It's Time to Rethink Delhi’s Governance Structure, Once Again

The proposed division of Delhi into an autonomous National Capital District and the State of Delhi will meet the twin objectives of keeping the national capital in the jurisdiction of the Central government while giving rest of the Union Territory much demanded full statehood.

Disputes in the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) between the lieutenant governor and chief minister are often in the news. Keeping the underlying partisan politics aside and looking solely at the outcomes of this confrontational relationship, it certainly results in delays in taking policy and executive decisions as well as poor quality of governance and services for the citizens of Delhi. The GNCTD (Amendment) Act 2021 further deepened the divide between the two seats of power. Hence, there is a need for serious rethinking on the administrative structure of Delhi, which is the root cause of this problem.

Looking at it historically, this is not the first time Delhi would go through such a transformational thought process.  The major changes in the governance structure of Delhi since the independence have been as follows:

  • 1947, Delhi continued to be governed as a Chief Commissioner’s Province even after the independence.
  • 1950, the Constitution of India gave Delhi the status of a Part `C’ State that included former Chief Commissioner’s provinces and some princely states.
  • 1951, Government of Part C States Act 1951, provided for a legislative assembly with powers to make laws on subjects in the State List and Concurrent List other than: (i) Public order; (ii) Police including railway police; (iii) The constitution and powers of municipal corporations and other local authorities, of improvement trusts and of water supply, drainage, electricity, transport and other public utility authorities in Delhi or in New Delhi; and (iv) lands and buildings vested in or in the possession of the Union which are situated in Delhi or in New Delhi.
  • 1956, with the enactment of the State Reorganisation Act 1956, Delhi’s legislature was dissolved and it became a Union Territory of India under the direct control of the Central government.
  • 1957, with the passing of the Municipal Corporation Act 1957, clause (iii) on municipal corporations and utilities came under the powers of the local and Union Territory governments respectively. But the remaining three subjects, public order, police and land, continue to be under the central government even today. Moreover, the central government still takes decisions pertaining to the establishment of the municipal corporation as well as division of Delhi into zones and delimitation of wards.
  • 1966, Delhi Administration Act 1966, facilitated limited representation through a Metropolitan Council with 56 elected and 5 nominated members and created a post of a centrally appointed Lt. Governor under the direct control of the President of India as the constitutional Head of the Delhi Government in place of the Chief Commissioner.
  • 1989, Balakrishna Committee on the Reorganisation of Delhi Administrative Set Up, stated that Delhi cannot be given full statehood as it is the Federal Capital and recommended that it should remain a Union Territory.
  • 1991, the GNCTD Act 1991 again put in place an elected legislative assembly, council of ministers, and CM. But Lt. Governor continued to exercise significant power over Delhi.
  • 2021, GNCTD (Amendment) Act 2021, further undermined the powers of the democratically elected state assembly and chief minister by stating that the term “Government” referred to in any law to be made by the legislative assembly shall mean the Lt. Governor,’’ also obliging the chief minister to take the `advice’ (approval) of Lt. Governor in most executive decisions as well. It thus made the Lt. Governor the nominal as well as the executive head of the Delhi government.

The demand for full statehood surfaced from time to time as the only solution for eliminating the dual, and often conflicting, power structure that has been in place in Delhi since the 1950s. But the idea of full statehood is unacceptable to the central government. And rightly so, as the federal capital cannot solely belong to, and be under the overarching control of, any state government.

In my opinion, the best solution lies in hiving the National Capital Territory into two autonomous entities. First, creating a National Capital District spread over 42.7 sq. kms that is currently governed by the New Delhi Municipal Council. Second, granting full statehood to the rest of the National Capital Territory, calling it the State of Delhi, which will encompass the Municipal Corporation of Delhi area with 1397.3 sq. kms and the Cantonment Board spread over 43 sq. kms. Alternatively, the Central government could set up a commission, with representatives from the centre as well as the GNCTD, to demarcate the spatial jurisdiction of the National Capital District taking into consideration the location of central government offices and their affiliates. The rest of the National Capital Territory can be the domain of the State of Delhi. The parastatal service providing agencies such DJB, Delhi Vidyut Board, DTC, DMRC, Delhi Urban Arts Commission, etc. can continue to cater to the entire Delhi region as they do at present. The three matters outside the legislative powers of the GNCTD: public order, police and land, require further debate on the merits of splitting or keeping it under the central government control as it is now.

Such an administrative structure for the national capital is already in place in several countries. For instance, in 1790, the standalone Washington District of Columbia was announced to be the green field capital of the United States of America, which was not to be a part of the neighbouring states of Maryland and Virginia. The new capital of Brazil located in the autonomous Brasilia Capital District, was created by carving it out from the state of Goiás in 1960. Canberra founded in 1913 is located in the Australian Capital Territory that is a self-governing city-state with an elected assembly and chief minister, but has no local government. Somewhat similar to Delhi, the federal government exercises its controls over land and planning through the National Capital Authority as well as maintains law and order through Australian Federal Police.

When Papua New Guinea attained independence in 1975, the Port Moresby and adjoining areas were demarcated as the National Capital District, which was not a part of the surrounding Central Province. In 1976, the Capital of Nigeria moved from Lagos to the newly planned Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, governed by a centrally appointed minister and a local government and thereby avoiding the conflicts arising out of the presence of a territorial or state level government as well.

The proposed division of Delhi into an autonomous National Capital District and the State of Delhi will meet the twin objectives of keeping the national capital in the jurisdiction of the Central government while giving rest of the Union Territory much demanded full statehood. This will also help in doing away with the conflicts arising from often overlapping responsibilities of the Lt. Governor and chief minister that are impeding good governance and development of Delhi.

Pushpa Pathak is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.