February 21, 2017 9:34:27 pm
Civic elections are the time when citizens are given the opportunity to hold a magnifying glass over the ruling government bodies. The overarching mood of the crowd, however, is this: our cities are dysfunctional – there are multiple cases of civic mismanagement. And that’s probably because there isn’t a unified, disciplined apparatus in place that can be held responsible for the fractured infrastructural issues rampant in our cities. The cities are governed by myriad organisations, each having their own head, who refuse to work in an organised, synchronised fashion. In fact, more often than not, it’s the state government which ends up wielding an authority over municipal corporations.
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India follows the erstwhile Commissionerate system, where the State appoints a Commissioner who presides over the functioning of a city. By extension then, it is the State that has control of the city’s administration and finances. What is lacking then, is the presence of a strong, autonomous leader, distinct of his/her identity from the State, who propels the city forward. For this purpose, some experts have suggested that a reform needs to be introduced, where citizens are directly involved in handpicking such a leader, in political words, a Mayor, who can take pragmatic decisions and assist in the proper functioning of the city sans state interference.
Last year, the debate of having a Mayoral committee entered public discourse, when Shashi Tharoor introduced it into the Parliament as a private member’s bill. The intent was to make the local governments autonomous and more accountable. But there is little hope that his desire for the urban governance reform would happen, because the probability of a private member’s bill becoming a law is rare.
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Nevertheless, this system, experts claim, will also ensure a decrease in political apathy from the public, for they will be directly responsible for electing their Mayor, but it will also prod them to participate in local issues that concern the city. In addition, the Mayor would assemble his own coterie of aides to assist him which will be the Mayoral committee.
Such a reform is necessary, argues Girish Kuber, the editor of Loksatta, who writes in The Indian Express that, “allowing this elected mayor to select a team of experts to handle various responsibilities such as health, sanitation and transport,” would ensure in a systematic functioning of the city. He continues, “This mayoral committee shall work with a state-appointed official, called municipal commissioner, and shall be accountable to the local citizen and the state government unlike the current situation where accountability is not fixed. This will also encourage citizen participation in local issues.”
Can it work though? One can’t be too certain. First, it has to be ensured that the said elected Mayor has autonomous authority and is not a mere puppet with a glorified title. Which means that the Mayor should have access to the city’s budget, which implies that the state administration should step aside and not interfere in city’s interior functioning.
Since the Mayor will have autonomous control over basic amenities like water, electricity, and will be able to overlook the city’s infrastructural planning, the citizens would be able to hold one individual– that is, the Mayor, accountable when and if these basic provisions are not provided.
Having a Mayor could ensure better transparency, since municipal committees under state authorities have a tendency to be ridden by corruption. “It suits political parties,” writes Kuber, “for them, such weak municipal bodies serve as money-making machines. The ongoing elections in Maharashtra tells us how miserably the current model has failed. It has failed in running cities and it has defeated the democratic spirit as well.”
More importantly, a Mayor could ease a citizen’s interaction with the city administration. Our cities could adopt a model followed by China, where an individual in a city can directly approach a Mayor if he/she wishes to start a business. In comparison, India offers a far more tedious, difficult circumstance, where the same individual would have to schedule multiple appointments with multiple government departments, get embroiled in its idiosyncratic slow-paced bureaucratic process and sign countless papers signed, before being able to start his/her business.
Conversely, one could argue, that while electing a Mayor with considerable power (and responsibility) would be great, it could also result in an administration standstill, if the Mayor and the State Government are at loggerheads on a particular issue, particularly if they don’t belong to the same party.
There are therefore several pros and cons to be considered for such a reform, but for the sake of a possibly smoother functioning of a city, perhaps it should be put to test.
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