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Local Body Polls: TIMING & RULES CRITICAL, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 19 January, 2018 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 19 January 2018

Local Body Polls


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Mayor of Greater Mumbai is reported to have remarked in the aftermath of the recent huge fire accident, “I can’t be aware of all that is happening in Mumbai. What do we have the officers for?” Indeed, a typical form of official-non official interaction in local governance not hiding even in times of crisis.


Too many authorities and multiple agencies without structural integrity seem to add to problems in urban governance. Powerful and accountable leadership seems to be missing. A proposal to introduce direct election of panchayat president and the mayor, presently under consideration in Maharashtra, is expected to infuse responsibility and accountability in local leadership.


The State Government in Tamil Nadu is being watched by the entire nation for delaying local board elections despite High Court orders. The main Opposition party, the DMK condemns it as a “stumbling block” to development projects while in reality it is itching to prove its grassroots strength. This is an instance of a ruling party in a State exercising its power to conduct election to local bodies to suit its political convenience.


Tamil Nadu Government is also shifting its stand between direct and indirect election of Mayor and Chairperson of Municipalities. Direct election was changed to indirect election in 2006, and again changed as direct election in 2011, and once again as indirect election in 2016. Now the State government wants to revert to direct election as if mode of election to these posts is to be decided by the party in power in the State before every election based on its own electoral calculations.


The justification given is prevention of chances for “horse-trading” of councillors easier in indirect election. Cash for vote becoming a common electoral ailment in the State, more elections and more voters mean more expenditure and more money flow.


The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill 2009 made voting compulsory in local body elections and empowered the State government to take punitive action for non-voting. The bill was cleared by the House, but the Governor returned it for reconsideration. It was passed again by the House in 2011 and received the approval of the Governor. This was a case of over-confidence of the political party in power in the State of its self- popularity to win local elections besides being a sample of Governor-State Government political relationship in law-making.  


Ever since local bodies were created in India by the British in the last quarter of the 19th century, their relationship with provincial/State governments are subject to several forms of strains and tests. Almost all democracies – unitary or federal – have constituted local government bodies to look after local development and local matters directly concerned with the daily life of concerned local citizens and endowed them with sufficient powers and resources.


Genuine democracies anywhere require two vital features – popular bodies at the local level with people’s participation, and popular governments at the national level chosen by the people.  Federal systems have provincial governments in between. All the three with clear demarcation of their functions and powers have to be organically and functionally inter-connected and have to work in unison. However, laws and regulations cannot cover all kinds of situations and leave room for use of discretionary powers of various authorities.


India too has three levels of “governments” under the Constitution -- Panchayati Raj at the bottom and the Union Government on top, and the State Government between them. Subject matters to make laws by the Union and State government are listed in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution and functions that may be assigned to local bodies by the State governments are listed in 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution on panchayats in rural and municipal bodies in urban areas.


With expansion in our developmental activities, and our needs and capabilities, responsibilities of panchayati raj bodies and municipalities in India are also growing within their sphere. The usefulness of these bodies comes to light only when they are not there especially when they ought to be there under normal conditions.


Postponement of local board elections weakens participatory democracy and a State like Tamil Nadu, vociferous about “State autonomy” should, without prompting, respect “local autonomy” where it is assigned by law.


Local government institutions include panchayats, gram sabha, panchayat unions, district councils, municipalities, and corporations. These are created under the Constitution but governed by respective State laws. Some States have a two-tier panchayati raj and some three-tier without the district council. Posts of Mayor and Sheriff in corporations also form part of local government. The latter post, created by the British government, has been given up except in two cities – Mumbai and Kolkata.


A common perception of State governments is to view local government as rivals rather than complements for governance. Hence maintaining adequately empowered local bodies with commitment to handle the functions assigned to them is not given importance at the State level whereas conducting elections as an opportunity to build party strength receives attention. In some States, local bodies are superseded by State governments for long periods for various reasons.


An integrated local government system can be an efficient economic tool in the present economic order. It can be a strong foundation for urban industrial economies and an efficient support for building smart cities.


According to UN reports, population of India is likely to grow by 10 million people a year between 2000 and 2030 in its 5,161 cities. The country is already having 25 of the world’s 100 fastest growing urban areas.


Growth of urbanisation poses a big challenge to urban governance in India. There is glaring mismatch between development agenda and devolution pattern with the result that local bodies become mere instruments of State Governments and ruling parties. The impact of such a situation adds to people’s woes in times of crisis.


In the US, in small and middle size cities, Mayors have a part-time role and chair the city council. They are elected by councillors from within and the system is called Council-Manager form. In big cities like New York, the Mayor has an influential role and oversees the work of a team of Commissioners and city boards. Characterised as Strong Mayors, they are directly elected by the people, and are involved in city’s legislative process and have veto power to block laws passed by the council. In contrast, the Mayor remains a ceremonial head with no substantial functions in India.


Rural people generally across the country and particularly in Kerala and West Bengal are more close to panchayat institutions than urban people to municipalities. In bigger areas, State level leaders -- MPs and MLAs -- dominate while a village panchayat president may exercise considerable influence in his/her village.


Absence of a separate panchayat service makes PR institutions functionally weak. State government officials, posted on deputation, help strengthen the control of the State government and not decentralisation and devolution. The arrangement reduces the stature of local bodies.


In such a set up, local body elections provide an opportunity for strengthening and widening their base for political parties and a test for their relative popularity. Hence, timing and rules of local body elections have become contentious issues between political parties.---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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