Monday, July 17, 2017

Thoughts on urban governance reforms

The issue of direct elections to the post of Mayor is a recurrent theme in Indian politics. A good status report is here

My preference is for directly elected and empowered executive Mayor, with a Council, and assisted by a Commissioner or Secretary, coupled with a few other reforms. 

But the case for a directly elected Mayor is complicated by the likelihood of political stalemate arising from a Mayor and Corporation being from different parties. Hence the argument for an indirectly elected Mayor. But this, in turn, has its flip side. 

The effectiveness of a Mayoral system comes from it throwing up ambitious and incentive aligned Mayors (who see the Mayoral system as a primary for bigger political offices). This is unlikely to emerge from an indirectly elected Mayoral system. As an example, just see this - Kolkata Mayor getting nominated from among the Councillors by the CM (which CM would nominate a powerful person?). In simple terms, an indirectly elected Mayor while addressing the political stalemate problem, weakens the fundamental premise of a Mayoral system - a powerful and incentive aligned Mayor! Only a directly elected Mayor can address that.

We also need to keep in mind that different combinations of Mayoral systems have been tried out in different cities, even in Mumbai. We need to learn from them and be clear as to what is different now that would increase the likelihood that this time will be different. I will suggest at least three things.  

One, a Mayoral-Council cannot by itself be effective without some complementary levers. At the least, assuming a level of delegation of functions under 74th amendment and powers from the State Government, most of the executive powers of the Commissioner should be transferred to the Mayor, and of the Standing Committee to the Council. This should complement further devolution of powers under the 74th amendment. 

Two, there is a need to address the likelihood of political stalemates. One way of partially achieving that, done elsewhere in the West, is to have smaller boroughs (executively administered or through political councils) that have all the daily administrative powers in functional areas like sanitation, management of utility services, tax assessments, building permissions etc. Those Mayors largely deal with broad functional areas like transportation, housing, and economic growth which require city-wide planning and co-ordination. 

Appropriate division of responsibilities between the Mayor/Council and Ward Committees can help mitigate some of the political stalemate risks. The Ward Committees would have all the responsibilities and power over basic municipal functions. Mayor and Council will have policy making and planning powers and control over sectors like housing, transportation, and growth. Financial sanctioning powers will have to be distributed among Corporation, Mayor-in-Council, Mayor, Commissioner/Secretary, and Ward Committee. The Ward Committee will be serviced by an Assistant Commissioner or some such level official and supported by a small Secretariat. The cutting-edge functionaries would be accountable to the Ward Committee. It may be worthwhile re-considering the sizes of current wards or consolidating 4-6 wards under a functional unit like borough (Kolkata has 16 boroughs and 144 wards). 

Three, try this out in a 4-5 second and third tier cities for a five year term and assess what changes need to be made, especially in terms of the functional responsibilities of each level (so as to increase functional efficiency and accountability) as well as capacity requirements for Ward Committees. There should be simultaneous movement towards ring-fencing and corporatisation of at least the utilities. 

To summarise
  1. Directly elected Mayor and nominated Mayor-in-Council (from among elected Councillors) for a term of five years
  2. Executive power with Mayor 
  3. Commissioner to be Secretary to the Corporation
  4. Delegation of all basic municipal functional responsibilities to Ward Committees - a Secretariat to administer basic functional activities
  5. Mayor and Council's responsibilities to be confined to transportation, housing, and economic growth, and planning and policy support on other functional areas. 
  6. Delegation of financial powers among different levels

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