Joint Metropolitan Commissioner Ashwini Bhide. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)
Sometime in 2010 news leaked from the corridors of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) that a “haughty” politician was stalling the opening of a walkway. The next day, the livid politician landed up at the office of then Joint Metropolitan Commissioner Ashwini Bhide, the in-charge of the project. After a turbulent hour-long meeting, the politician left Bhide’s office apparently tamed while the project was inaugurated within a few days. A combination of knowing how to use the media and diplomatic skills had done the trick, and burnished the 1995-batch IAS officer’s credentials as an efficient, capable civil servant, fit to oversee a slew of infrastructure projects in the financial capital.
In 2019, Mumbai saw another side of Bhide. As Managing Director of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL), a special purpose vehicle for Mumbai’s flagship Metro Line 3, Bhide launched a very public defence of an unpopular plan, including on social media, to cut over 2,000 trees to construct a Metro car shed in Aarey in north Mumbai. In the process, she found herself pitted against environmentalists, as well as Shiv Sena scion Aaditya Thackeray.
Last week, when the Maha Vikas Aghadi government moved Bhide, 49, out of the MMRCL, no one was surprised. January marked the end of a five-year term for her, but the transfer was seen as punishment by the Thackeray-led government.
Additional Chief Secretary (Urban Development) Dr Nitin Kareer told The Sunday Express, “Bhide is a fine officer. She was assigned a responsibility, she has done very well. She has completed her tenure and will move onto her next assignment.”
While Bhide still awaits her new posting, many believe where she erred was in going beyond the call of duty in public advocacy of the car shed, a project that had become identified with a particular party (the BJP) and politician (then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis).
Said a retired IAS officer, “Even Kiran Bedi was an activist in many ways when she was an IPS officer, but the causes she took up, such as parking in Delhi, were not identified with a party or leader. A bureaucrat’s job is to implement policy. Handling public sentiment is a politician’s job.”
Hailing from Sangli and a student of literature, Bhide first came in contact with Fadnavis as CEO of Nagpur zila parishad in 2000-2003. Her husband, batch-mate and former IAS officer Dr Satish Bhide, was also posted there at the time, while Fadnavis was a first-time MLA and mayor of Nagpur. Between 2004-08, Bhide served as deputy secretary to successive Maharashtra governors, before joining the big league with her posting to the MMRDA.
A series of prestige projects followed, like Eastern Freeway, Mumbai’s skywalks project and the Mithi river clean-up. “For someone with no background in engineering, she quickly acquired knowledge of technical subjects. My assessment is that she was a quick responder, a good listener, and more democratic than most bureaucrats,” said Ashok Datar, Chairman of Mumbai Environmental Social Network and a transport expert who has worked with the MMRDA on various projects.
In the MMRDA, for example, Bhide dealt several times with people who had to be rehabilitated for projects. “She was a stickler for rules but was very considerate. Her persuasion skills helped the MMRDA remove even religious structures without strife,” an MMRDA officer who did not wish to be named said.
In February 2014, Bhide was moved as Secretary, School Education, before Fadnavis brought her back to the infrastructure department. She was seen as among the officers handpicked by him to implement his grand plans for the city.
In January 2015, Bhide was made the MMRCL MD. A joint venture between Maharashtra and the Government of India, the MMRCL was set up to construct the 33.5-km underground corridor for Metro Line 3 from Colaba to SEEPZ.
In the past five years, Bhide is seen to have tied up all the project’s loose ends, tendering out most of the contracts and putting the tunneling work on course for completion by September this year.
Observers say it was this stint, her most high-profile, that transformed Bhide from an officer willing to listen to one who stonewalled suggestions. “Knowing you have the complete backing of the Chief Minister probably changes the demeanour of an officer. Many believed that the BJP government would come back and a lot of officers, including Bhide, did its bidding,” a former senior MMRDA officer said.
Activists accuse her of turning the Aarey issue into a personal fight. “Not many officials go on Twitter to put out their views and then block people who disagree... We are fighting with the MMRDA on other issues but they have not taken things personally,” pointed out Zoru Bhathena.
Recalling personal experience, Bhathena said that in February 2017, he met Fadnavis along with activists Pervin Jahangir and Neena Verma over tree cutting along the entire Metro 3 Line. Bhathena said the CM assured them the trees would not be cut, and asked Bhide to meet them. “I was shocked by her attitude. Her first question was how we had gained access to the CM. She thought we had complained against her.”
Environmentalist Stalin D accused Bhide of spreading “misinformation” using public money. “She is a very fine officer, but her shortcoming was that she was too rigid and treated citizens as insignificant... At Aarey, no citizen was opposing the car shed as such, only the location. Yet she misguided people, spent money recklessly to defame citizens. She tried to cover up her violations through false submissions and publicity.”
Denying the charge that Bhide had misled people, an MMRCL officer said, “Bhide never took on the Shiv Sena personally. All her media interactions were to remove doubts and rumours being planted about the project.”
Bhide told The Sunday Express, “I think what we as the MMRCL Team have achieved is pretty assuring for the city. Mumbai needs the Metro and I am happy that I could contribute. I am also sure the work will continue to progress at the same speed.”
Others, including Datar, believe Bhide might have acted out of character as she was under pressure to complete the project. Mumbai’s Rs 23,000-crore Metro Line 3 passes through some of its oldest and most congested areas and is the city’s first atempt to take its public transport underground. The pace of the 33.5-km project, launched in October 2016, has been brisk given that it took close to six years to complete Mumbai’s first Metro line, which is only 11.40 km long.
Some have expressed fear that Bhide’s removal may slow the project. Former state chief secretary U P S Madan, who was her senior at the MMRDA, said, “The Metro is perhaps the most challenging project to be ever implemented in Mumbai. It is no mean achievement that she has overseen implementation of 75 per cent of the tunnelling work... Be it rehabilitation of families in Girgaum or tunnelling on the premises of a Parsi fire temple, Bhide was up to the task.”
BJP MLA Ashish Shelar says “while normally every officer is transfered after three years, in this case Bhide was entrusted with a special project. It would have been better if she was allowed to continue”.
However, serving officers warn against equating Bhide with Metro 3, noting that it was unreasonable to expect her to continue till its completion. “The end of her term with the MMRCL is not the end of the road for her. Bhide has a bright future,” said an officer.