Advanced Locality Management groups prove their mettle Empowered citizenry can, sometimes, pave way for great changes. This was proved once again on August 10 when the Mumbai High Court ordered the eviction of 80 food stalls from Juhu Beach. The Juhu Citizens' Welfare Group-an NGO floated by residents of Juhu and 12 Advanced Locality Management (ALM) groups in the area-had filed a Public Interest Litigation in the court.The stalls were demolished on August 16. "We had filed the PIL more than three years ago. Our plea was to relocate the food stalls so that the beach could be beautified," said Adolf D'souza, coordinator of the NGO Association for Good Governance and Networking in India (AGNI) for K-west ward of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). He has helped form more than 10 ALM groups in Juhu.In addition to the relocation of food stalls, the citizens' group reclaimed around 10,000 sq. m of land for Juhu residents. "Some private property owners had encroached on this land. Now we can beautify this land for Juhu residents," said D'souza.The citizens' group has also successfully tackled issues relating to garbage collection, road resurfacing and repairs and construction of a storm water drain. An ALM, said D'souza, is a pressure group formed by citizens in a locality or a colony or a bylane. "I am a member of Military Road ALM and our group covers 500 households in our locality. The other ALMs, too, cater to the same number of households," D'souza said.These ALMs meet once or twice every month, list the issues concerning the residents and then start setting things right. ALM meetings are often attended by the corporation's ward officers. Mumbai, at present, has nearly 700 ALM groups, of which 36 are in the K-west ward.Initially the work of ALMs was limited to garbage management. Eventually the ALMs began taking interest in other issues. For instance, the Military Road ALM worked for building a storm water drain. "When we approached municipal authorities for the first time there was the usual dilly-dallying. Then we used the RTI Act and asked them when the road was last repaired. To our surprise we found that it had not been repaired for nearly 20 years. All they used to do was a token touch-up here and there. Once ALM starts exerting its pressure, the civic administration can't take you for a ride," said D'souza."It is cent per cent true," agreed Rajkumar Sharma who is actively involved with Diamond Garden Residents' Association in Chembur-one of the first ALMs, which was formed in the metro in 1998. For Sharma, it was his frustration with the way garbage was being collected that led to the formation of the ALM. "When we began meeting together to form a group, my family thought I had gone mad," said the 56-year-old businessman.The Diamond Garden Residents' Association has 126 members who live in 15 buildings and bungalows. Over the last eight years, it not only solved garbage-related woes but also got the municipal corporation to resurface the road, construct a footpath along the central avenue, erect street lights and plant trees on roadsides. "Ours is one of the best localities in Mumbai," said Sharma. This ALM is part of the network of ALMs in the M-west ward of Mumbai. There are 49 other ALMs in the ward, of which some 35 are very active.Sharma says that the MCGM authorities don't listen to complaints of individuals. "However, if you are an ALM activist, you represent the entire locality and civic authorities are obliged to act as they know that ALM members are very informed about their rights and duties as citizens." He points out that most of the ALM members know each other personally. In the aftermath of the recent bomb blasts, active ALMs seem to be practising what the police have been preaching all along: "Know thy neighbour". "Over the years, our bonding with people has become stronger. We have a lot of events and we know everybody in our ALM. So if a suspicious-looking passerby is spotted in our locality we can immediately question him or call the police," said Sharma.Since last year there has been a marked change in the attitude of MCGM towards the ALMs. What the civic administration is aiming at is the formation of local area citizens' committees (LACC) and local area citizens' groups (LACG). They cater to citizens in an electoral ward that sends a corporator as its elected representative to the municipal general body. In March, BMC signed an MoU with NGO council to decentralise LACC further into LACG. MCGM has 627 registered ALMs of which 230 are known to be very active. Municipal authorities have received applications for forming 12 LACGs so far since the signing of the MoU.But ALM activists point out that it would affect the quality of work. "An LACG should ideally cover 5,000-10,000 people. I personally feel such a group becomes too large to manage and factions can very easily develop and that will prove to be its undoing," said Sharma.Sharma's experience with LACC, too, has not been a good one. The M-west municipal wards have 19 electoral wards. "ALM meetings were held in the presence of ward officers. But now with 19 LACCs functioning in one municipal ward the officer may not be able to personally attend LACC meetings which are supposed to be held in municipal schools and not at ward offices. So very often you will have a junior official attending the meetings and conveying your complaints to his ward officer. It is natural that the reply one will get at the next LACC meeting would be 'I have conveyed your complaints to my seniors'. Also, there is all possibility that an elected corporator would like to preside over the meeting and if he is denied the opportunity he can easily affect the prospects of the projects," said Sharma.While most of the ALM activists are opposed to LACCs and LACGs, some like James John, coordinator of AGNI for K-east municipal ward, strongly support it. John feels that ALMs cater to a small segment of the population as they are locality-specific and are often dependent on the dedication of three to four individuals. "In their absence these ALMs just die. In K-east municipal ward there are very few ALMs and those which exist are hardly active," he said. "Wherever an ALM, LACC or LACG is working effectively, the MCGM will encourage them. I am not going to insist that an effective ALM should transform or merge itself into an LACC or LACG. Participation from citizens is a positive change and there need not be a formal structure to it," said Additional Municipal Commissioner R.A. Rajeev. Gul Asrani, who has been associated with Cuffe Parade Residents' Association, an ALM, said that many coordinators had felt that LACGs were not functioning properly. "I feel that the more decentralised the apparatus is, the better. We can have an apex body of all groups," he said. Even as the debate over ALMs or LACGs continues among concerned Mumbaikars, the ALMs have shown that a small initiative taken by a few individuals can certainly lead to astonishing changes. When citizens are alert and empowered even the authorities have no option but to listen and act.