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8 Jan 2017

Civic power snip plan - Bengal bid to free officers from political pressure

Pranesh Sarkar,TT, Calcutta, Jan. 7: The Mamata Banerjee government is gearing up to curb the "financial and administrative" powers of the elected chairpersons of the 120-odd municipalities in Bengal in an attempt to tackle irregularities.
Government officials believe the move will help rid the municipalities of political pressure. According to sources in the urban development and municipal affairs department, the proposal will be placed before the cabinet after the law department vets it.
According to the plan, the government will allow executive officers in the civic bodies to work independently in matters related to finance and administration.
"The executive officers handle all financial and administrative issues but they work under the supervision and control of the chairpersons. This allows politicians to run the municipalities their way. If the proposal is ratified, the executive officers can take financial and administrative decisions independently, at least in some areas," an official said.
Sources said the proposal would not cover municipal corporations.
According to the sources, the municipal affairs department had been flooded with complaints of irregularities by municipal chairpersons in the past few years.
"From awarding tenders to preferred agencies to sanctioning building plans without checking if norms had been adhered to, the number of complaints is increasing. The government's plan will address the problem to some extent as the executive officers will be under the direct control of the state secretariat, Nabanna," an official said.
Once the reforms kick in, the executive officers will be able to handle tender-related issues independently and release money without taking the permission of the chairpersons. The officers will also be able to work unhindered in areas such as removing encroachments and finalising the lists of beneficiaries under welfare schemes without consulting the elected members.
Trinamul sources said the complaints of financial wrongdoings had become a cause for concern for the chief minister. "Over 95 per cent of the civic bodies are run by Trinamul. But the chief minister's warnings haven't had the desired impact. She wants to clip the wings of the municipal chairpersons," a minister said.
Another minister said the municipal reforms were needed because Mamata Banerjee wanted to keep her party away from graft, particularly when she has raised her voice against the Centre's demonetisation that she thinks is the biggest corruption in the country.
The government has started the groundwork to implement the measures. It is posting WBCS officers with eight to 10 years' experience of working as BDOs in the municipalities as executive officers. Municipal executive officers are now mostly retired WBCS officers.
"If the government has to ensure independent functioning to the executive officers, it will have to amend a 2003 rule that specifies that they will have to work under the direct supervision of the chairpersons," a source said.
The rule, introduced during Left rule, allows the civic chairpersons to control everyday affairs. "Since 2003, the government had been placing retired personnel as executive officers in the municipalities. But the Trinamul government is putting young WBCS officers in the posts as it wants to run the municipal boards properly," an official said.
A section of the officials, however, said curbing the influence of local politicians in running the municipalities would be difficult. "These leaders are local power centres and many of them could create hurdles in the independent working of the executive officers," a bureaucrat said.

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