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Making Mumbai's leaders accountable

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-05-11

MUMBAI (India) - Mr Gerson da Cunha is one of those Indians who's been successful in virtually everything that he's done in this country and abroad over the last six decades.

As head of the prestigious Lintas Advertising Company, he made several consumer brands into household names, including cooking oil that still sizzles in millions of kitchens. As a professor of marketing at Sao Paolo University in Brazil, Mr da Cunha was so popular that Unicef hired him away to create social marketing programs in poor countries. He was later among those responsible for modernizing telecommunications in India, and using marketing techniques to widen immunization of children and promote better maternal care in this country's 550,000 villages.

And all the while, Mr da Cunha kept up his acting career on the stage and in movies. He's also written film reviews, columns, poems, essays, and books. There is a hectic schedule of speechmaking nationally and internationally on issues such as globalization and poverty alleviation. His appearances in the local print and electronic media are numerous.

So how come he's to be found in the streets and slums of Mumbai these days?

'I'm angered by what's happening around me,' said Mr da Cunha, a tall, hirsute man whose typical attire consists of a flowing white shirt called kurta, white pantaloons, and leather sandals. 'I am Mumbai born and bred, and I refuse to accept the degradation and corruption here. I am provoked into a response to it.'

His response consists of holding elected lawmakers accountable for their election promises of civic betterment. 'It's not enough for our politicians to ask for our votes, get them, then go away and be unreachable for another five years - when it's election time again,' Mr da Cunha said. 'Mumbai contributes most of India's tax revenues. It's India's main commercial city. It's the capital of the movie industry, which produces nearly 1,000 feature films each year. But the infrastructure in Mumbai is rapidly deteriorating. Mumbai's people deserve better.'

To articulate the city's needs and to persuade its leaders to act, Mr da Cunha is also organising citizen groups all over this teeming metropolis of 12 million people - of whom 65 percent live in slums. The idea is to amplify citizen voices so that their elected representatives will speedily attend to local concerns such as clean water, sustained electricity and decent housing. The idea also is to serve as a watchdog, continually monitoring the performance of Mumbai's six members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

The vehicle for such activities is Agni, which means fire in the national language of Hindi. It's a nonprofit, nonpolitical and nonsectarian outfit that was set up in 1999 to hold the feet of political and civic leaders to the fire. Agni is also an acronym for 'Action for Good Governance and Networking in India.' Agni's 300,000 members, all volunteers, are drawn from the 24 municipal wards of Mumbai.

The organisation has been widely praised for its voter registration drives and in ensuring high voter turnout on polling dates; in the current three-week election for the 543-member national parliament, Agni signed up more than 200,000 new voters in slums and upper middle class neighborhoods alike.

The city's politicians were impressed with Agni's reach. They readily signed up on a 'citizens' manifesto' that Agni produced which commits elected officials to creating new jobs, providing 1.1 million units of affordable housing, improving local transportation and streamlining municipal governance of Mumbai, which is among the world's five biggest urban centres.

'We want to make our leaders accountable to those things to which they've lent their names to,' Mr da Cunha said. He's particularly pleased, for example, that in the current election candidates were required to disclose their assets as well as their police records, if any. 'We're making people see the relationship between their vote and an improvement in the quality of their lives. Our leaders need to be chosen more thoughtfully.'

Mumbai's leaders have traditionally treated the city as little more than a huge vote bank. The city's population has grown dramatically since 1947 -- when India gained independence from the British colonial Raj - as more and more people migrated from the rural hinterland in search of jobs. The movie industry, too, attracts scores of aspirants. Municipal records here suggest that Mumbai gets more than 10,000 newcomers from villages and small towns each week. Such demographic patterns are also evident in other big cities - and although 60 percent of India's 1.1 billion people live in rural areas, the country is rapidly becoming more urbanized.

While it's an ineluctable fact of political life that people in urban areas would be regarded as merely voters, said Mr da Cunha, Agni's effort now is focused on getting citizens to become part of the decision-making process when it comes to public policy. This means drafting suggested legislation, getting community groups to interact more consistently with their elected representatives, and, when necessary, resorting to litigation in the cause of urban improvement. 'Mumbai has an opportunity to become a model city for urban development,' Mr da Cunha said. 'Development is progress on purpose.'

When it comes to citing model cities, Singapore's name comes up frequently in conversations with Mumbai's officials and citizenry as well. Mr da Cunha says it isn't simply a matter of providing more efficient municipal services.

'More fundamentally, it's a question of good governance,' he said. 'Look at any well run city, Singapore, for instance, and you will always find a central cadre of tough minded, incorruptible and totally dedicated civic leaders. That's what Mumbai needs.'

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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