Urban local bodies: Are they weaker than before?

In spite of legal provisions being in place, why is democratic engagement still absent in city municipal bodies?
Last Updated : 29 July 2023, 20:01 IST
Last Updated : 29 July 2023, 20:01 IST

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Shortly after a new political dispensation took charge of the state government following the recent Karnataka elections, it sought from the Karnataka High Court, further postponement of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) elections, stating that it was considering the delimitation of constituency boundaries and expansion or splitting up of the BBMP jurisdiction. As of now, there is no time frame within which the elections are to be conducted.

Article 243U(1) and (3)(a) of the Constitution states that the term of each municipal elected body shall be five years, ‘and no more’. Elections to each municipality term shall be completed before the end of the earlier term, so that the next elected municipal body can take over on the completion of the previous body’s term.

In a Constitutional bench ruling 17 years ago (Kishan Singh Tomar v Municipal Corporation of the City of Ahmedabad and others) the Supreme Court declared that “…the State Election Commission shall not put forward any excuse based on unreasonable grounds that the elections could not be completed on time… The Election Commission shall complete the election before the expiration of the duration of five years’ period as stipulated in Clause (5) and not yield to situations that may be created by vested interests to postpone elections from being held within the stipulated time.”

Yet, in Karnataka, the municipal elections have been postponed every single time since that landmark SC judgement. Regardless of the political dispensation involved, our state government has turned a blind eye to the mandatory provisions of the Constitution. This denies citizens of their right of exercising their franchise to elect their constitutionally mandated corporation. Even high court and Supreme Court judgments have failed to remedy the situation.

Postponing elections

There are patterns emerging in how states, including Karnataka, adopt devious strategies to continue rampant postponements of municipal elections.

First, states transfer, from the State Election Commissioner, powers to themselves to fix the reservation matrix and manipulate it for political advantage. Mistakes and anomalies are deliberately introduced in the matrix so that aggrieved parties can go to court and obtain indefinite stays. In this manner, states effectively make the voting public and courts their unwitting accomplices in delaying elections. Indeed, states thus distance themselves from taking the blame for delaying elections.

Second, states decide at the last minute that municipal and/or ward boundaries have to be redrawn; that a single municipality should be split or that many municipalities should be merged. Once such proposals are announced, it hampers the implementation of the Constitutional provisions as earlier municipalities cease to exist, and new ones are yet to be constituted. States also do this so that the reservation matrix can be set afresh and the rotation of reserved constituencies can start ab initio.

While Karnataka has resorted to this ploy several times, recently, in the case of Delhi, even Parliament was drawn into passing such laws, to subvert the constitutional design of regular elections.

Why are states so reluctant to decentralise powers and responsibilities to urban local governments, going so far as to postpone elections indefinitely? Karnataka’s behaviour is particularly intriguing, considering that on the rural side, it is considered a relative champion in the devolution of powers and responsibilities to the panchayats. From the heady days of Ramakrishna Hegde and Abdul Nazeer Saab, politicians across all dispensations have championed the cause of panchayats in Karnataka. Yet, there have been no political champions for urban decentralisation in Karnataka over the past three decades.

There are two reasons for this contradiction.

First, the demand for decentralisation in rural areas is much more than in urban areas. For rural voters, the panchayat is the most important government level; it is critical for them to elect good panchayat leaders so that they can get better services. In urban areas, for all the seeming ‘capacity’ of the urban dweller, they are woefully ignorant of who in the government is tasked to do what. Thus, there is indifference to the elections to the municipalities, the efforts of a few NGOs and aware citizens notwithstanding.

Second, is the lure of corruption. Institutionalised confusion dilutes accountability and makes it difficult for citizens to trace the path of responsibility. More institutions flooding into the urban governance space — the Bangalore Development Authority, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the Public Works Department, Forest Department, Pollution Control Board, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited, Smart City Private Limited — means more labyrinthine processes that are designed to throw even the determined citizen or civil society organisation off track. That means more scope for corrupt interests to work with impunity.

Chain of governance

Who rules over this complete institutional mess? That is a cabal of powerful contractors, MLAs, ministers and power brokers. That never changes, regardless of the change in administration. This well-oiled market-oriented chain of corrupt governance practices is what keeps urban governance barely going. Just enough to ensure that there is no anarchy, but by no means aiming for good governance that improves the lot of the urban citizen.

Unpacking the systems contradictions and realising why they have so turned out, is only half the solution to the problem.

At the foundation of a solution is that the urban citizen, so puffed up with claiming superiority over their rural counterpart, should take a leaf from the book of the latter and actually learn more about how urban government is run. Only when citizens are aware of their rights and duties and realise that their corporator is more important than their MLA when it comes to providing services in their neighbourhoods and that their MLA’s primary task is to make laws for governing the state, will things improve.

Peoples’ participation

Elections are the first step to implementing the constitutional vision of well-functioning urban local governments. There is much more to be done. First, urban structures for peoples’ participation in governance are woefully weak. This stems from the weak design of the ward committees themselves, which are not constitutionally mandated to be participative in the same way that a Grama Sabha works.

Second, the institutional design of urban service delivery is far more fragmented as compared to rural areas. There is a lack of alignment of laws that existed prior to the enactment of the 74th Constitutional Amendment that provided for urban decentralisation and similar state laws.

Area planning laws continue to do business as usual, as they did over 30 years ago. Institutions such as urban development authorities continue with the same powers they had before the enactment of the 74th Amendment.

But we have to start somewhere, to work our way out of this deep hole that we have dug for ourselves. BBMP Elections could be the first step out.

(T R Raghunanda is former secretary, Rural Development, Government of Karnataka and trustee, CIVIC.)

Published 29 July 2023, 18:13 IST

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