Direct Election of City Mayors
Civic Elections are going on and around the corner in several states; it is the time when citizens are given the opportunity to hold a magnifying glass over the ruling government bodies.
There are multiple cases of civic mismanagement in our cities and fractured infrastructural issues rampant in our cities.
• The cities are governed by a weak and fragmented institutional architecture in which multiple agencies with different bosses pull the strings of city administration.
• There isn’t a unified, disciplined mechanism in place that can be held responsible. In fact, more often than not, it’s the state government which ends up wielding an authority over municipal corporations.
In this context the debate is whether it is time for reforms to introduce the direct election system for city mayors.
India follows the erstwhile Commissionerate system, where the State appoints a Commissioner who presides over the functioning of a city which means it is the State that has control of the city’s administration and finances.
For this purpose, some experts have suggested that a reform needs to be introduced, where citizens are directly involved in electing a Mayor, who can take pragmatic decisions and assist in the proper functioning of the city without state government interference.
Advantages of having a directly elected Mayor
• It will ensure a decrease in political apathy from the public, for they will be directly responsible for electing their Mayor, and it will also prod them to participate in local issues that concern the city.
o For ex, In Bangalore, where the lakes are disappearing or getting polluted, the people protests are very small. If people directly elect a mayor, they will be more forthright in asking questions.
• The system will allow elected mayor to select a team of experts to handle various responsibilities such as health, sanitation and transport and would ensure in a systematic functioning of the city.
• This mayoral committee shall work with a state-appointed official, called municipal commissioner, and shall be accountable to the local citizen and the state government unlike the current situation where accountability is not fixed.
• An elected Mayor could ensure better transparency, since municipal committees under state authorities have a tendency to be ridden by corruption.
• Our cities could adopt a model followed by China, where an individual in a city can directly approach a Mayor if he/she wishes to start a business there by tremendously ease of doing business where currently the same individual would have to schedule multiple appointments with multiple government departments, get embroiled in its idiosyncratic slow-paced bureaucratic process and sign countless papers signed, before being able to start his/her business.
Challenges and other-side of the debate:
• It has to be ensured that the said elected Mayor has autonomous authority and is not a mere puppet with a glorified title.It means that the Mayor should have access to the city’s budget, which implies that the state administration should step aside and not interfere in city’s interior functioning.
• While electing a Mayor with considerable power (and responsibility) would be great, it could also result in an administration standstill, if the Mayor and the State Government are at loggerheads on a particular issue, particularly if they don’t belong to the same party.
• India is one of the few countries where the powers of the local government are laid out in the federal Constitution. However, local government is still under List II of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Hence only the State is empowered to make laws on this subject and State governments do not wish to delegate more authority to city-level institutions.
• Another challenge is the post of municipal commissioner. Even if some powers are delegated to the municipality, the state governments have in place municipal commissioners to perform the executive functions, again cutting the mayor to size.
• Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh which introduced directly elected Mayors reversed the decision due to the difficulties posed by such a system. The legislator of the area feels a political threat emanating from a directly elected local leader and this is an important reason behind the discontinuation of direct elections.
• A mayor executing projects will tend to gain popularity at the expense of the local legislator whose job is to legislate and scrutinise the performance of the executive. A legislator will always see the directly elected and empowered mayor as a potential future rival and will do everything in his command to undercut his authority.
Conclusion and Way Forward
There are therefore several pros and cons to be considered for such a reform, but for the sake of a possibly smoother functioning of a city, perhaps it should be put to test.
• In a democracy, executive power should vest with a person or a body that is democratically accountable.Vesting the executive powers of the municipality with the Mayor would be a very positive move.
• We could give the Mayor Veto powers over some of the council’s resolutions and also let the Mayor nominate members of the Mayor-in-Council and vest it with powers to authorise the payment and repayment of money relating to the Municipality.
• We could incorporate constitutional provisions should lay down the broad institutional framework for local governments so that State governments devolve functions to local government.
India’s stagnating urban governance system needs major reform, but it shouldn’t be driven by using a sledgehammer but careful deliberations have to be done and then a consensus have to be arrived at.
1. How balance could be brought between the pros and cons of having a directly elected Mayor?