How powerful are Mumbaikars? Turns out, not that much

There is no decentralised urban governance in India, but a new index conceived by a city-based NGO, can help unpack why.

A quick mapping of urban reforms in India confirms that power largely still vests with the state and central governments.

Despite the 74th Constitutional Amendment, no state has devolved all 18 functions mentioned in the twelfth schedule such as urban planning, forestry, or slum improvement to municipal corporations that run India’s large metropolises.

Praja, a non profit, that advocates for policy changes in urban governance, released an Urban Governance Index which explores four themes to understand the extent of urban decentralisation in India.

The themes are empowered city-elected representatives and legislative structure; empowered city administration; empowered citizens; and fiscal empowerment. The themes are then divided into 13 sub-themes and 42 indicators. Praja compiled this nationwide study by conducting 1,568 interviews with key stakeholders such as councillors, administrators and city-based civil society organisations, the report notes.

Maharashtra, where BMC, or the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, has been considered for the index, ranks second in the country with a score of 55.15 out of 100, narrowly defeated by Bhubaneswar in Odisha which has a score of 56.86. These scores signify a greater need for empowered city administrations, elected representatives, and informed citizens across Indian cities.

Empowering the mayor

A directly-elected and empowered mayor is often considered the cornerstone of effective urban governance. And as part of its theme under elected representatives, Praja explored whether the office of mayor is strong enough in Indian cities. 

Across powerful cities in the world, a mayor holds executive authority over appointed and elected officials in the city. Not in Mumbai. “To improve the urban governance structure,” the report notes, “Maharashtra needs to ensure that the term of Mayor is co-terminus with that of the city government.” At the moment, a mayor is not elected directly by the people, but appointed for two and a half years, as opposed to five years for councillors. 

The Mayor also doesn’t hold executive authority over the municipal commissioner in any Indian city. Praja finds that an empowered mayor as the chairperson of an apex committee, and as someone who can appoint chairpersons of subject or standing committees can improve urban governance.

Unlike Mumbai, a Mayor is the chairperson of the steering committee in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. And in Kerala, the mayor can write a performance evaluation report or an Annual Confidential Report (ACR) of the commissioner. But no mayor in an Indian city has the authority to conduct appraisal, appoint, or terminate the commissioner.

Who runs the city?

Another feature of urban governance in India is the concentration of power among parastatals (autonomous or quasi-governmental bodies such as MMRDA or MHADA) which is a way for the state to hold power over city governments. 

Many functions in the twelfth schedule are controlled by the parastatals of the state governments. While Bhubaneswar has an 80% representation of elected representatives in the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC), Mumbai does not, the report notes.

Neither state has devolved all 18 functions mentioned in the twelfth schedule to the independent control of the city administration. Spending in the city is also scattered, with few opportunities for close monitoring. “No state has the provision for the city government budget to include the budget allocated by parastatal agencies in the city,” the report finds. 

Representative image. Photo: Unsplash

Another important theme for strong city governments is an empowered city administration, according to Praja. And apart from a devolution of functions and powers, the administrators must also be trained to plan and execute projects in the city.

Most states in India, except Jharkhand and Tripura, don’t have the provision in their Municipal Acts to provide training to the administration. 

All city governments, the report finds, can access market borrowings, but only few cities like Mumbai have the ability to raise and revise their own taxes. But the Goods and Services Tax (GST) has centralised tax collection.

The Municipal Corporation in Mumbai has been cash-strapped and trying to find ways to increase its sources of revenue.

A cabinet for the city

In the 19th century, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville discussed decentralisation not only as something that has administrative value, “but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs.”

A century later, the United Nations Development Programme’s 1999 report on decentralisation acknowledged decentralisation or the principle of subsidiarity as “increasing the overall quality and effectiveness of the system of governance”.

The principle of subsidiarity must extend to Indian cities, according to Milind Mhaske, Director, Praja Foundation. The Central and State Government have a Cabinet headed by a Prime Minister and Chief Minister. “Likewise, a cabinet system which functions as an apex committee with strong decision-making powers should be constituted in the City Government,” the report notes.

It is this city cabinet or council that must have the wherewithal to make big or small decisions on city issues. “It should have an independent authority to draft city level policies and action plans, which are vital for effectively resolving pressing issues,” the report notes. But none of this can be achieved easily, especially not without strengthening the role of a councillor at the city level, mobilising the citizen, and handing her the real mandate to run the city.

If on the one hand existing laws are not being implemented, the laws themselves are the problem on the other. Praja has sourced its indicators and its granular classifications to the Municipal Acts that run cities. But a lot of provisions needed to achieve effective governance are absent from the Acts. Like empowering a mayor or choosing a Municipal Commissioner.

Mhaske points that the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act, 1888 says the Commissioner has to be “ratified” by the corporation, “why can’t we say the commissioner should be appointed?” These kind of provisions would have to be amended in the Acts, he says. “Our Acts should have an enabling action, they should not create hurdles.”

It’s not an easy ask.

Twenty eight years after the 74th Amendment, Indian states have failed to implement it. Expecting an amendment in laws to strengthen urban governance, then, seems wishful. But India is urbanising rapidly, Mhaske says. “Economic pressures are rising. We might be reaching the tipping point.”

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