Hopes pinned on urban development policy

Karnataka Urban Development Minister Suresh Kumar is in the limelight for initiating the first-ever urban development policy in the country. The carefully drafted policy document is being discussed at various forums, inviting public consultations before it is finalised. That the spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment would be upheld and the urban local bodies will be strengthened to become urban local self-governing bodies is the affirmation given by the minister.

The Amendment, noted as the landmark legislation ushering in urban decentralisation, was passed in 1992. Many of the concepts of the draft policy reinstate the constitutional amendment — forming of district planning committees, metropolitan planning committees, ward samithis, neighbourhood committees and the like.

The stress is on formulating city mobility programmes in first class cities. The pedestrian, who is often forgotten in the urban infrastructure programmes would now be kept in focus. There is also a proposal to abolish the urban development authorities and bring them under the umbrella of urban local bodies.

Directly elected mayor
The draft document recommends a rethinking on election of mayor. There should be either a directly elected mayor or mayor-in-council, with a five-year-term and with executive powers. This falls in line with the recommendation earlier made by the Kasturirangan Committee, which highlighted the need for direct elections to the mayor’s post in Bangalore City Corporation. But this has not been found appetising by politicians. And with reason! The to-be-formed council in Bangalore will have 268 members — 198 ward members, 20 nominated corporators, 27 MLAs, 11 MLCs and 12 MPs. It would be bigger than the state assembly with 224 members.

The policy document recommends transfer of all the 18 functions listed in the 12th Schedule of the Constitution to local bodies, in a systematic manner. So far, very few functions like street lights, water supply, solid waste management are being performed by the local bodies. Why has there been a delay of more than 15 years is a question that is worth asking. The often sighted reason for this is the lack of capacities of the municipalities to perform the functions. Most of the municipalities are understaffed.
With the functions, will the functionaries from various departments be transferred to the municipalities? The policy document needs to address, in great detail, the specificities of the staff and the line of control. The approach of the state has always been one of perpetuating the bureaucratic control, this would work against the principles with which the present changes are being envisaged. In Kerala the confidential report of the commissioner or chief officer of the municipality and the other staff is being written by the mayor.
The urban local bodies have continued to depend on the state and Centre for funds. Very little resources are being mobilised as ‘their own’. Ironically, it is only for these resources that the local bodies can plan, make budgets and spend according to their need and discretion. The funds from the state and Centre come with specifications. The local bodies end up performing the job of ‘post man’.

Even the untied amounts released ‘from above’ are to be spent following the guidelines, an issue opposed by some of the presidents — who participated in the seminar.
A basic tenet of the 74th Amendment has been the conduct of regular elections, once every five years to urban local bodies. But the election to the Bangalore City Corporation is proposed to be held on February 21, 2010, after a gap of three and a half years. The last time the council met was on November 23, 2006. There have been umpteen announcements and postponements, with strictures being passed by the high court on the state election commission for the delay. The EC could do little to avoid the delay as the state took time for delimiting and reserving seats. This was necessary in view of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike becoming Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, with an area increase from 226 sq km to 800 sq km and increase in wards from 100 to 198. In Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra and West Bengal, the election commission has been empowered with the work of delimitation. The draft policy would do well to look at and deal with various interconnected issues.

The word local self-government itself has been used differently in different documents. Local government, local bodies, local self-governing bodies are often used interchangeably. One should realise that these are not jugglery of words but have serious connotation for the very way in which the entire concept of governance is viewed and implemented.

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