By Mahesh Vijapurkar
Control of Mumbai’s municipality is coveted by the political parties for its coffers to dip into, it held, and not incorrectly. Its latest budget is roughly for Rs 37,000 crore, and that is a large sum, much more than that of many a smaller state. And yet, there is little that can be stolen because the sum available is relatively small.
Here is how: of the outlay, a lion’s share goes toward salaries, debt servicing, establishment expenses, between 70 per cent to upward of 80 per cent. The other slice, which is a smaller pie piece has to account for everything the citizen requires and has to be provided. Which it does inadequately or indifferently.
In the past decade till 2015-16, it has been calculated that on average only 19.33 per cent is spent per year on infrastructure creation and maintenance in the Civic Body. That is woeful for a city short of everything except the population and demands. However, higher allocations are made to impress the public without spending anything close to it.
Which, arithmetically, leaves only a small amount to loot which is not enough to go around. The takings come from contractors who build poor roads etc and hope to repair them every year, but the higher takings are from construction permits, allowing regularizing of building code violations et al. That is why Mumbai is known more for being a “builders’ city” than a people’s city.
If one were to take a benign view of such sourcing of illicit money by the powers that be at all levels – not wrong to call it a mafia – because someone’s money is being creamed away, not the civic body’s, fact remains that it pushes up real estate costs and thus, the price of a flat that the Mumbaikars can hardly afford. Under one rule or the other, tiny streets are allowed towers, infrastructure remaining the same.
Somewhere or the other, the citizen ends up paying for someone’s greed, and greed in that sector is extraordinarily huge. So much so, in some pockets, the rentiers have ceased taking bribes but entered into partnerships with them. Add a few floors beyond what is allowed by the building code and make the official or the politician a partner. There is no haggling.
However, there’s a conundrum: Even as only smaller sums are available for misspending – that is, funding contractors’ mischief in every area, garbage transportation, road building etc. –the city government has an impressive movable asset. It has fixed deposits in commercial banks. Bankers negotiate interest rates because the sums are humungous.
At the last count, Rs 61,510 crore were fixed deposits, which if judicially deployed without leakages, could take care of the city’s needs in quick time. Of this, Provident Fund and a surplus fund is a part, and yet, the total is unbelievably large. Should the city government keep such funds without deployment is a question that has not been discussed in the public domain though media have begun to report on the cash assets.
Such assets at about 7 per cent or more returns provide an impressive cash flow, and yet the civic body has to provide for interest on borrowings. Why it needs to borrow when there is an available cash surplus is unexplained. It would seem that the city is relinquishing its civic facilities that could have been built or better serviced to keep banks liquid.
There has been no public accountability as to how these sums that find their way into the bank deposits of the city government, and none has cared. Obviously, it is from the unspent, budgeted money. If money allocated has not been spent, and which has been the case almost every year, it means only two things: the planned activity is beyond municipality’s ability to execute.