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Despite a flood of criticism, BMC Commissioner Johny Joseph keeps his nerve and humanity
“It is one of the few bungalows in the area, so it is easy to find,” says Reena Joseph, wife of Johny Joseph, the commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on the phone. And so it is: on the tony M.L. Dahanukar Marg, just behind Jaslok Hospital and beside the Port Trust bungalow is this cream-coloured heritage building.
As I walk into the driveway, the first thing that catches the eye are two geese soaking in the sun, on a grassy lawn, next to a small pond. Inside, the visitor’s room is tastefully furnished, with plush sofas, a thick carpet on the floor, an unsigned painting on the wall, and, on a wooden table pressed against the wall, ‘Happy Birthday to Daddy’ cards are placed standing up around a statue of Mother Mary. Joseph celebrated his 57th birthday on June 24.
The hospitality is quick: within minutes, a white uniformed butler brings tea, cakes, biscuits and some Kerala banana chips on a tray. Reena arrives first, wearing a white salwar kameez, with diamond earrings and a gold necklace, and is followed ten minutes later by Joseph.
One of the first things that strike you about the municipal commissioner is how short he is. Somehow, photographs and television images give the impression of a much taller man. He is around 5’ 3” but is dressed neatly in a black safari suit, with a Nokia mobile phone cradled in his right palm.
Battered by the press
For Joseph, the first thing he does in the morning is to wade through several English and Marathi newspapers, mainly the metro sections. “I have to see what is written against me,” he says, with a wry smile. “I study the complaints and set the agenda for redressing them. This is one valuable way of getting feedback.”
Is he happy with the coverage?
He looks at me steadily and there is a brief shake of the head. “Today, there is a continuous barrage of criticism,” he says. “It is not encouraging. There are people in the various wards who have worked days and nights during the recent rains but it has not been appreciated. Elsewhere in the world, like during 9/11 and Katrina, the coverage was constructive. You should focus on what we are doing, instead of just criticising.”
I ask Reena, 53, about what she feels about the criticism and she says, “Last year, I used to get hurt. But now I have got used to it and don’t care a damn.”
She is a nice foil to Joseph. While he is reserved and reticent, she is effervescent, ever-smiling and looks younger than her age. A former primary school teacher, she has become an expert in vermicompost. “No waste is thrown out in our house,” she says. “It is used to grow plants and vegetables. I have also set up a water harvesting system. Because when the BMC is preaching it, we should set an example.” She has been trying to spread the vermicompost concept in various places in the city. Suddenly, she says, “I have something to say to the people. As a citizen, please sit back and think for five minutes: Are you doing your duty? Do you not fail to segregate waste at home? Do you not throw garbage on the road? Do you not throw plastic packets in the gutter?” She pauses and then adds, “It is so easy to criticise the BMC.”
Joseph was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the son of an additional secretary in the state finance department. He did his schooling there and graduated from the Government Engineering College. He worked for three months at the Durgapur Steel Plant in West Bengal before he was selected for the IAS and embarked on a successful bureaucratic career (see box). Throughout his career, his wife has been his anchor. They have been married for 31 years and live alone in Mumbai. They have two children, George, 30, and Mary Anne, 22. While George---who is married to his classmate Smriti, a Saraswat Brahmin--is doing his doctorate in pharmacoeconomics in Los Angeles, Mary Anne is about to complete her final year exams for her MBBS degree at Pune.
I ask Joseph about the effect his career has had on the family. “They have had to make a lot of sacrifices, so I could roam around freely,” he says.
In public life, is it possible to balance career and family life?
He presses his lips together and says, “It is very difficult but my children are very understanding. At this moment, my career takes up 90 per cent of my time.”
Do you feel bad about it?
“Yes, I do feel bad about it. But if you want to do justice to the job, you have to devote many hours. I work for about 14 hours a day. The BMC has an annual budget of Rs 9000 crore, which is more than the budget of many states and there is a whole gamut of activities I have to oversee.”
Your children may be understanding now but not when they were younger?
“It was not so bad when the children were very young. Because, at that time, I was not the municipal commissioner.” And for the first time, Joseph laughs and continues to do so as he watches the antics of the geese.
Here a goose, there a gander
Photographer Natasha Hemrajani wants the geese to be involved in the photo shoot. But they are least interested. They flap their wings and run hither and thither on their webbed feet, as two workmen in khaki, chase them up and down the courtyard. It is good fun and it takes some time before both are caught. While this drama is going on, I ask Joseph: how do people react when they see you on the street?
“Most people react positively,” says Joseph. “I have got a lot of appreciative telephone calls from places like Chembur, Kalina and the Air India Colony, where we have managed to solve some problems. But nowadays, I am also getting a lot of hate messages through SMS asking me to RESIGN!” He emphasises the word.
“The job is not easy,” he continues. “The basic infrastructure, especially the drainage, cannot be set right in one or two years. And we also have to deal with the displacement and resettlement of human beings. But, to be frank, it is very difficult for the civic infrastructure to keep pace with the burgeoning population.”
Joseph has been in the hot seat for more than two years and has withstood several calls for his removal. So what do others think about him? On a morning run in Santa Cruz, I overhear a woman telling a companion, “The disaster management cell of the BMC is a disaster.” When I stop to inquire, Celine Castellino says a tree had fallen in her garden in Willingdon Colony. When the BMC workers came, they were unable to cut it because the electric saw was not working. “Tell Mr Joseph he has no idea of what is happening at the grassroots level,” she says.
Kapil Gupta, a professor of civil engineering at IIT, says, “It is easy to blame Joseph but it is the rot of 40 years which cannot be corrected in one year. Thanks to his engineering background, he quickly understood the need of setting rain gauges all over the city.” Well-known architect Hafeez Contractor says, “He is very effective. He does not give false promises and is approachable.” And here’s the ever-loyal Reena with the last say: “He is calm, serene, intelligent and has a good memory. He also has a very good sense of humour.”
It seems so. Because when I ask him how he handles politicians in the corporation, he says, “A politician thinks of the next election, a statesman of the next generation.’”
Asst. Collector, JalgaonCEO, Zilla Parishad, AkolaCollector, ChandrapurDy. Secretary, Ministry of Steel, DelhiPrivate Secretary to Minister, (I & B)Dy. Director General, AIRCollector, MumbaiSecretary to Governor of MaharashtraSecretary (Relief & Rehabilitation) for Latur EarthquakePrincipal Secretary to Chief MinisterMunicipal Commissioner