Union Territories, the Outcasts of Democracy in India

With Delhi caught in a tussle between the Centre and state government, the city is a perfect example of how democracy is undermined in union territories.

Kejriwal promised to continue efforts to achieve full statehood for Delhi and making Delhi Police accountable. Credit : PTI

AAP members protest in Delhi in January. Kejriwal promised to continue efforts to achieve full statehood for Delhi and making Delhi Police accountable. Credit : PTI

Memories of the historic vote of February 2015 are still fresh in the minds of most people in Delhi. After a year of president’s rule, they came out in historic numbers to elect the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to govern the capital city. Riding on the promise of wide-ranging governance reforms, AAP trumped all expectations and came to power with an unprecedented mandate.

When the AAP government set out to implement its promises, it woke up to the peculiarities of Delhi’s structure of governance, which places all power and authority in the hands of a single individual – the Lieutenant Governor (LG) – appointed by the central government, instead of its democratically elected government. Within the last year-and-a-half, the BJP government at the Centre, operating through the LG has obstructed or delayed a number of initiatives of the AAP government and has refused to give assent to even one of the fourteen bills passed by Delhi’s legislative assembly.

That the Centre was within its rights to do so was asserted by the Delhi high court in its recent ruling that Delhi continues to hold the status of a union territory (UT) under the constitution, with the LG at its helm and Delhi’s council of ministers act as no more than advisors on any matter. In one broad stroke, the ruling took away the value of 18 million votes from the citizens of Delhi. With the case now in the Supreme Court, much of the debate is focused on whether the NCT of Delhi and its elected government, should – if not be regarded as a full-fledged state – at least enjoy more powers than a mere UT.

A fundamental question though, is why do UTs, administered directly by the central government since 1950s with highly curtailed democratic rights for their people, persist in the modern Indian state at all? What rationale does the state have in discriminating and treating some of its people as lesser citizens by denying them a representative government at all levels? Isn’t the concept of UTs past its expiry date?

The historical organisation of states

In the 1940s and 1950s, the newly formed Indian union inherited territories that were governed through disparate institutional mechanisms. This included 11 small territories, referred to then as Part C and Part D states, which were governed directly by the British government on a unitary basis through a chief commissioner.

The relationship of all Indian states with the Centre was comprehensively reviewed by the State Reorganisation Commission (SRC), and in its seminal report of 1955, it recommended that most of the Part C and D states (eight out of 11) be integrated into adjoining states, so that a democratic government can function in these territories and people can enjoy equal rights and opportunities all across India.

However, in a clear departure to its espousal of democratic rights of the people, the SRC suggested the creation of directly administered UTs in the remaining three areas (Delhi, Manipur and Andaman & Nicobar Islands) where integration wasn’t possible for strategic, security or “other compelling reasons” – an ostensibly vague classification. The SRC provided for representation of the UTs in the parliament, but it admitted to the inferiority of the democratic rights of their people by noting that “democracy in these areas should take the form of the people being associated with the administration in an advisory rather than a directive capacity.”

In its report, the SRC articulated at length its rationale for denying full statehood to UTs. Broadly, the SRC gave two sets of arguments: one for Delhi as the federal capital, and other for the rest of the UTs.

The SRC’s vision of union territories

When debating the case for granting UTs statehood, the SRC seems to have taken an overtly instrumentalist view of the value of democratic governance. The SRC’s primary concern was that these territories, being small and at the early stages of their development, depended on substantial financial aid from the Centre. Therefore, above all else, they were not as financially viable as states. Moreover, from the experience of certain Part C states that had an elected legislature since 1951, the SRC argued that their “democratic experiment” had proved to be too costly, administratively without any rapid economic and social progress. Security considerations were cited as well in the case of Manipur.

Nevertheless, the SRC strongly favoured the integration of these UTs with nearby states at an opportune time, in case their people seek a fully democratic form of government.

The SRC’s recommendations paved the way for the central government to create India’s first six UTs (against just three recommended by SRC) in 1956: Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshwadeep, Manipur, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh. Over the next two decades, several more small territories were recognised as UTs — all for different reasons, including the integration of French and Portuguese colonies in the early 1960s.

While some of the SRC’s arguments for denying these UTs full statehood may have resonated in the 1950s, it became clear over time that none were too compelling as majority of the UTs went on to become full-fledged states. This was despite some of them being financially dependent on the Centre (e.g. Manipur, Tripura, Himachal Pradesh – all of which are special category states), or too small in size (e.g. Mizoram’s and Arunachal Pradesh’s population was about 6 and 8 lakhs respectively when they became states), or located in sensitive geographies (e.g. Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh). In 1975, Sikkim, with a population of just 2.5 lakhs, joined the Indian union as a state, further discrediting the argument that small territories do not make viable states.

All of these are thriving states today, some economically better performing than others, and most of them outperforming the average Indian state in human development indicators.

