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Delhi Civic Bodies Bill: A Step By BJP-Led Centre to Wrest All Power?

The current Bill centralises everything and empowers the Union government to decide on key matters.

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Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “jeet ka chauka” (a boundary of wins) on 10 March 2022 in distant states like Goa and Manipur, besides Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, there appears to be some panic among India’s highest political echelons. How else does one explain the bizarre manner in which the Central government intervened to defer elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) due in April 2022?

On 9 March, the State Election Commission of Delhi (SEC) had called a press conference at 5.00 pm to announce the schedule for elections to the North, South and East MCDs. At 4.00 pm it received a diktat from the Union government to postpone the polls since it intended to unify the three corporations into one.

According to Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, the direction came from the Prime Minister’s Office. The SEC instantly buckled, called off its press conference and deferred the declaration of MCD poll dates.
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What the 2011 Amendment Said

Weeks later, on 22 March, the Union Cabinet gave its nod to The Delhi Municipal Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2022, (DMC Bill). It was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 25 March 2022 and sought to further amend the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, passed by Parliament. The Act was earlier amended in 2011 by the Delhi Legislative Assembly to trifurcate the erstwhile MCD into North Delhi, South Delhi and East Delhi Municipal Corporations.

The DMC Bill seeks to unify the three corporations, giving complete control of the civic body to the Centre, and proposes the “appointment of a special officer to discharge functions of municipality till the first meeting of MCD under the amended act”. This paves the way for a long suspension of the democratic process in Delhi’s Urban Local Body (ULB).

The Act, as amended in 2011, had empowered the Delhi government to decide various matters under the statute. These include:

  • the total number of seats of councillors and number of seats reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes,

  • division of the area of corporations into zones and wards,

  • delimitation of wards,

  • matters such as salary and allowances, and

  • sanctioning of consolidation of loans by a corporation.

Similarly, the Act mandates that the Commissioner will exercise his powers regarding building regulations under the general superintendence and directions of the Delhi government.

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The Union Government Will Get Complete Power

In a total reversal of this democratic decentralisation, the current Bill centralises everything and empowers the Union government to decide on all these matters. The number of wards and counsellors have been brought down from 272 to 250; the post of Director of Local Bodies, performing coordinating and supervisory functions, is abolished, and instead, a Special officer would be appointed by the Central government to lord over everything. What is worse, the Bill takes away even the fig-leaf of job security provided to the scavenging staff, the lowest on the ladder.

Responding to the opposition criticism that the Bill is an “attack on the federal structure of the Constitution”, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai, who introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha, said that the Bill is in favour of the citizens of Delhi because it will prevent the demise of ambitious civic schemes. This is what the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill has to say: “Trifurcation of the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi was uneven in terms of territorial divisions and revenue-generating potential. As a result, there was a huge gap in the resources available to the three corporations compared to their obligations.”

Over the years, the Bill added, the gap has only increased and led to delays in the payment of salaries and retirement benefits.

“The experience of the last 10 years shows that the main objective of trifurcation of creating compact municipalities in Delhi to provide more efficient civic services to the public has not been achieved,” the Bill claimed.
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Is 'Gap in Ressources' Really the Issue?

This is a typical case of “giving-the-dog-a-bad-name-and-shooting-it”.

If the “huge gap in the resources available to the three corporations compared to their obligations” were the real issue, it could have been easily resolved through a cross-subsidising mechanism to be put in place by the Delhi government after discussions and deliberations with stakeholders. For this, one doesn’t have to centralise and concentrate all powers in defiance of the letter and spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), 1992.

The law of city/metropolitan governance is contained in Article 243P of CAA 1992, which defines ‘metropolitan areas’ as those having a “population of a million or more, comprised in one or more districts and consisting of two or more municipalities/panchayats/other contiguous areas”.

As per CAA, ULBs were to be transformed into Urban Local Governments, which are to perform the key tasks assigned under the 12th Schedule (Article 243W): urban planning and development; land-use and construction; economic and social development; roads and bridges; water supply; public health and sanitation conservancy; urban forestry and environment protection; safeguarding interests of weaker and handicapped sections of society; slum improvement and upgradation; urban poverty alleviation; provision of urban amenities and promotion of cultural, educational and aesthetic aspects.

People’s participation is the hallmark of urban governance, particularly in metropolises and mega-cities like Delhi. Strengthening democratic and participatory practices in local democratic governance gets people closer to the government, which helps them in guiding public institutions, policies and programmes.

People’s participation expands public spaces, enhances the relationship between society and government, gives greater legitimacy to democratically elected authorities, promotes respect for citizenship rights, enhances the quality of politics, and strengthens solidarity and cooperation.

Through this process, grassroots and knowledgeable leadership can emerge, which can take dynamic urban governance forward. For this to happen, the imperative is to have decentralised ULBs, not centralised ones, as are being envisaged in the Bill.

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Delhi's Chaotic Governance Structure Doesn't Need a Fifth Stool

As it is, the governance structure in Delhi is top-heavy and chaotic, with multiple authorities regulating, commanding and controlling its citizens. The government of India directly controls the police, urban development and transport functions of Delhi. The unelected supernumerary office of the Lieutenant-Governor overrides the elected Delhi government that looks after various governmental functions.

The National Capital Region (NCR) Planning Board, of which Delhi forms the core part, is meant to promote economic growth and balanced development of the region by taking care of various activities like efficient and economic rail and road-based transportation networks, providing a rational land use pattern, developing selected urban settlements with urban infrastructure facilities and minimising the adverse environmental impacts of these developments. Then we have the ULBs providing critical municipal services to the citizens like water supply, public health and sanitation, waste management, etc.

The chaos in governing Delhi had reached such a crescendo as to provoke an angry Supreme Court to remark, "If Delhi has to collapse, let it collapse." This was by the bench of justices Madan B Lokur, M M Shantanagoudar and S Adbul Nazeer on 1 November 2018, while questioning the functioning of officials looking after issues related to unauthorised constructions in the national capital.

If the DMC Bill becomes law, the Central government will be the fifth stool in its governance system. Falling between two stools is back-breaking – falling between five stools could snap Delhi’s very spine.

(The author is a former IAS officer and editor of the book “Electoral Democracy: An Inquiry into the Fairness and Integrity of Elections in India”. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Delhi   New Delhi   MCD 

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