Habitat-III: The importance of being local
“Mayors are on the forefront of the battle for sustainability,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the World Mayors Assembly at the recently concluded Habitat III conference in Quito. He asserted that it is mayors, who in partnership with civil society, need to take a strong ownership of the New Urban Agenda, which was eventually signed by 193 member nations of the UN.
The term mayor can mean different things, depending on the national context. In western countries, mayors are typically elected. Some countries have city councillors elected by other councillors, while others have appointed mayors.
In India, the mayor’s office has become largely ceremonial while the state government-appointed municipal commissioner is the powerful executive of the corporation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed an intent to make the mayor’s office an elected one and empower the mayor to run the city with full authority, like in western cities. Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor has introduced a private member’s bill that strengthens local governments by providing for a directly elected and empowered mayor.
Irrespective of the title or the manner of occupying the office, what is pertinent is that city leaders are being increasingly recognized as a transformative power in delivering solutions to urban problems.
As the last link in the chain of governance between authority and citizens, local governments across the world grapple with two constants—a perpetual resource crunch and diffusing immediate flare ups that happen in a town, like a law and order situation or a localized natural disaster. The bandwidth to manage the provision of civic amenities and urban infrastructure for the town is, therefore, considerably reduced.
However, local governments are acknowledged by the development community as change agents who are best placed to link global goals with local communities, because they have far better understanding of context than an outsider from the state or Central government. Besides, literally and figuratively, they speak the language of the community they are serving. This grounded approach assumes great importance in the time of crisis. In war-struck Syria, donor agencies and the UN may arrange for food, but the person who reaches that food packet to the affected families is a Syrian from the local community who is performing this role at great risk to his own life. Without local authority participation, lofty sustainability goals and international response would fail to even take off.
But one of the biggest roadblocks to effective local governance is often that of too much interference from a regional or national government or an exogenous body. Getting a Big Brother to decentralize power and delegate authority can be a hard task for a local body in sub Saharan Africa or one of our own zilla parishads. In a discussion in Habitat III, a mayor from Mali gave the example of how dealing with an outbreak of Ebola in his town should have been his job, but Red Cross and other international agencies descended on the place, impeding rather than helping the local authority who know how to better handle the situation. Though the mayor spoke in French, his dismay was evident to the audience who applauded even before the translator did her job.
Local authorities need to be powerful and effective enough to convey that their town and its issues are a microcosm of the country and thereby influence national policy. Some are more successful than others at doing this and go on to become iconic figures on the national and international stage. The present head of UN Habitat Dr. Jon Clos was a legendary mayor of Barcelona credited with helping the city municipality get its budgeting right. The current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, started his political career by winning the election to become mayor of the city of Solo in 2005.
The one remarkable feature in local governance in recent years has been the number of women mayors elected across the world. Barcelona and Paris both have women mayors who were elected for the first time to that office. These two mayors recently collaborated to urge European cities to welcome refugees. The mayors of several European capitals—Madrid, Rome, Warsaw and Prague are women and so are those of many smaller cities in Africa.
In India, currently one-third of the seats in local government bodies are reserved for women, But the government is working on a bill to increase the number to 50% of all seats in the three tiers of the panchayati raj system of rural India and in urban local bodies such as municipal corporations and councils. To strengthen the skills and confidence of women working in local bodies, UN Women’s India office, along with the Government of India, has formed 315 Mahila Jagruk Manch (women’s awareness platforms) with elected women representatives from 635 gram panchayats in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Rajasthan.
That is a promising sign which neatly dovetails into another commitment of the New Urban Agenda that emerges from Habitat III, which is “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal rights in all fields and in leadership at all levels of decision-making”.