The Praja foundation’s Understanding Municipal Finance and Budget workshop in Mumbai on 30 September was as quiet as suspected. A dozen councillors from the R-Central (Borivali) and R-North (Dahisar) wards listened patiently as P.C. Pisolkar, former chief auditor of the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC), made his presentation at the Mandpeshwar Civic Federation Sports Complex in Borivali. Instead of a rush towards the exit when Pisolkar got to the final slide in his presentation, the audience began to bombard the presenter with questions on preparing their ward’s budget proposals.

While some councillors gingerly asked about the protocol on including routine maintenance work of their neighbourhood cowsheds in their budgets, others demanded to know details of the procedure for commissioning civil contractors to draft blueprints for new gardens and repairing roads in their locality.

For Mumbai-based Praja, capacity-building workshops like this one are only the most recent additions to a long list of support services they offer the city’s 227 municipal councillors and 32 MLAs.

The NGO plays the role of both headmaster and mentor to the Mumbai’s elected representatives. Its 17-member team works round the year, filing Right to Information applications and publishing annual MLA and councillor report cards. The periodic status reports of civic issues like health, education and crime help MLAs pinpoint the problems of their individual wards or constituencies. For first-timers, the organization has an open-door policy and simpler resource tools such as a three-volume handbook for councillors with a complete breakdown of their role and functions in the BMC.

“Leave aside any ethical biases you may have about our city’s municipal councillors and MLAs and really think about whether they possess the infrastructure or support to undertake research to fuel their debates. That’s where we come in," says Milind Mhaske, project director at Praja.

For nearly a decade until 2008, Praja’s strategy to achieve an accountable local government included interventions with citizens’ groups and the administrative wing of the BMC. Early projects by the organization, formed in 1997 by businessman Nitai Mehta, include implementing the city’s first Citizens’ Charter in 1999 and developing the Online Complaint Management System software for the municipal corporation in 2003. Mhaske says the Praja Dialogue, the organization’s flagship project launched in 2008, allowed the organization to shift focus to the city’s elected representatives.

Though the project’s goal is to get the three constituents of the local government—citizens, the elected representatives (councillors and MLAs) and the municipal administration—engaging with each other on a common platform, Mhaske explains this was not possible because “by 2008, we felt like we were holding the administration’s hands for the simplest tasks, often doing their work for them. We also didn’t have resources and time for public awareness campaigns".

In 2009, as part of the Praja Dialogue, the NGO launched a series of status reports or white papers on the corporation’s health, education amenities, civic and crime issues in the city. The most recent ones include a July report on “The State of Health of Mumbai" that brings to light key disease trends by analysing data obtained from public health centres through RTI applications as well as an independent survey carried out by Hansa Research.

Since 2011, the NGO has also been releasing annual report cards that rank the city’s municipal councillors and MLAs using criteria that include not only their attendance and involvement in official meetings, but also considering the quality of every question asked and issue raised. “Think about it this way: a child can’t keep going to school without getting feedback on his performance," says Yogesh Sagar, BJP MLA from Charkop, ranked by Praja as the No.1 MLA this year . “Praja’s report cards keep elected representatives on their toes."

Another programme initiated under the Praja Dialogue umbrella is the Praja Katta, an outreach project designed to involve college students in the NGO’s research and fieldwork. “We understand we can’t fight this battle alone," says Mhaske. “We will need citizens demanding a better local government, and Project Katta is the first of our citizens’ engagement projects."

10,000 can help them to

• File RTI applications.

• Help organize capacity-building workshops for 20 municipal councillors.

If you volunteer, you will

• Assist in data collection through RTI applications and data entry.

• Assist in research and analysis for short-term or long-term research projects.

Recent donors

• Friedrich Naumann Foundation

• Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation

• Ford Foundation

To contact Praja, visit www.praja.org, @PrajaFoundation.

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