Saturday, July 24, 2010

An eagle eye


The Ombudsman for Local Self-Government Institutions, M.R. Hariharan Nair, corrects wrong-doings by municipal bodies and panchayats

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 10.30 a.m. on a Thursday, there is a sizeable crowd at the PWD Rest House, near NGO Quarters, Kakkanad. The Ombudsman for Local Self-Government Institutions, M.R. Hariharan Nair, is holding a sitting.

Beeran, a resident of Kalamassery had filed a case stating that a contractor K.K. Biju who had been asked to remove 2,500 cubic metres of earth, near a stretch of land near his house, took away 7,500 cubic metres, in collusion with municipal officers.

The Kalamaserry municipality, represented by Chairperson A.M. Arifa and Secretary Raghuraman argue that Biju took away 3,500, instead of 7,500 cubic metres. Biju admits that excess mud had been removed, but, nevertheless, asks the municipality to pay the Rs 5 lakh due to him.

The adversaries state their arguments in front of Nair, who listens, with an impassive face, asks for certain papers, inspects them, makes jottings in his dairy, and finally states, “I will issue an order in this case.”

The post of Ombudsman was set up in 2000 to monitor the activities of the local bodies. “The functions are four-fold,” says Nair. “On receiving complaints, I have to check whether, ‘inaction’, ‘excessive action’, ‘corruption’ or ‘maladministration’ has taken place.”

He gives an example of maladministration. Last year, owing to political and religious overtones, a certain chapter in a Class 8 social science text book was banned from being taught by two panchayats. “They do not have the power to pass this resolution,” says Nair. “So I intervened. The Ombudsman is the only person who has the power to cancel this decision.”

However, most of the complaints are in regard to inaction by municipal bodies and panchayats.

“A marriage or birth certificate has not been issued,” says Nair. “A person had applied for a building permit six months ago, but it is yet to be granted. A building has been complete, but the number has not been given. The inaction usually happens because the complainant has not paid a bribe.”

For Nair, the job satisfaction comes when he is able to provide justice for the poor. “Hundreds of people in the past few months were able to get houses, to which they were entitled, under the EMS Housing Scheme,” says Nair.

Most of the time, the allotments were diverted to affluent and well-connected persons. So the poor had no option but to file a case. (This is very easy, because all you need to do is to fill an application form that costs only Rs 10).

“When I ensured that justice was done, the beneficiaries shed tears of joy,” says Nair. Also, unlike a High Court Judge who does not follow up once an order is issued, an Ombudsman ensures that his orders are implemented. “Recently I imposed a liability of Rs 1000 on a Municipal Secretary for non-compliance of an order,” he says.

Since Nair is the only Ombudsman for the whole of Kerala, he is constantly travelling from place to place to hold sittings: Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Palakkad, Kochi, Kozhikode and Kannur. Usually, he lists 40 cases a day, but at the recent hearing at Kochi, 47 cases were posted, which meant that he had less than ten minutes to deal with each case.

A lawyer, Pratap Abraham Varghese, who was present at the Kochi sitting, suggested that the government should appoint a few more ombudsmen, so that cases can be resolved quickly. “The burden on one man is too much,” says Pratap.

Meanwhile, Nair says that while many problems can be solved, some are insurmountable, like the disposal of waste. He says that the Thrikakkara panchayat had acquired 40 cents of land several years ago to build a waste treatment plant, but the local people had not even allowed a boundary wall to be constructed.

“Kerala is such a small and densely populated state, that it is impossible to find a suitable location where there are no people around for a safe distance,” he says. “And it does not help that the people have a NIMBY attitude: ‘Not In My Backyard.’”

But Nair is candid enough to admit that the residents who live near the Brahmapuram waste treatment plant are going through hell. “The stink is unbearable,” says Nair. “Can you eat food sitting next to a lavatory? The water is polluted, while diseases are rampant.”

He says that the way forward is for every building to have a waste treatment plant. “This is the only method by which we can solve the crisis of waste disposal,” says Nair, whose three-year term will end on March 16, 2011.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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