Waterlogged Mumbai: Can a Directly Elected Mayor Save the City?

India needs City governments, as a third layer of governance after the Centre and states.

7 min read

Meghdoot or Mritydoot? A figure of enchanting rain-filled clouds or a messenger of death due to rain?

Kalidas’s Meghdoot, one of the finest works in Sanskrit poetry, describes the rainy season in ways both scenic and sensuous. The sight is still sensuous and scenic if you watch monsoon clouds pouring down rain over the Arabian Sea while standing near Mumbai’s two iconic luxury hotels: the Oberoi at Marine Drive and the Taj at Gateway of India. But, if you travel during the rains to the slums of the city, or to colonies with old and about-to-crumble buildings (16,000 of them), you realise that death and disease never stay far away.

Life has no value for the poor in India’s wealthiest city. Over 30 people died within the first two days of this year’s delayed arrival of rains in Mumbai. Here are a few lines from three front-page reports in The Times of India dated 3 July.

“Two sections of a long concrete wall around a BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) installation on a hillock in Malad (East) came crashing down under the pressure of rain water and swept away dozens of shanties, killing 22 people, including ten children.”

“Two other wall crashes kill 4; 2 electrocuted.”

“In a chilling throwback to the 2005 tragedy (when 1094 were killed in a deluge in the city), two persons were suffocated to death after getting locked inside their SUV that was stuck in deep water in the Malad subway.”


Far From the Bombay of Yore

There is nothing new about such reports of rain-caused deaths in Mumbai. I have been living in this city since 1975, and not a year has passed without the utterly predictable tragedies of the same kind. One thing, however, has changed – the quality of municipal governance has deteriorated alarmingly. The city’s municipal corporation is not only the oldest and the richest in India, but for many decades before and after Independence, was also the best.

Then known as Bombay, the city’s fame rested not only on the might of its business and industry, including the film industry, but also on a fact envied by all other cities in India – the best water supply, the best electricity supply, the best roads, the best inter-city bus transport system (which actually went by the name BEST, an acronym for Bombay Electricity Supply and Transport), the best inter-city train system (which continues to be run by the Indian Railways), and the best municipal-run hospitals and medical colleges.

Today’s Mumbai is a far cry from the Bombay of yore.

Mumbai has grown enormously in the last five decades but its civic infrastructure and facilities have not kept pace with the needs of its citizens. All this, of course, is regularly highlighted in the media. Therefore, mere repetition of the description of the problems is as unnecessary as it is unhelpful. What is necessary is a city-wide – indeed, nationwide – discussion on the kinds of solutions Mumbai and other cities in India need.

I am mentioning other cities in this context because all of urban India is facing grave problems of municipal governance. Mumbai’s woes often hog media spotlight, but they are by no means unique. Housing, provision of adequate water, sanitation, sewage disposal, local transport, healthcare, school and college education, open and green spaces – indeed, all the things that are essential to make Indian cities livable for all its citizens, especially for the poorest among them, are in short supply.

Cities become livable when they are governed well. This simple ground rule is valid universally. Therefore, good municipal governance demands capable leadership, efficiency in functioning and resource usage, innovation in tackling challenges, constant review of systems, procedures and legal frameworks, adoption of both national and global best practices, and active democratic participation of citizens.

Sadly, even though India is urbanising rapidly, very slow has been the progress of reforms in urban governance. It’s as if the 21st century never arrived for the laws and structures of governance of our cities and towns, still stuck as they are in the bygone realities of the 20th century.

What’s Plaguing Our Cities?

Four major maladies plague urban governance, especially the governance of big cities, in India.

  • First, the mayors of our cities are pathetically disempowered.
  • Second, state governments have a stronghold over the functioning of municipal bodies because no chief minister wants powerful, directly elected mayors. In almost all states, we find parallel planning and development authorities established by state governments, which undermine the power and functions of municipal corporations. A stark example is the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority or MMRDA, which is headed by the chief minister and over which the constituent municipal corporations have no control. Similarly, there are housing boards established by state governments that rob municipal bodies of any role in scientific land use or construction of good housing and surroundings for the masses.
  • Third, the senior bureaucrats who head the administrative or executive wing of municipal bodies are not answerable to elected representatives, much less to citizens, since they are appointed by state governments.
  • Fourth, as a result of this divided nature of urban governance, municipal bodies are systemically disabled from either envisioning or implementing sound urban development.

