So accustomed have Delhi’s citizens become to the never-ending saga of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections, that even the fourth attempt to hold the Mayoral election on 16 February has evoked scant interest. This article highlights why it should matter hugely. Because on it depends the basic environmental quality that citizens are entitled to receive. A few milestones will define the context.
The elections to the three MCDs were due in April 2022. In May last year, through a Parliamentary Amendment of the Municipal Corporation Act 1957, the North, East, and South Delhi Corporations were unified into a single corporation. Through this amendment, the Corporation returned to its original structure which had been in existence for 54 years before it was reversed in 2012.
Why Trifurcation of MCD Was a Bad Idea
The trifurcation was unjustified on merits. I was not working in the Delhi government when this happened and have frequently wondered what the rationale was. By the end of the nineties, DMC had already been compressed and the new independent entities had established decentralised systems to provide citizens’ services.
To give some examples, in 1997, the Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking, (DESU) which was then a part of the Delhi Municipal Corporation, had been brought under the Delhi government by creating the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB). Following that in 1998, the Water Supply & Sewage Disposal Undertaking (WSSDU), also under MCD, was replaced by an independent organisation 'Delhi Jal Board' which too established its local offices.
An independent Fire Services Department which was under the DMC, was brought under the Delhi government. The Delhi Municipal Corporation Act was amended in 2003 categorising and pegging property tax rates. The property tax structure was streamlined as property returns could now be self-assessed and filed online.
With so much devolution, the need for trifurcation of DMC seemed unconvincing. Incidentally, in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation(BMC), water supply, sewage, and an autonomous body for bus transport continue to be under the BMC. Setting up three corporations for Delhi was unnecessary and it also created an artificial divide which resulted in laying resources thinly, inequitably, and worse, providing alibis for non-performance.
Fortunately, the re-unification came after the DMC Amendment Bill became law in May 2022. Once the delimitation exercise commenced and was completed, elections for the single corporation were eventually held on 4 December.
Where Matters Stand
The results of 250 contested seats were announced on 8 December. AAP won a simple majority with 134 seats and the BJP followed with 104 seats. With that, it was assumed that the new Mayor would be elected by mid-December to be followed by elections to the Standing Committee and the Zonal committees.
The Standing Committee is an all-important body which has the functional power to decide priorities, accord financial approvals, and prescribe processes to execute its decisions. The absence of a Standing committee means that a participatory form of planning, budgeting, and the approval of new projects remains indeterminate and lacks political voice.
The election of the Standing Committee members has been delayed because it needs to be overseen by the Mayor whose own election has been the flashpoint over the last more than six weeks.
The Mayoral election has been repeatedly thwarted due to the slugfest which took place repeatedly between the BJP and AAP councillors on the 6th, 24 January, and 6 February 2023. The AAP’s nominee for Mayor Shelly Oberoi then agitated before the Supreme Court which was to be heard on 13 January.
Due to paucity of time, the hearing has been postponed to Friday ie 17 February. But the Chief Justice is reported to have observed that prima facie nominated members (aldermen appointed by the LG) cannot vote in the Mayoral election.
My bare reading of Chapter II Section 3 of the DMC Act 1957, still shows the following provision which has not been amended— “Provided that the persons nominated under this sub-clause shall not have the right to vote in the meetings of the Corporation.”
The Apex Court’s final ruling will decide this on 17th February.
How Much Do Municipal Services Impact Citizens?
In scores of ways, municipal services affect citizens more than big-ticket policies and programs. The upkeep of the city roads, drains, municipal schools, public health, and sanitation all need good municipal governance. 96% of Delhi is under DMC and only 6% is under the New Delhi Municipal Council and the Delhi Cantonment Board.
With the regularisation of unauthorised colonies carrying a population of 7 million, DMC is already grappling with over 1000 unplanned habitations which had sprung up over decades, devoid of even essential requirements like drains, roads, or sanitation. That has impacted the organised part of Delhi where every road that is less than 60 feet wide comes under the municipal corporation’s jurisdiction.
While more than 250 roads are selected to be upgraded in preparation for the G20 Summit, the repair of inner roads has received little attention. No pavement is free of rubble or rubbish giving pedestrians a tough time even as unlicensed vendors colonise public spaces.
Almost 700 stormwater drains spread over some 500 kilometers, are all owned by the DMC, but they carry little stormwater and a lot of rubbish. Umpteen orders from the National Green Tribunal have exhorted municipal officials to stop garbage and construction waste being chucked into the drains. One of the excuses has been the absence of magistrates who can fine the polluters!
Nearer home citizens have still to be persuaded or enabled to segregate household waste—if the altitude of the garbage-filled hill stations at Gazipur, Okhla, and Bhalaswa are ever to be lowered. Stray animals constantly cause innumerable problems to pedestrians and motorists. Construction dust and mosquito breeding cause huge health hazards, making the city unlivable for several months of the year.
Political support and leadership are key to fulfilling municipal functions needing behavioral change. But to start with every initiative needs budgets, award of contracts, oversight, and accountability. With no elected municipal government in sight, even two months after the election results, it has repressed the citizen’s right to hold elected representatives accountable.
Resident Welfare Associations Need a Voice in MCD
Delhi has some 2500 Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs)which, despite possessing no statutory authority or public funds have become the last mile link between the Corporation and resident groups. I have found several RWAS approaching the Municipal Councillors to intercede on a slew of local matters like street lights, pruning trees, maintaining colony parks, and remodeling putrid garbage dhalaos and stinking urinals.
The RWAs have had no bridge to a public representative for over 10 months now and have been dependent on the priority individual officials attach to such grievances.
Need To Fulfill Constitutional Obligations and Put a Halt to More Political Wrangling
Under the 74th Constitutional amendment, the states are obligated to hold elections to enable the process of urban local governance to function. The corporation has run without an elected body since May 2022.
This situation is at variance with the express requirements of the Constitution which mandates that urban local bodies must govern civic affairs through elected representatives.
No more time should be lost to make the elected body functional again. Delhi’s citizens deserve more than to only watch disagreements and turmoil day after day. It is the duty of those in charge to find constitutional ways to harmonise, not accelerate differences.
Why should the election of a mayor or standing committee members need the Apex court’s intervention? The time for politics is over. Please get down to work!
(Shailaja Chandra (IAS retd) has over 45 years of experience in public administration focusing on governance, health management, population stabilisation and women’s empowerment. She was Secretary in the Ministry of Health and later Chief Secretary, Delhi. She tweets at @over2shailaja. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)