Why did only some UTs attain statehood?

The only common thread, if at all there is one, seems to be the sustained bottom-up demand (in some cases, such as Mizoram, even armed resistance) and political pressure for statehood. Not surprisingly, many of the existing UTs too – especially Puducherry and Andaman & Nicobar Islands – have been demanding statehood. In Puducherry, which has an elected legislature like Delhi, no assembly session since 1977 has concluded without passing a resolution on statehood.

All this while, the Centre assumed a largely passive attitude towards the constitutional status of the UTs, reacting to specific demands for statehood as per its political expediency rather than any consistent approach or rationale. Except for Goa, which held a referendum in 1967 to decide on merger with Maharashtra, there was no attempt either to explore the issue of merging UTs with adjoining states, as was strongly recommended by the SRC. It isn’t surprising then that after the SRC, none of the governments at the Centre have undertaken any systematic review of the constitutional status and future of all UTs.

The curious case of Delhi

Back in 1955, citing numerous global experiences such as in USA, UK and France where the federal governments maintained significant control of the national capitals, the SRC recommended the same for India. The SRC also favoured creating highly autonomous municipal corporations, empowered to take care of the local needs of people.

Finally, reflecting on the experiences of Delhi’s first elected state government since 1951, the SRC struck a prescient note in stating that the division of responsibility between the states and the Centre will hamper the city’s development and lead to deteriorating administrative standards. It recommended that the state government be abolished.

Fast forward to the present and Delhi’s governance architecture reflects a perfect mess, devoid of any of the wisdom expressed by the SRC six decades ago, or the numerous committees in between. The central government today exercises overwhelming control over each and every decision of an elected state legislature, while the municipal bodies continue to be emaciated and denied the crucial responsibilities promised by the 74th Constitutional Amendment, while remaining in a state of perpetual financial crisis.

The case for an empowered state government has also strengthened over time as Delhi is no longer a federal capital attending to the government’s business alone (unlike Washington D.C. or Canberra), but one of world’s largest metropolises with a bustling regional economy and a population approaching twenty million. By itself, Delhi has more people than 140 countries of the world.

It also faces deep development challenges: two-thirds of its population still reside in slums and unauthorised colonies and it is easily the crime capital of India. Much of this blame must be attributed to Delhi’s complex governance architecture, presided upon by a succession of indifferent central governments.

Globally, the winds of change in major national capitals such as London, Berlin, Paris and Mexico City have long been blowing towards granting substantial autonomy to locally elected governments. In an excellent study of governance in national capitals by Observer Research Foundation, the authors note that no other large national capital globally has such limited governance mandate than the NCT of Delhi has. They found that even Washington D.C., the most constricted national capital in their analysis, has more functional autonomy than Delhi with the municipal police directly overseen by the city mayor.

Recently, Islamabad also surpassed Delhi by giving its first elected mayor substantial control over its day-to-day functions, including that of its legacy planning authority.  The only comparable large national capital globally, with overwhelming central control is Beijing — which is hardly inspiring for the capital of the world’s largest democracy.

Clearly, there is a compelling case for granting considerably more autonomy to the elected Delhi government, if not full statehood. The exact design of the revised governance architecture must be agreed upon among all important stakeholders.

Towards a possible resolution

A good starting point for this is the State of Delhi Bill 2016, proposed by the present AAP government, that brings the accountability for all organs of the state, and therefore for overall development of Delhi, with the elected government of Delhi. At the same time, it concedes control over all administrative matters in the NDMC area (encompassing the central government and embassies) to the parliament.

As for the remaining UTs, the case for their merger into adjoining states or transition to full statehood is as strong as ever. The spirit of the SRC’s recommendation to create UTs was to provide a flexible yet transitional status to several small territories that joined the Indian Union under different circumstances, before they merge with existing states so that their people can enjoy equal democratic rights as all people of India. Some may argue that the presence of local governments in the form of panchaayats or municipalities is an adequate solution for UTs. But this belies the reality that local bodies all over India today are highly disempowered and it is the state government that touches the lives of people most.

The central government would do well not to wait until political resistance builds up in the other UTs too. Following the example of Goa’s 1967 referendum, also called the Goa Opinion Poll, it should hold popular opinion polls in all UTs asking citizens directly to determine their future. Three options could be provided on the ballot: merger with an adjoining state (linguistically and economically most connected to the UT), full statehood (only for UTs beyond a certain threshold of population) or continue as UT for a specified period before merger (might be preferred in exceptional circumstances of conflict). The constitution too must be amended to this effect.

The preamble to the constitution of India promises political justice and equality of status and opportunity to every citizen. The right to a democratically elected government at all levels is the foremost expression of this promise. Until this right is granted to the people of all present UTs, no lesser citizens of India than others, the project of making world’s largest democracy into its greatest will remain unfinished.

Jasmine Shah is a Fulbright-Nehru Fellow.