Neo Liberalism attacks all corners of life. Not just it makes the condition of the people miserable to the loot of capital, it excruciatingly targets all the domains of peoples livelihood, then how can the places where they live be an exception. Below I narrate the experience of forming a new organisation in the urban centres and the issues confronting the people at large.
Neo Liberalism: attacks people not only at places of work but also at the places they live in.
If guidelines of running the urban bodies are followed as transcribed by the Jawahar Lal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the 13th Finance Commission et al one could easily smell the odour of neo liberalism in it. These bodies lay stress on the generation of resources from the people and ensuring that no service by the urban municipal bodies is rendered loss making. Such services include sanitation, health water supply, sewerage, maintenance of roads, street lights etc. A user charge in all such services is the light of the day. Further outsourcing of services to private is another novel way of blatant attacks on the people’s right over these services. Can someone believe that in a small town of Shimla with a population of over 1.5 lakhs, merely outsourcing the MC toilets to Sulabh, daily generates an income of over Rs 2 lac . Or in other words the residents and the tourists thronging the erstwhile summer capital of the country have to pay this amount for pissing and defecation. Another form of user charge has been the collection of garbage at door steps. The charges are Rs 35, 50, 200 and Rs 800 per month for collection from domestic, shops, commercial establishments and Hotels and restaurants respectively. Another major stride has come in the form of privatisation of water supply. From the lifting of water to its distribution everything is being privatised/ and outsourced. But the buck does not stop here. The master of all attacks comes in the form of change in the method of taxation in Shimla town. Earlier the methodology of taxing the house owners was on the basis of tax collection which now has been changed onto the basis of unit area irrespective of the fact whether the property owned is for bonafide or commercial use.
The HP Vidhan Sabha in its budget session in March 2011 amended in fact altogether changed the previous HP Municipal Corporation Act and the HP Urban bodies Act (bill no. 10 & 12 of 2011). Recently in August the Governor has also given her assent and the act will soon become operational. As stated above the act smacks of deep rooted neo liberal attacks on the common people. The Aims and Objectives of the Acts speak for themselves. It states that the Urabn bodies must generate their resources and it is only then that the bodies will get a matching grant under the guidelines of the JNNURM and the 13th Finance commission. Though the JNNURM will vanish by 2012, but the metamorphosised form will exist and will continue to dominate the broad guidelines of governance and administration for the urban bodies. The Shimla MC has an expenditure of over Rs 50 crores annually and its resource generation is almost Rs 30 crores. For the rest Rs 20 crores it is dependent upon the state government. But now the state assembly has passed an act that coerces the MC to raise their tax limits and put the burden on the common man. The alternatives as suggested by various forums of taxing the rich especially those who pay a rent of over Rs 25 lac per month for the shops on the mall have all gone on deaf ears and instead both the MC and the state government have decided to force the people to pay this additional amount in different forms of taxes , which include, user charges , property tax and so on.
The Formation of the Citizens forum called the ‘Shimla Nagrik Sabha’
It is in such a background that the Shimla Nagrik Sabha a mass organisation of the people of Shimla town has been formed in a massive convention attended by over 500 people in Kali Bari Hall. The organisation will have a mass membership base. The membership will be open to all the citizens of the town who have attained the age of 16 years. Presently the membership campaign is going on. The convention gave a call to have a mobilisation in front of the Vidhan Sabha on the 29th August demanding repealing of the Act and stopping the rampant privatisation drive of basic services in Shimla town.
The gherao of assembly on 29th August, 2011’
Before the gherao of the state assembly, the protesters gathered in Panchayat Bhavan . Then a march through the cart road was led by a large number of people from different walks of life. Senior citizens, youth, college going students, working people, middle class employees , women, councilors of the MC,members of different social and cultural organizations et al participated in the action . The rallyists gheraoed the vidhan sabha and condemned the assembly for passing laws against the wish and will of the majority of the people of the town. The speakers ridiculed the government for passing such a draconian law that will mount tremendous burden on the residents of Shimla town. The vision of the government to hand over the services into the private sector and that in turn would improve the quality of services is quite contrary to the experiences in different urban centers both in the county and the world. The speakers further lambasted the government for making structural changes and outsourcing almost every service in the urban bodies. The amendments in the act very amply demonstrate and substantiate the statement made, were the panegyric voice of the speakers.
It needs to be mentioned here that both the BJP & Congress were unanimous in passing this law. None, either from the party in power or from the opposition spoke against the draconian provisions of the bill while it was placed for discussion during the budget session.
The changes in the act:
The act speaks about the change in the pattern of generating tax in the urban centers. The following shall be the main provisions of the amendment done in the act:-
1. The change in tax collection has been from the basis of rent to unit area method. The unit area will be calculated on the plinth area multiplied by the cost at that time .After evaluating the value of the structure for a year, a tax of 1 to 25% can be levied on the house owner irrespective of the fact that the house is for a bonafide use or for commercial use. Further, the earlier provisions of 100 m2 relaxation for the bonafide use has been set aside and now every occupant will be coercively forced to pay the tax that in all counts shall be too exorbitant for the people staying either in Shimla or in other urban centers of the state. The other provision of the tax generation will be that the Shimla town will be divided into various zones and per unit will be calculated for such zones. To compound the miseries further for the house owners, the act speaks about 5 variables to be added for the calculation of tax that includes i. location, ii. Occupancy, iii. Age of building, iv. Use of building, v. type of structure.
2. The other amendment speaks about the use of user charges to be levied on the people which once again shall come in the form of more charges on water, sanitation, sewerage and so on.
3. The act also gives a go green signal for the privatization of the essential services that ultimately will mean more charges on the common man and outsourcing of the MC services.
The major demands that were raised during the demonstration include the government to immediately repeal the act and the basis of rent collection should be on rent. Further, that the stress should be for a one time settlement of the houses constructed that have not been regularized especially in the merged areas which were constructed prior to their merger into the MC. The houses should be regularized on the basis of as it is where it is. On the similar pattern the Dharas should be regularized. Since the merged areas sans basic facilities like sewerage, roads, street lights, water supply and so on, these areas should be developed and in the meantime should be kept out of the limits of Shimla MC.