now every metropolis in the country wants to emulate BATF."

What adds to the feel-good factor is the economic aspect-government funds have not been utilised for BATF activities. A trust to meet the administrative costs and help developmental activities was set up, and Nandan and Rohini Nilekani pitched in with Rs 5 crore. Others who partnered the BATF include N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and his wife Sudha, Kiran Mazumdar of Biocon and even non-Bangalorean corporates like the Jindals. Beyond them are the numerous professionals who offered their services free.

Even bureaucrats, used to government sloth, agree that the authority of BATF comes from the standing of its members. Says an official: "The best thing about the BATF is its credibility, mainly because of people like Nilekani and Kar who are big names in their own right." An opinion poll conducted among Bangalore citizens in 2003, four years after the creation of BATF, found 94 per cent of them, a majority from the lower-middle class, agreeing that life in the city had improved remarkably in the past few years.

However, achievements and credibility aside, faith, as one of the members of BATF asserts, is a very fragile commodity. All it takes for the public to forget the good work done in the past years are a few dozen potholes and a week of continuous traffic snarls. And, with a passive coalition Government in the Vidhan Soudha, one that seems more interested in sorting out party squabbles on a daily basis, the infrastructure of the city and its modernisation drive might go down the drain.


At Wednesday, July 7, 2004 at 7:15:00 PM GMT+5:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Krishna was voted out because he gave too much importance to technology and the corporates. We are not sure we want to do the same," says a member of the new coalition Government

>>> Does this mean keeping Bangalore backward and in chaos is going to be better for the rest of Karnataka?


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