Why Maharashtra's Recent Political Turmoil Doesn't Bode Well For Urban Local Bodies

City politics in India lacks strong democratic traditions, with city budgets controlled by state governments but actual administrative control vested in unelected bureaucrats.

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The collapse of the tri-party Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra raised serious questions about the role of the governor, the courts and elected representatives in upholding democracy, all of which are being actively debated.

But another question escaped attention amidst last month’s drama ― how will the fall of the MVA government impact the functioning of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, and the upcoming Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections?

The newly formed Maharashtra government’s highly controversial decision to relocate the Mumbai Metro storage shed from  Kanjurmarg Salt Pans to Aarey Milk Colony reflects the ease with which a state government can significantly impact city affairs immediately after taking office.

The 74th Amendment for decentralising power to urban local bodies (ULBs) needs to be looked at afresh.

The BMC elections, slated for February, were postponed because of delays in identifying Other Backward Class groups and incorporating their reservation quotas into the election schedule. Since corporators are unable to work after their terms expired, as an interim provision, the state government appointed current Municipal Commissioner I.S. Chahal to oversee the BMC.

Although the BMC’s election schedule is enshrined in the constitution, its implementation and timing derive from state law. The state government used new legislation to delay elections, depriving Mumbai’s residents of their democratic right to elect corporators every five years. The delay is not unwarranted, but highlights the ease with which a state government can assert its control over a city.

Also read: Mumbaikars Enraged as New Maharashtra Govt Decides to Shift Metro Car Shed Back to Aarey Forest

It has already caused issues in day-to-day governance and wards lack funds. Corporators stress that they cannot sanction new projects and can only send requests to the administrator.

City politics in India lacks strong democratic traditions, with city budgets controlled by state governments but actual administrative control vested in unelected bureaucrats. Although the 74th Constitutional amendment was passed 30 years ago, and aimed to decentralise power to ULBs, it has fallen short. The lack of clear steps to fiscally and politically decentralise power has resulted in a dichotomy, where ULBs across India have a uniform structure but varying degrees of power. Centralising tendencies of state governments have dominated local politics, to the cost of city residents.

Major global cities like New York, Tokyo and London have strong local governments to manage their affairs. But Mumbai is still administered by an unelected bureaucrat. Corporators and the mayor have limited power in running the city, and in times of crises, can have their views ignored (Maharashtra Municipal Corporations Act, 1949, Section 67(3)).

This system benefits the state and Union governments, which can exert control over the city indirectly. The political structure incentivises commissioners to please the state government, even if they are well-intentioned and are extremely impactful in running a city.

This, it could be argued, undermines the principle that citizens elect their own leaders.

The political crisis in Maharashtra may further imperil the BMC and Mumbai’s residents. Cooperation between the BMC and the state government is essential to the former’s functioning, as was clearly seen in the city’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MVA decentralised political power to the BMC and provided political cover needed to ensure that the city was ready to respond, giving rise to the ‘Mumbai model’ of pandemic management.

City government and administration were at the forefront of COVID-19 management and proved to be effective in responding to crises because they were given a free hand. Thirty years after the passage of the 74th Amendment, urban India has expanded to accommodate nearly 50% of the country’s population, according to some estimates. ULBs must be politically empowered to support their citizens and not remain subject to control by the state or the Union. Turmoil at the state level must not hinder ULBs from continuing their primary functions, to provide services to citizens and improve living standards.

Vibhav Mariwala studied History and Anthropology at Stanford University.

A version of this article first appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.