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The Mapping of Mohalla Sabhas- Beginning of a Silent Revolution

11/04/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - DECEMBER 27: AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister designate Arvind Kejriwal during a Mohalla Sabha meeting at Ballamki Sadan on December 27, 2013 in New Delhi, India. Kejriwal, who led Aam Aadmi Party to a remarkable victory in assembly elections, will take oath on Saturday at Ramleela Ground as Delhi's seventh chief minister along with six other AAP MLAs who will be part of the Cabinet. (Photo By Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

It's generally been business as usual in the past few months in Delhi: high-decibel histrionics, raging national debates, existent anomalies and non existent controversies. From the rise of nationalism and its various hues to the fall of law in those black robes, from the commendable odd even experiment to the AOL conundrum, Delhi has lived up to its political celebrity status. But away from the media glare, a silent revolution has been brewing. A revolution that could change the way the country looks at Delhi and even the way Delhiites look at themselves.

When the Aam Aadmi Party swept the Delhi Assembly elections a year back, one of its most prominent manifesto promises was the creation of "Mohalla Sabhas". Delhiites were told, and convincingly so, that going forward the citizens would be given the power to decide what they want the government to do, instead of the leadership taking unilateral decisions from their sarkari daftars. In the year that followed, the government has gone full throttle to ensure the effectuation of Mohalla Sabhas.

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The task involved digitally mapping more than 1.2 crore registered voters on satellite maps across the length and breadth of Delhi.

The task has been gargantuan to say the least. From conducting pilot Mohalla Sabhas across 11 districts to evolving research-based 'administrable' policies, a dedicated team in the government has been working overtime towards addressing every strand attached to the operationalizing of the Mohalla Sabhas. Among these, perhaps the most important and certainly the most rigorous was the mapping of the Mohalla Sabhas, an exercise not only unprecedented in terms of scale but also in terms of the use of technology and widest possible 'ground' consultations.

The mapping process

First let me put the scale of the mapping process in perspective. The task involved digitally mapping more than 1.2 crore registered voters on satellite maps across the length and breadth of Delhi. This while ensuring geographical continuity of mohallas, intra-mohalla similarity of socio economic profiles, avoiding overlap of mohalla areas across wards, non breakage of polling booths to the largest extent possible, and broad similarity in the voter composition of all mohallas both in terms of electorate population and area of each mohalla. Adding to the complexity of each of these tasks was the administrative quagmire that Delhi is. The multiplicity of administrative units and variation in the perception of unit boundaries meant that government records were hardly the last word when it came to finalising mohalla boundaries. It is to the credit of the government that each of these issues was taken head on and solutions evolved from a combination of technology and real-time feedback from people working on the ground.

The backbone of the team were the selfless ground workers--mostly people had stayed their entire lives in a particular area and were familiar with its minutest aspects.

The mapping team comprised volunteers on the ground and experts who had very good working knowledge of satellite maps. In most constituencies, the MLAs were part of this team who sat through the mapping process sharing invaluable feedback gained from extensive election campaigning, especially in areas where boundaries were hard to determine and socio economic profiles of different areas were to be assessed. The backbone of the team however, were the selfless ground workers--mostly people had stayed their entire lives in a particular area and were familiar with its minutest aspects. These people were willing to spend significant amounts of time and energy to realize the improbable mapping task.

The typical mapping of just one mohalla was a rather rigorous exercise. The teams working on the ground were required to take data from the website of the Election Commission (to ensure authenticity and coverage of all voters) and come up with the list of polling booths and voters that would form the mohalla. At the same time, a physical reconnaissance of these areas was done.

Next, the mapping team would sit together and identify every single area mentioned in the respective polling booths on personalised satellite maps and map the mohalla digitally. However, there would still invariably be areas which despite very good ground feedback could not be identified on the map due to constraints on the amount of resolution that can be achieved. This was particularly so in high population density areas like East Delhi where the satellite view of the houses as well as the streets would look extremely similar.

[T]he ambiguous parts of mohalla boundaries were tracked in real time by a person on the ground and synced with the satellite maps.

To resolve this, 'My Tracks', an Android application, was used through which the ambiguous parts of mohalla boundaries were tracked in real time by a person on the ground and synced with the satellite maps. Here too, heavy congestion sometimes came in the way of real time tracking; to counter this, the tracking was conducted by ground teams as late (or early) as 3am. Let me add that teaching the use of this app to people who were not too comfortable with technology was an exercise in itself!

Another prominent issue that cropped up was that voters in the same polling booth, especially in well-planned and developed areas like Rohini and Dwarka were too widely distributed to be a part of the same mohalla. To address this anomaly, every single apartment in these areas was identified on the map, colour coded and digitally tagged. Finally, mohalla composition was determined by choosing the best suited combination of booths (whereby the breaking of polling booths could be reduced to a bare minimum).

[After] relentless digital mapping of every single area in around 10,000 polling booths across Delhi, what came out was the division of the city into exactly 2969 mohallas...

There were various other area specific problems that were encountered as this mapping exercise was conducted for the whole of Delhi. After a plethora of issues, subsequent solutions and relentless digital mapping of every single area in around 10,000 polling booths across Delhi, what came out was the division of the city into exactly 2969 mohallas with an average population of 4500 voters each. An exception was, however, made for minimum population required to form a mohalla in Jhuggi Jhopri(JJ) clusters falling right in the midst of economically well-off areas. This because of the vast difference between the kind of issues experienced in JJ clusters and the areas surrounding them.

Each of the 2969 mohallas were finally cross-verified once again by respective Assistant Electoral Registration Officers (AEROs) and District magistrates (DMs) for accuracy and coverage.

Delhiites have to be patient

The rigour with which the mapping process took place and the fact that it was directly overseen and monitored at each stage at the highest level (both by the CM and Deputy CM of Delhi) is testimony to the government's serious intention to realize the idea of Mohalla Sabhas.

It could evolve to be a model for not just India but also for many other developing countries to bring about a paradigm shift in urban local governance.

However, an exercise of such unprecedented scale is bound to have some imperfections and this is where Delhiites have to be patient. The process will refine itself as Delhiites actively start participating in Mohalla Sabhas. This in turn will also be an incentive for people to register themselves as voters in the same areas where they reside (which is not the case right now in Delhi and perhaps across the country). In fact, Delhiites would have given themselves a wonderful gift if Mohalla Sabhas are internalized in the governance structure of Delhi, so much so that it continues to be a reality irrespective of the party in power. It could evolve to be a model for not just India but also for many other developing countries to bring about a paradigm shift in urban local governance. And this is why I call it a revolution. But how much of this would become a reality depends on how well the Mohalla Sabhas are actually conducted on the ground in the forthcoming months. Beyond all the mapping and policymaking, eventually that is what will matter the most. Which is why this is just 'part one' of the revolution.

The author has been closely associated with the mapping process and is a part of the team framing the policy related to Mohalla Sabhas.

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