[op-ed snap] The missing tiers

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Mains Paper 2: Polity | devolution of powers & finances up to local levels & challenges therein

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendments, Smart Cities mission, parastatal agencies

Mains level: Conflicts amongst various levels of government and its impact on governance


Context

Status of urban local government

  1. Twenty-five years ago, the Constitution underwent what is arguably its most significant transformation with the passage of the 73rd (mandating the creation of panchayats) and the 74th (creation of municipalities) Constitutional Amendments
  2. As the Central Government’s Smart Cities mission completes three years this month, it’s the right time to examine India’s tryst with municipal governance

Concerns in the constitutional design of urban local governments 

The disempowerment and depoliticisation has happened in multiple ways

  1. First, elected representatives at the city-level are rendered powerless by making them subservient to the State government
  2. In most municipal corporations, while the mayor is the ceremonial head, the executive powers of the corporation are vested with the State government-appointed commissioner
  3. Municipal corporations are further denied their political role by the continued operation of various parastatal agencies created by the State government
  4. These agencies, which function with a certain autonomy, are accountable only to the State government, not the local government
  5. Even urban planning and land-use regulation (globally a quintessential local government function) is with State government-controlled development authorities

Inherent limitations in 74th amendment

  1. Many of its key provisions are not mandatory for the State government
  2. The functions listed under the 12th Schedule — which a State government is expected to devolve to the local government — do not include essential civic issues such as urban transportation, housing or urban commons
  3. The 74th Amendment also contains an industrial township exception whereby a municipality need not be constituted in areas which are declared as industrial townships

Ward committees not a solution

  1. Civic activism has often been focussed on the creation of two bodies mandated by the 74th Amendment — ward committees and metropolitan planning committees
  2. Civil society’s fixation with nominating its members into ward committees can further depoliticise local governments and make them captive to the interests of certain elite resident welfare associations

Way forward

  1. Indian cities have grown exponentially over the last 25 years, with some crossing the 10 million population mark
  2. As cities struggle to meet the basic needs of their inhabitants, we must re-examine the existing modes of organising power in urban India
  3. While urban governance reforms can take multiple shapes, they must be foregrounded in the political empowerment of local government that furthers local democratic accountability
Urban Transformation – Smart Cities, AMRUT, etc.
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