Chennai Corporation’s fake funds crunch

At a meeting on ‘Water‘ held in Bangalore not long ago, the leading light of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani said that Indian political parties don’t quite like strong city governments, because that would put State regimes in the shade.

Therefore, they generally emasculate city mayoralties and municipalities to ensure that no strong candidate ever gets the top job there. Neither will the States devolve sufficient powers to these heads. Thus, pointed out Mr. Nilekani, we have weak politicians and pathetic municipal governments, not someone like Jacques Chirac who went on to become the President of France, from being the Mayor of Paris. (Ken Livingstone of London is an even better example, to my mind).

Over a decade ago Chennai seemed to buck that trend when M.K.Stalin was directly elected Mayor and is now a Minister. But true to Mr. Nilekani’s thesis, the AIADMK Government dealt a blow to the Corporation and enfeebled the Mayor’s post in great measure simply to spite Mr. Stalin.

Mr. Stalin, thanks to his lineage, may appear to be a uber Mayor today, but it is evident that Chennai has suffered and descended into decay. Mr. M. Subramaniam is a poor example of a Mayor, less because he is not connected in the manner that Mr. Stalin is, but more because he is a non-performer. An even less inspiring example of a city manager is the chief executive of the civic body, Mr.Rajesh Lakhoni, the Commissioner. On the other hand, the scores of elected councillors of the civic body remain faceless, somehow unable to comprehend or perform their job, befuddled as they are by their self-importance and pursuit of pelf.

The moribund state of the Chennai Corporation today is clear from this example: the civic body says it does not have the money to spend on three escalators for pedestrians. These are to come up on Anna Salai at Tod Hunter Nagar, at Panagal building and on Taluk Office Road. The ostensible reason is that these are to be built and maintained on advertisement earnings. What then is the problem?

A somewhat convoluted report on Page 1 of The Hindu conveys that these overbridges-with-escalators are hamstrung by a Supreme Court case filed by unrelated advertisement hoarding owners. In essence, what we can make of the case is that because there is litigation, the escalator builder must wait, or else be drawn into the problem himself.

The question that begs an answer is why the Chennai Corporation, which makes Rs.54.29 crores in property taxes  a year from just the Nungambakkam Zone alone, cannot build an escalator with its own money? Take the cruelly designed overbridge on Haddows Road. It is right in the Zone that I cite. Does it take more than one crore to put up an escalator, which even a modest shopping mall in Chennai cannot do without?

Surely, no one will argue against spending public funds for the public? The only opponents could be private agencies looking to siphon off funds in the building (with some political and official help) and operation and realisation of advertisement revenue from these facilities.

Mr. Lakhoni is clearly protesting too much. Ranganathan street in T.Nagar, according to his own figures, yields no less than Rs.7.67 crores in annual property taxes. Then there are other taxes, led by Sales Tax that is generated on the sales here. Why then does the Government plead lack of funding to help pedestrians, who pay all these taxes? (All of us are pedestrians at least some of the time).

There may be an explanation to politicians and officials closing ranks with private agencies to rip off the public. But what is even more puzzling is the media’s studied ignorance. They have stopped asking pointed questions to our political leaders and bureaucrats, and writing their mind. Is it any wonder that when push comes to shove, the public will choose “stability” over “press freedom”? Read that story here.

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