Shashi Tharoor on the Need for Autonomous Municipal Bodies
Roads in Delhi flooded with rainwater, July 2015. (Photo: PTI/ Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
Roads in Delhi flooded with rainwater, July 2015. (Photo: PTI/ Altered by The Quint)

Shashi Tharoor on the Need for Autonomous Municipal Bodies

While recent rulings by the Supreme Court on the misuse of Article 356 in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh have highlighted the Centre’s overreach towards the states, we never seem to pay due attention to the neglect, indeed the stifling, of the powers of local governments by state administrations.

Elections, for instance, are yet to be announced to the Gurgaon Municipal Corporation despite the expiry of its term, as the state government has delayed the process of delimitation. So too is the case in Faridabad where civic polls have been pending for over a year. There are growing instances of State governments wielding powers over Municipal Corporations with an arbitrariness that cannot be justified legally or constitutionally.

Though the 74th amendment to the Constitution, which came into force 23 years ago, clearly recognises urban local bodies (ULBs) as “institutions of self-government”, the gap between its very commendable objectives and more than lacklustre execution is severe.

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Powerless Mayors

In theory, city governments are led by mayors. In practice, however, the mayor is little more than the powerless chairperson of a municipal committee that is itself powerless. Indian cities are managed by a spectrum of disorganised bodies that also serve as instruments for state governments to circumvent basic principles of local democracy. The mayor more often than not finds herself parked in a glorified position with titles like “Worshipful Mayor” but with no executive authority and no budgetary power, while municipalities are headed by a state appointed bureaucrat devoid of all democratic legitimacy.

Similarly, the parastatals delivering basic services like water, urban planning etc. report directly to state administrations, again making it difficult for city residents to hold anyone, least of all the mayor, accountable.

Contrast this with, for example, China, where a businessman wishing to set up a factory in a town can go to a Mayor and get from him the political clearance, the land allocation, the road, water and electricity connections, and almost anything else he needs to start production. In India, the same process involves multiple bodies, each suffering from varying degrees of toothlessness, takes several times as long and involves multiple checks and balances before anything gets decided.

Multiple Agencies

Our cities are gasping for ownership and suffer from a wide array of civic mismanagement issues. But it is almost impossible to know who is accountable for what, as there are a myriad institutions with splintered mandates. Clear political authority in the hands of local elected leaders is indispensable if we are to address 21st century needs effectively.

We must have an authoritative mayor instead of a large number of decision-centres involved, with clear-cut powers instead of the splintered responsibilities each of these claims for itself – and by holding the mayor accountable through elections, we must have no doubt where, ultimately, the buck stops.

It is our cities that drive economic growth, create jobs and lend momentum to innovation. The government has well-meaning slogans for Make in India and Start-Up India, but who can make anything or start anything world-class when basic urban infrastructure is crumbling? If we cannot even address basic needs in our cities, how can they rise to the challenge of offering opportunities to our youth? Properly run, urban India can be the nation’s future; in the hands of our bureaucrats (who by definition are more process-oriented than result-oriented), it reflects only our colonial past.

Devolution of Power

The urban phenomenon comprises of distinct and interrelated systems. Hence, understanding and solving the challenges of our cities requires a ‘city-systems’ framework. Such a framework would ideally involve spatial planning, human and financial capacities, and transparency, accountability and participation, all under powerful and elected political leadership. All of these are possible if only the first step is taken and political leadership is provided to our cities. They are today starved of vision and guidance, but with the right kind of accountable leaders, they have the primary ingredients to evolve into vibrant urban centres that can emerge as global hubs this century.

For this reason, during the current monsoon session in Parliament, I introduced a private member bill focusing on greater devolution of powers to urban local bodies, with empowered mayors. The bill seeks to allow for direct elections for mayors who will exercise executive authority during a secure tenure that runs parallel to that of the municipality. The bill also seeks to augment the financial, functional and functionary powers of mayors.

As shown by the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (ASICS) 2015, however, in itself a directly elected mayor is only one part of the solution. Cities such as Jaipur, Dehradun, Raipur and Ranchi have scored poorly on a number of governance parameters despite having directly elected mayors. They have unrealistic budgets, poor financial health and low levels of per capita capital expenditure. This is because these mayors, though elected, come with their hands tied behind their backs. In order to truly empower city leadership, there must be corresponding functional, functionary and financial devolution.

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Empowering Urban Local Bodies

  • Much of the civic mess in major cities arises due to the lack of executive authority as well as financial power of a mayor.
  • Multiple civic agencies make it impossible to hold them accountable for the irregularities.
  • A democratically-elected mayor accountable to the people and segregated from the influence of the Centre could yield result.
  • An overarching body in the form of metropolitan authority can be introduced for checks and balances and for ensuring effective governance.
  • Accountable political leaders for cities will help cities evolve into vibrant urban centres that can emerge as global hubs.

Effective Governance

The existing law mandates the constitution of ‘wards committees’ consisting of one or more wards in a municipality with population above three lakhs. My bill seeks to lower this population barrier to one lakh and allows for better citizen participation. To further strengthen citizen participation, it also provides for the formation of area sabhas as the smallest unit of governance. If citizens are to take ownership of our cities, the right platforms and forums for this must be created.

To ensure that states don’t deliberately drag their feet on the devolution of functions to mayors and committees, the bill stipulates timelines within which the states must put these provisions into action.

For robust financial decentralisation, the bill seeks to authorise municipalities to borrow within reasonable limits. It also stipulates that governments lay before State legislatures reports on their actions in this regard within six months from the submission of recommendations by the State Finance Commission.

A city, as constituted today, is not visualised as a unit of governance, political or economic. So my bill would create a metropolitan authority to improve the quality of life and economic outcomes in a metropolitan area, through a single authority for metropolitan governance. The metropolitan authority is proposed to be headed by a directly elected metropolitan mayor.

Two decades have passed after the passage of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution, but our cities and towns are yet to be fully empowered politically and functionally. To fulfil the potential and the prospects of our urban bodies, there is no better time than now to transform how they are led.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor)

Also read:

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