Recently a private member’s bill was introduced in the parliament to provide for direct election, and empowerment of the office, of mayors in large Indian cities.
Why elect mayors directly?
Multiple civic agencies currently make it impossible to hold them accountable for the irregularities. A Mayor is responsible for governance and remains accountable to citizens. Also, it is well known that the urban mess that India finds itself today can be largely traced to weak city-level institutions. Besides, much of the civic mess in major cities arises due to the lack of executive authority. Hence, an empowered office of a directly elected mayor is desirable.
Currently, the executive, financial and administrative powers are vested with the municipal commissioner and his team of deputies, appointed by the state government and drawn from the IAS cadre. This system is a colonial hangover and hence, few experts want it to be discarded.
The concept should face the following challenges before it becomes a reality:
- State governments do not wish to delegate more authority to city-level institutions. Often, urban resources are transferred to rural areas in the name of development. Even if the mayor is directly elected, the state governments can refuse to devolve power and resources, effectively reducing him to a figurehead.
- Municipal commissioner also, sometimes, becomes hurdle. 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, the nature of mayoral election notwithstanding.
- If a directly elected mayor belongs to a party in minority in the municipality, it becomes difficult to get other municipality members on board in taking decisions. This was witnessed in Himachal Pradesh, which ultimately led to the scrapping of this system.
- Also, 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.
- It is also widely felt that elected mayors may blur the lines between the three tiers of government: the Union, the states and the local self governments.
What needs to be done?
- In the light of development, state governments should take up this issue seriously and confer necessary powers upon mayor to effectively discharge his duties.
- To avoid conflict between elected mayor and municipal commissioner, mayor may be made the executive head of the municipality. Additionally, mayor may also be given the power to “authorize the payment and repayment of money relating to the Municipality”.
- To check the spread of vested interests, mayor may also be vested with the power to veto a resolution passed by the municipality.
- Voter awareness is also necessary as it is the only thing that will drive them to vote for a legislator based on his performance in the state assembly or Parliament and vote for the mayor and councillors based on their executive performance. This ensures that there exists separation between the two.
At present, six states – Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – provide for mayors that are elected directly by voters for a five-year term. However, they remain mere figureheads with limited financial and functional independence. The actual power continues to lie with the state government, which runs the city through the municipal commissioner.
What else should be ensured?
- A mayor should have a fixed tenure.
- A mayor would be effective only if the post carries financial and executive powers.
This calls for amendments to various Acts and laws, and these are likely to be contested. It necessitates the re-drawing of the administrative command structure, for example, the reporting relationship of the city’s police commissioner to the mayor and so on. Currently, the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act provides for the transfer of 18 different powers to urban local bodies, including the election of a mayor.
The post of mayor should be important in itself and not just be seen as a stepping stone to state or national level politics. A directly elected mayoral system with a five-year term is a huge positive. However, for it to yield results, the government will have to ensure mandatory devolution of functions to municipalities, a more robust fiscal decentralisation and empowering of the mayor to hire staffers. In the present system, a mayor is not able to function because the power remains with the state government.