Shashi Tharoor’s move to raise a private member bill to amend the 74th amendment comes as a breath of fresh air in the stalemate that is municipal governance in India. Even though it was a significant move towards deeper federalism, the original amendment did not have a major impact on the political dominance of mayors. To bring about a significant change, the power structure at the state and municipal levels will have to be reimagined.

It has been 24 years since the 74th amendment to the Indian Constitution was passed. The amendment recognises municipal corporations as independent bodies and defines the relationship between governments at the Union, state and municipal levels. Even though the amendment highlights the need for mayors, municipal planning bodies and municipal corporations, it still leaves cities mostly under the supervision of state legislatures. The role of a mayor even though highlighted in the amendment continues to remain highly titular.

The current perception of mayors dates back to the formation of municipal corporations in India. Municipal corporations have existed in India since the pre-independence era. These corporations were based on the administrative structure created by the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835, a British law originally passed by the UK Parliament.

The foundations of the Municipal Corporation Act along with the diarchy system introduced by the Government of India Act, 1935 and the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms continue to exist in independent India. Diarchy is a system of government that is overseen by two independent heads, one administrative and the other legislative. In Indian cities, the mayor, elected by the citizens, is supposed to be the legislative head and the municipal commissioner, an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer reporting to the state government, is the administrative head. However, among the two heads, it is the commissioner who plays a more significant role.

According to the seventh schedule of the Constitution of India, local governments fall under the State List. In other words, only state governments and legislatures have authority in this area. It is, therefore, the chief minister of the state who appoints the municipal commissioner. The mayor, on the other hand, has limited powers as the decisions of state assemblies prevail over and above the decisions made at the municipal level. Even the 74th amendment that tried to empower mayors continued to subscribe to this power distribution and therefore had limited impact.

The absence of a strong mayor in cities primarily creates two problems: one, lack of accountability and second, a short-sighted approach towards city planning. The reason for both problems lies in the distribution of power between the state and its municipalities.

Municipal commissioners, by virtue of their appointment, are only answerable to the chief minister of the state. On the other hand, mayors stand accountable to their citizens at each election. It is this difference in incentives that makes mayors invested in the long-term growth of cities. Also, a commissioner responsible for the execution of policies in a short timeframe has limited scope and reach. Hence, in order to incentivise growth on a city, a municipality would require an ambitious mayor looking to make an example out of his/her work along with a strong commissioner.

A significant change in the role of the mayor can be brought only by reworking the distribution of powers and responsibilities between state and municipal governments. However, this herculean task can only be completed by the Union government via a Constitutional amendment. Ideally, the amendment should introduce a fourth list for local governments into the seventh schedule, but at the very least it should lay the foundation for an independent and accountable city administration.

Cities need to be headed by a legislative structure where the mayor, like the chief minister at the state level, would be the elected head of the city-level government. The legislative structure will comprise a city council, mayor-in-council, consisting of corporators elected from various wards. The mayor-in-council will be responsible for making policies for the city. The municipal commissioner in this governance structure would be accountable to the legislative body to ensure the execution of plans. To ensure checks and balances, the mayor-in-council will be able to impeach the mayor.

The mayor-in-council will be responsible for all the functions of a municipal corporation. Keeping in line with the structure at the Union and state level, the elected members will be assigned specific mandates. This would include areas such as maintenance of urban utilities, water supply and sewage, public health and land-use plans. The mayor should also be able to raise finances at the city level and look after the rule of law. The mayor-in-council should approve all budgets, building by-laws, city laws and zone changes.

For a city to be able to plan for the needs of its citizens and inevitable changes, it requires a long-term plan and robust implementation capacity. To achieve this, a separate metropolitan cadre can be created in the state administrative services for administrative officers with experience and a strong understanding of urban issues. This cadre should be tasked with carrying out policies decided by the mayor-in-council. The municipal commissioner can be the highest ranking IAS officer in the metropolitan cadre.

Municipalities in India require strong leadership invested in the welfare of its citizens. To create this leadership, it is important to have a legislative representative and a cabinet of members elected by the citizens to oversee the needs of the city. It is in this context that the bill raised by Tharoor plays a significant role. A Constitutional amendment that empowers the legislative structure at city levels will help bring uniform change across the country.

That said, since municipalities are state subjects, the policies require strong support from the state to enable an independent municipality. This change would, therefore, require a chief minister who is ready to take the bold step and leave a legacy of a more federalised government.

The author would like to thank Saurabh Chandra for his insights.

Devika Kher is a policy analyst at The Takshashila Institution.

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