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The long wait for empowered mayors

As he attempts to repeat the overwhelming 2015 victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi Assembly election, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is challenging political Goliaths on just one plank: his government’s performance.

The face of changes

The iconoclast who overran Delhi’s established political trenches with an anti-corruption campaign is pinning his hopes on the unprecedented fiscal measures he has taken to change the paradigm of education, health and urban development in the National Capital. In office, he has pressed on even in the face of non-cooperation from the Central Government, which controls important departments providing civic services mainly through the Urban Development and Home Ministries.

The AAP’s annual budget five years ago raised the outlay for education by 106% over the previous year’s plan of ₹2,219 crore, and focused on building 20,000 additional classrooms. It sent government teacher-mentors abroad for training to modernise the system. Shiny classrooms, new teaching tools and eager students changed the public view of government schools as decrepit dungeons.

Delhi’s ambitious budgets for development stand apart from those of other cities, and built the Chief Minister’s reputation more as a super Mayor in a city-State. The 2015 education outlay was no flash in the pan. Four years later, it was 27.8%, says an analysis by PRS Legislative Research, and continues to tower over the States that average 15.8%. For health, the allocation of 13.8% dwarfs the 5.2% that others spend on average, and Delhi’s Mohalla Clinics — to provide coverage to all within a range of 1 km — are seen by public health researchers as a good model for a national universal health coverage programme. In budget 2019-20, the highest increase was for transport, at 38%, raising hopes of reduced pollution partly through support for electric vehicles. Municipal budgets for 2014-15 analysed by Open Budgets India reflect a similar trend for urban education expenditure vis-à-vis Delhi. On the income side, cities collect far less property tax than they should due to undervaluation and lack of scientific assessment.

Although he is criticised for his style of functioning, the AAP leader does not have his back to the wall and is pushing to extend his authority, fighting the Central Government’s attempts to clip his wings. This is not the situation in other big metropolitan cities, which cannot aspire to have strong leadership due to the prevailing system.

Hardly empowered; a ‘threat’

Metros have been deprived of empowered Mayors who can raise efficiency, productivity and liveability. Mayors in many global cities go on to lead their country, which possibly explains why they have been reduced to obscure, ceremonial figures by national parties in India.

The Economic Survey of 2017-18 notes that a third of the population now lives in urban areas which produce three-fifths of the GDP. But India’s overflowing cities lack capacity, infrastructure and leadership. The Survey acknowledges this, attributing it to the absence of a single city government in charge, and low spending on infrastructure. State governments amass the large economic output from urban agglomerations, but are averse to a strong Mayoral system.

Chief Ministers see a potential threat from a charismatic and empowered Mayor with progressive policies. Some of them have used the excuse of poor performance of urban local bodies as a justification to replace direct election of Mayors with an indirect system. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu issued an ordinance last year to amend the law, and remove any possibility of prominent Opposition politicians becoming the face of any big city. The memory of M.K. Stalin, son of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M. Karunanidhi as a high-profile Mayor in Chennai even after a quarter century is obviously still fresh. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi refreshingly promised ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha poll that he would support directly-elected Mayors, since smart cities depend on good leaders.

Weakening governance

In some States, elections to urban local bodies have not been held for years, defeating the lofty goal of decentralised governance. Tamil Nadu is a prominent example. The idea of giving more authority to the third tier of governance has suffered serious stunting, in spite of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 identifying 18 local level functions to be devolved, including planning for economic and social development, regulation of land, construction of buildings, urban planning and public health. The average of subjects devolved in all these years is nine, and does not include the major municipal services which continue to be run by parastatal authorities that answer to State governments. Newer devices used to bypass local bodies and priorities are styled as special schemes, such as urban renewal and smart cities, directly supervised by the Central government and partnered by State governments.

Several States are averse to directly-elected Mayors even for their biggest cities, in spite of the Mayor being deprived of any significant powers. The appointment of the executive in-charge, the Municipal Commissioner is a good example. Empowered Mayors, such as those in New York, Paris, London or even Shanghai, could steal the limelight through spectacular successes, leaving Chief Ministers and legislators with little direct connect with urban voters.

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