Nothing illustrates this systemic malaise more tellingly than the devaluation of the office of mayor in Indian cities. Again, Mumbai offers a test case. If a poll were taken asking Mumbaikars to name their mayor – the ‘First Citizen of Mumbai’, no less – you can be absolutely certain that more than 90 percent of them would say, “We don’t know.”


Mayors of London and Istanbul

Contrast this with the fact, for example, that the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is known internationally. On matters pertaining to London, he is more powerful and also more accountable than the British prime minister. Another example, the recent election of the mayor of Istanbul, in which Ekrem İmamoğlu defeated a candidate of the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, became global news. Indeed, İmamoğlu is now seen as a potential challenger to Erdogan.

In contrast, Mumbai’s mayor is a nameless nobody because the party (Shiv Sena) ruling the corporation for the last nearly 30 years wants him to be a mere figurehead, so that the entire city, and the rest of India too, knows that the real and the permanent boss of Mumbai is a Thackeray. Indeed, so complete is the debasement of the office of Mumbai’s mayor that even the Mayor’s Bungalow, a beautiful British-era building overlooking the sea, has been converted into a memorial for Balasaheb Thackeray.

The mayor’s term in Mumbai is only two and a half years. To make matters worse, there is a lottery system for reservation for the mayoral posts in 27 municipal corporations in Maharashtra. Hence, periodically, a woman or a person from other caste-based quota categories gets to become the mayor. At a time when issues of urban development have become extremely complex and necessitate leadership that is both knowledgeable and competent, why should there be reservation for this office? Does India have a reservation system for the office of prime minister or chief minister?


India needs City Governments

A fundamental principle of good municipal governance – also of good corporate governance – is that office, authority, responsibility and accountability must go together. When the office of mayor of a metropolis like Mumbai has no real authority, no defined responsibility and no accountability to the people, what accountability can one expect from the municipal corporations?

Indeed, when rains lashed in Mumbai, Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, its current (Shiv Sena) mayor, tragi-comically claimed on television that there was no water-logging anywhere in the city and everything was normal. He could do so, because he is protected by the awareness that he is answerable not to Mumbaikars, but only to his party boss Uddhav Thackeray.

Where Lies the Solution?

A good part of the solution lies in making our cities – especially all metropolises with a population of over 1 crore – autonomous from their respective state governments in terms of most aspects of governance. In other words, India needs City governments, as a third layer of governance after the Centre and states. This is how London, Istanbul, Paris, Shanghai, Seoul, New York and other great cities around the world are governed.

In this regard, the Congress party has the following forward-looking reform idea, which it included in its manifesto for the 2019 parliamentary elections.

“Congress will introduce a new model of governance for towns and cities through a directly elected mayor with a fixed term of 5 years, an elected Council and a separate administrative structure for each urban body. The administration will be accountable to the Mayor and the Council and there will be a provision to recruit technical experts and build capacity as well as multi-disciplinary teams to do urban planning and implement municipal works. We will enforce the 74th Amendment to the Constitution and ensure the devolution of powers, functions and funds to the Municipalities and Corporations, making them financially independent.”
Congress Manifesto

The BJP’s 2019 manifesto is very vague and poorly conceptualised on this important issue. It states, “We will set up five regional centres of excellence on urban issues. These centres will provide support to states and local bodies on issues of urban governance and growth.”

Nevertheless, if excellence is to be judged by outcomes in terms better governance and more holistic people-centric urban development, shouldn’t the BJP, the Congress and other parties work out a national consensus on two crucial points, backed by suitable legislative action?

  1. A directly elected and empowered mayor with a fixed term of five years and not subject to any reservation; and
  2. Adequate autonomy from state governments to municipal corporations on all matters pertaining to governance and development.

Lastly, here is an appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: Before you build Smart Cities, introduce Smart Governance Reforms to make our cities safe and habitable.

(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at He tweets@SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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