Home / Opinion / The road to empowering city governments

India took some early steps in 1992 to recognize metropolitan regions as agglomerations requiring coordinated economic and spatial planning with the passage of the 74th constitutional amendment. But progress thereafter has been limited. Sustained efforts on three fronts are needed.

First, bolster metropolitan governance: Article 243ZE mandates the establishment of the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) to prepare a draft development plan focusing on shared resources, investments, infrastructure and environmental conservation for the region as a whole for approval by the state government. But the MPC has failed to take off for two reasons. One, state governments are reluctant to concede power. Two, the design of the MPC as a supra-municipal authority has limitations. Being a body politic, the MPC does not have executive powers, staff and budgets. These shortcomings render it toothless.

Recently, Maharashtra announced steps that could alter the paradigm of metropolitan governance, planning and development in India. The cabinet approved a draft law to constitute a Maharashtra Metropolitan Development Authority to oversee coordinated development of all new metropolitan areas and streamline horizontal governance. According to media reports, this body, chaired by the chief minister, will have overriding powers on all matters ranging from economics to planning. It will draw participation from the housing minister, the guardian minister, mayors, president of local bodies, MLAs, the chief secretary and other concerned secretaries. It will be managed by an IAS officer who will be the de facto commissioner in charge of day-to-day affairs. In effect, it is the unequivocal but discreet replacement of the failed metropolitan planning committees across cities.

However well intentioned, if this reform finds its passage through the state assembly, it will increasingly consolidate the powers of the state government and, in turn, stunt decentralization. And the larger peril is that this could have a contagion effect across states. Why? Because there are absolutely no reasons to substantiate why successive chief ministers would want to cede control of such “a mother of all agglomerations".

A more democratic approach would be to create a metropolitan-level authority that ensures horizontal coordination by providing the MPCs with a full-time secretariat that has teeth, that is, staff, budgets and executive powers. This body could act as an additional layer of government between the municipal bodies and the state government, and eventually the municipal commissioners could report to the metropolitan commissioner in addition to their elected governments to facilitate coordinated governance.

Further, the MPC could draw participation from members of Parliament. Such composition would provide sufficient balance of power at the city level and ensure the central government has some stake in metropolitan cities as defined in the Constitution. In essence, India’s democratic set-up could suitably ensure independence of its metropolitan cities.

In addition, two other changes within the ambit of the 74th constitutional amendment merit central government intervention.

Second, add three functions to the 12th Schedule. Despite Article 243W in the 12th Schedule, city governments lack the span of control required to administer cities effectively. Why? Because the 12th Schedule is incomplete in mandating the transfer of functions to local bodies. It remains completely silent on three important functions—housing, transport and police. Consequently, state governments continue to hold these functions. This control provides state governments with unrestrained power over capital-intensive sectors, indirectly enabling them to control cities. For example, 74% of the total 31 lakh crore was estimated by the high-powered expert committee, 2011, as the capital expenditure required for urban transport alone (the report does not discuss estimates for housing). The residual expenditure estimates are distributed across basic services, such as water supply, that fall largely within the ambit of the municipal authorities and sometimes overlap with state agencies. Thus, municipal bodies are often subjugated to cater to demands from state-controlled bodies such as housing boards and slum redevelopment authorities to provide basic services around the housing colonies they develop, irrespective of their capacity to deliver.

Third, ultimately move to a directly elected mayoral system of urban governance. In July 2015, a special committee constituted to suggest the restructuring of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike recommended splitting the city of 8.5 million into five different municipalities, each to be governed by a directly elected mayor. The committee would have been better off recommending a metropolitan mayor and government for the city rather than five mayors who, when elected, could represent different political parties, if the state government accepted this recommendation. Resultantly, politically fragmented, contiguous areas sharing civic amenities could be held hostage to political differences and potentially result in a stalemate and deteriorate the quality of life across the metropolitan region.

Unfortunately, India is one of the few parliamentary democracies in the world yet to make the shift to the system of a directly elected mayor. Over time, India must consider moving to the system of a directly elected mayor similar to London.

London established the Greater London Authority and held its first mayoral election in 2000. The London Assembly elects 25 members based on proportional representation. The mayor of London is elected every four years, and elections to the London Assembly are held on the same day.

India is on course to have 69 metropolitan cities by 2025, and many of these cities are likely to equal the size of some countries today. For example, by 2030, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region will be more populous than Australia and, with its GDP at about $230 billion in 2030, its economy will be bigger than that of Thailand or Hong Kong today.

To embark on this journey, parliamentarians across party lines need to work on a constitutional amendment that lays out the road map for urban governance reform.

Supplementing this process with a vibrant and inclusive process of dialogue across stakeholders is vital to build consensus. India’s experiences show that the passage of path-breaking reforms, for example, the goods and services tax, requires a decade or more, for dialogue and passage. This makes acting with urgency a necessity.

Sunali Rohra is an independent urban expert. This is the first in a series on urban governance adapted from her essay A Ten-Point Programme to Transform India’s Urban Governance, published in the book The Making of Vibrant Cities.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout