Battleground Panchkula: Problems and controversies surrounding Municipal Corporation

The outgoing Municipal Corporation was paralysed by the battles between Mayor and MLA. The residents of this township
were the main victims as little work was taken up by the corporation.

The outgoing Panchkula Municipal Corporation, whose five-year term is set to end on July 3, will be remembered mainly for the never-ending bitter battles between the Congress-backed Mayor Upinder Ahluwalia and BJP MLA Gian Chand Gupta, and their paralysing effect on the work of the corporation.

The fighting turned into a recurrent nightmare for residents. Basic issues such as garbage disposal, maintenance of street lights, road repairs, measures to control street dog population were addressed in fits and starts, if at all. Such a drift had set in that even the Punjab and Haryana High Court had asked why Panchkula MC should not be dissolved.

Perhaps keeping in mind that it would soon be time to go back to the voters, only in the last three to four months this year has there been a burst of activity on road repairs and relaying.

As the new poll process has got delayed and the schedule of new MC elections has not yet been announced, the Haryana government has appointed Municipal Commissioner Rajesh Jogpal as the Administrator.

In normal circumstances, elections to MCs should be held before the expiry of the current term or immediately thereafter.

The 2013 Panchkula MC polls were contested without party symbols as per rules, but candidates do belong to political parties. As many as 13 out of 20 councillors in the outgoing corporation are from the Congress. Three are from BJP, two from INLD and two are Independent. Upinder Ahluwalia of the Congress was elected mayor.

Unlike Chandigarh, where every year sees a new mayoral election, a Panchkula mayor has a five-year term. After elections in 2013, when the Congress was still ruling Haryana state, Panchkula saw development work picking up in the city. But after the BJP came to power at the end of 2014, MLA Gupta and Mayor Ahluwalia remained constantly at loggerheads. In this never-ending tussle, the sufferer was Panchkula. For residents, these five years were harrowing as even to get basic amenities, they had to frequent the office of MC.

S K Nayar, president of Citizens’ Welfare Association, said, “The roads gave us a tough time. On the entire stretch of road, we literally had to look for a safe patch through the potholes. Just now the recarpeting has been done but what we have gone through all these years is beyond expression.”

Rakesh Aggarwal, president of Sector 12 Residents’ Welfare Association, describes the outgoing MC as a “failure”.

“The worst part is that they wouldn’t address the grievances of residents. There was no forum where our problems could see a redressal. We would complain that heaps of garbage were lying in our sector, sweepers were not working properly but the civic body was focussed more on work which we can say was a waste of money — like changing paver blocks which are in good condition already. I would give a big zero,” he said.

Outgoing Mayor Upinder Kaur Ahluwalia says she tried her best even after facing stiff opposition over development works from the BJP government.

“When we took over in 2013, Panchkula did see development works in the initial two years. After BJP government came to power, I don’t know what suddenly happened, they would oppose every project we approved. Even in the case of roads, the files did not move until these last three months,” the outgoing mayor said.

On the reason for this opposition, she said, “The majority of the councillors had allegiance to Congress and the BJP government didn’t want us to take credit for the work. Moreover, I had been flagging the corruption by the officials who had the blessings of the MLA, so the latter targeted me for everything.”

However, MLA Gupta has a different tale. According to him, the mayor failed on “every count”. He said that eight MC Commissioners changed because of her and that is why various works would never see the light of day.

“She wouldn’t allow any officer to work here. All the officers would want a transfer because of her. Mayor was doing it intentionally,” he said.

While the tiff between the two was quite open, here’s a look at the problems and the different controversies the MC courted.

Garbage problem persists

All these years, the civic body could not decide on a permanent site for having its solid waste management plant. Residents of sectors 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28 have been facing health hazard due to the present dumping ground in Sector 23. In the first House meeting of the Municipal Corporation in 2014, a major decision regarding the disposal of garbage and setting up of a garbage processing plant was taken but nothing happened.

Initially, there were plans to shift the site to Jhuriwala but after opposition from the MLA and others, the MC again revised its decision and said the plant needs to be shifted to Bhanu village.

MLA Gupta said that he had also written to Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar urging him to shift the Sector 23 dumping ground.

The MLA was also against the proposed site at Jhuriwala as it is close to the National Institute of Fashion Technology and IT Park.

Residents continue to face a tough time as waste generated by the city is being dumped at the Sector 23 site.

“When the new MC took over, we thought there would be a permanent solution to this dumping ground, but they have failed miserably. They have just been working on papers,” Ashok Kumar, a resident of Sector 25, said.

Poor Swachh show

Even as the Panchkula Municipal Corporation spent Rs 45 lakh only to check open defecation, including hiring transgenders for a campaign to shame violators, the city continued to put up a bad show in the Swachh Survekshan and did not even figure in the top 50. Last year, Panchkula MC’s rank was 242 and this year it was 142.

MC officials had even engaged 21 private taxis at Rs 2,400 a day from the first week of March to enable officials to visit areas where open defecation was rampant and challan the violators.

Even now, the problem of open defection is rampant in colony areas of Panchkula, Kalka and Pinjore.

Street dogs’ menace

The number of street dogs in Panchkula is said to be over 8,000, but only 2,086 stray dogs have been sterilised in all these years. Mayor Upinder Kaur Ahluwalia claims that the work went slow due to retirement of one doctor at the government pet clinic.

Vinod Aggarwal, a resident of Sector 21, complains that people fear to move out because of dogs everywhere.

“Children can’t even play in the parks because of packs of stray dogs. The MC did nothing to keep a check on this menace,” he said.

Marriage palaces

The Panchkula Municipal Corporation had decided to build two marriage palaces, one each in Panchkula and Pinjore, so that the residents may not have to go all the way to Zirakpur or other areas to hold wedding functions. However, the project did not see the light of day.

Mayor Ahluwalia stated that the agenda was approved but the work was not executed by the BJP government.

The marriage palace in Panchkula was to come up in ward 20 on corporation land at Toka village. The MC had about 2.5 acres on the road where the marriage hall was to come up. Rs 2 crore each was to be spent on building the two palaces.

Potholed roads

With MC miserably failing to repair or relay roads, twice in the last three years, residents tried to draw MC’s attention and shame it by mounting a campaign of drawing around potholes with chalk to make them look like works of art.

A group, Youth4Swaraj, had initiated a week-long campaign ‘Mera Gaddha, Mera Gaurav (My Pothole, My Pride)’. To draw the attention of officials, the group had been writing slogans on the potholes too.

The group, loosely affiliated to leader Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj India, even showered flowers to declare the roads dead. Slogans like ‘Janta gaddhe mein’ were also written along some big potholes to embarrass the top brass.

Mayor Ahluwalia then sat with the councillors outside MC office protesting against the non-completion of road work.

Only three months ago, road work amounting to Rs 40 crore was carried out in the entire Panchkula — internal lanes and main roads.

Revolving door of Commissioners

In the entire tenure, MC saw shifting of eight Municipal Commissioners. They had alleged that the “environment in Panchkula MC is not conducive for working”.

Before 2016 when the back-to-back transfers began, Panchkula MC saw four Commissioners of whom two were then Panchkula Deputy Commissioners – Ashima Brar and S S Phulia and one was then Additional Deputy Commissioner S P Arora, all holding additional charge of the MC Commissioners. In 2016, Jagdeep Dhanda, HCS officer, was appointed as Municipal Commissioner, but he too was transferred out by the government. The transfers began when Lalit Siwach joined as the MC Commissioner in September 2016, but was shifted by the government after he courted a controversy with the mayor.

On September 21, 2016, Siwach wrote to the then Divisional Commissioner over grievances aired by civic staffers, who had complained that they were being pressured over some works. The mayor appealed to the Punjab and Haryana High Court against then Divisional Commissioner Ankur Gupta, Lalit Siwach, Kalka MLA Latika Sharma and Panchkula MLA Gupta for obstructing her “cause of promoting transparency in the corporation”.

Both Siwach and mayor had sent a number of complaints against each other to senior officials. The mayor had alleged that he was acting on the directions of the local leadership.The government transferred out Siwach on May 18, 2017, and then appointed Shaleen, a 2012-batch IAS officer, as the new Panchkula MC Commissioner. Shaleen too met with the same fate. He had written to the Haryana Chief Secretary that the environment in the Panchkula MC was not conducive for working and the mayor was threatening him.

The mayor had said that Shaleen too was playing in the hands of the local BJP leadership. Shaleen was later accused of threatening a scribe for writing about MC. Following protests by journalists, he was transferred out by the Haryana government in less than two months of his posting, that is on July 11, 2017.

Ashok Kumar Meena joined in place of Shaleen but he too was transferred out within two-and-a-half months of his posting. MC then got another MC Commissioner on September 2017 in the form of Rajesh Jogpal who continues to hold the post.

Rap by High Court

For its failure to take up development activities like repair of potholed roads, sanitation and removal of encroachments despite availability of funds, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had observed as to why Panchkula Municipal Corporation should not be dissolved.

The High Court, which had broadened the subject under a petition, had observed that Panchkula Municipal Corporation was not utilising the allotted funds for development and prevention of diseases and said it had failed to perform its duties while highlighting a number of issues on sewerage, condition of internal roads and encroachment of Majri Chowk.

“It appears to be a stage of invoking the provisions of Section 400 of the Haryana Municipal Corporation Act, 1994, where it has failed to discharge the duties and its powers are required to be transferred or taken over by the state government. Therefore, this court takes such a drastic step in issuing direction to the state government to invoke the aforementioned provisions,” the single bench had written in its order on April 19 this year.

Bifurcation of Municipal Corporation

MLAs Gupta and Latika Sharma had favoured separate bodies for Kalka and Pinjore last year. They wanted that Panchkula Municipal Corporation be separated from Kalka and Pinjore.

However, a petition was filed by Pinjore-based councillor Satinder Singh Tony against the move in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Tony in the plea said that Kalka MLA Latika Sharma for the “reasons best known to her” had written to the Chief Minister for exclusion of the areas of Pinjore and Kalka from the Panchkula Municipal Corporation, following which the Directorate of the Urban Local Bodies asked the Commissioner, Ambala Division, to get the matter examined by a committee of officials. The matter is still pending before the court.

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